HC Deb 27 May 1823 vol 9 cc542-6
Lord Althorp

brought up the Report of the Select Committee on the subject of the Recovery of Small Debts. He wished, he said, to be allowed to take up a few minutes of the time of the House in stating what the substance of that report was; for, from the number of letters which he had received from all parts of the country on the subject, it was evident that a great and general anxiety prevailed respecting it. Nor was it at all a matter of surprise to him that the question should excite so much public interest; seeing that the present state of the law amounted to nothing less than an absolute denial of justice to almost all the creditors in the country with regard to debts due to them under the value of 15l. No man to whom a sum under 15l. was due, would now think of attempting to recover it, unless he was actuated by motives of a vindictive nature. No regard to his interest alone would induce him to commence legal proceedings. That being the case, it certainly was very natural that a great anxiety should prevail to see such a state of things set right, if possible. One great evil attending it, where no cheap court existed, was, that in such places tradesmen frequently turned away their servants without notice, and without paying them any wages, and that the latter had no means of recovering what was due to them, but by an action at common law. The consequence of all this was, that the legislature had, at various times, established what were called Courts of Requests in various parts of the country; the members of which, who were principally tradesmen, were made judges both of the law and of the fact. Although courts of this nature were very suitable to towns and to populous parts of the country, they were by no means applicable to agricultural districts. It was impossible, in such districts, to find persons of sufficient leisure and respectability to constitute those courts. And if such courts were formed in the populous districts only, the object of them would be easily defeated; as a person going from one district, to another could not be followed by the court. The committee, therefore, felt that to recommend the establishment of a greater number of these courts of request would be to no purpose. But the point to which the attention of the committee had consequently been drawn, was the expediency of establishing regular county courts in such a manner, and on such a footing, as to enable a creditor to have a cheap recovery by a proceeding in them. At present, those courts were open to two objections. For a debt of the smallest, the proceedings were as voluminous as for a debt of the largest amount; and the same means also existed of interposing vexatious delays in the conduct of the suit. There was also the objection of the probable distance of witnesses from the place at which they would be called upon to give their testimony in support of the claim. To obviate these objections it became necessary, that the proceedings in the county courts, should be simplified. To effect this, the committee recommended, that the proceeding should be by a simple bill of plaint, by which alone the creditor, under the circumstances which he had described, should be enabled to recover. To obviate the objection arising from distance, the committee recommended that the court should sit at such different places in the county as might appear to the justices of the session to be the most proper and convenient. By this means, the expense of travelling, the loss of time, and other inconveniences would be, in a great measure, got rid of. This plan, it was hoped, would render the county courts cheap; but as it also became necessary to render them courts of justice, it was expedient to make some alteration in their constitution. As at present constituted, the deputies of the sheriff were made the judges of the law and the fact. It was intended that a barrister of some years standing should be made assessor to the sheriff, and should preside in those courts. The committee had then to consider, in whom the appointment of those assessors should be vested. On the best consideration which they had been able to give to the subject, it appeared to them that it ought to be vested in the lord lieutenant of the county. If it were vested in the Crown, it would so greatly increase the influence of the Crown, that he should be sorry indeed to recommend any such measure. Nor did he know any better mode of appointment than that which the committee had suggested. If the appointment were vested in the hands of the justices of the peace at the quarter sessions, the number of individuals would too much diminish the responsibility that ought; to attach to such a right.—Another part of the subject to which the committee had found it necessary to direct their atten- tion; was the way in which the assessors were to be paid. If by fees, there was great danger lest the judge should huddle over cases with too much rapidity; if by the number of days of sitting, the opposite danger was incurred; namely, that he would delay the completion of every ease as long as possible. It had been thought much the best plan, therefore, to pay the assessor a fixed salary, out of the county rate, to which a fund arising from certain small fees to be paid by the suitors in these county courts, might furnish sufficient means for that purpose, with little or no additional burthen to the population at large. He believed he had stated the general points to which the attention of the committee had been Called.—There were one or two other subjects connected with the question, on which he begged to say a few words. As by the means thus recommended, a cheaper mode of recovering debts would be furnished to the tradesman than that which he at present possessed, it was not too much to expect from him in return, that he should use move diligence in Collecting and suing for them. It was proposed, therefore, that a statute of limitation should be passed, the term of which should be two years; that no action should be maintained in these county courts on any cause of more than two years standing. He knew it might be said, that this provision would occasion considerable alarm. But why should it do so? When a tradesman allowed his customer more than two years' credit, it was either because he could not get at him, to which case ft was not intended that the statute of limitation should be applicable, or because he confided in him, in which case be would never proceed by law at all.—There was another point on which he was well aware there would he some difference of opinion. It would be said, that as a great quantity of business would be taken out of the courts of Westminster-hall, compensation would be required. To any such proposition he was decidedly adverse Convinced as he was that the present state of the law was an absolute denial of justice; be could never allow, that any man had a vested right in the denial of justice. Nothing would induce him to propose any such compensation: but, as a practical man, he knew very well that he might be forced to adopt such a proposition. On this, however, he was determined, that he would bring up the bill without any provision for compensation, and that he would do his best to resist the introduction of any such provision. It was not his intention to endeavour to pass the bill in the present session. All that he meant to propose was, that it should be read a first and second time, go through the committee, for the purpose of having the blanks filled up, be printed, and then stand over until the next session.

Mr. Scarlett

said, he could give no information to the House, with respect to any call for compensation, in consequence of this bill. He thought the general principle of themeasure was good. His noble friend had had the goodness to communicate to him the general principle of the bill, and he, at present, certainly saw no material objection to it. So far as the measure had been explained to him, it appeared calculated to produce great public benefit. Ordered to be printed.