§ (1) The procedure of tribunals constituted for the purposes of the Act of 1946 and of section one of this Act shall, subject to such regulations, if any, as may be made in that behalf by the Minister, be such as the tribunal in question may determine, and every such tribunal—
- (a) shall, unless the tribunal otherwise order, at the request of any party to the reference or application and upon being satisfied that the interests of either party would be prejudicially affected, sit in public;
- (b) may take evidence on oath and shall have powers for that purpose to administer oaths;
- (c) may direct that the costs of an application, or such part of the costs as they think fit, shall be paid by the applicant.
§ (2) On the hearing of any application—
- (a) the applicant; and
- (b) the landlord or the tenant or lessee of the house or part of a house or dwelling-house, when he is not the person making the reference or the applicant; and
- (c) the local authority when it is not the party making the reference under the Act of 1946,
§ Brought up, and read the First time.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Elliot
I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."
This new Clause brings up a question of the greatest importance, and I think it would be wrong for us not to move it. It deals with the procedure and power of tribunals. The whole of this Bill hinges on the one question—the tribunals. We have pleaded with the Minister, unsuccessfully, to define the directions which he wishes given to the tribunals. He has founded himself very strongly upon the reasonableness of the tribunals, and I ask the Committee to consider the proposals which we bring forward to deal with the machinery of this reasonable body. I commend the attention of the Committee particularly to the permissive power given to this body, on whose reasonableness the whole of this legislation rests, to directthat the costs of an application, or such part of the costs as they think fit, shall be paid by the applicant.These bodies are taking a more and more important place in our legislative structure. They are now going to be a permanent or quasi-permanent, part of our judicial machinery. I think it is high time that some more detailed code should be given to them than that which they have now; in particular, they should have these powers with regard to costs.
§ Mr. Molson
If there had been no cases of applications having been made in a frivolous way and great inconvenience and loss having been inflicted upon a landlord, I should not think we had strong grounds on which to ask for an amendment concerning the powers and constitution of these tribunals. However, I heard of a case the other day which I would like to put to the Minister. This was a case of a flat being let unfurnished. Even gas and electricity were paid for by the tenant, but in spite of that fact, the tenant alleged that it was a furnished flat and that service was provided. Inquiries were made and the landlord said there was no truth in these allegations. In spite of that fact, the tribunal required the landlord to put in an appearance and answer the charges and claims which were made, with the result that the land- 1289 lord was obliged, for security's sake, to engage a solicitor and pay the bill of costs. In fact when the case appeared before the rent tribunal, the tribunal found it had no jurisdiction in the case. After that the matter was taken to the County Court and the landlord sought to secure a rent which had not been paid. He obtained an order for that rent, but of course not for the costs incurred in going before the tribunal. As a matter of fact, judgment was given but it was found impossible to enforce it.
This is an example of how at the present time, with the tribunals constituted as they are, it is possible for frivolous and unsubstantiated claims to be made, claims which are vexatious and unreasonable and for which there is no redress. Under this Bill the scope and powers of these tribunals is to be greatly extended, and I suggest to the Minister that it is extremely desirable that the tribunals should be put on a far more regulated footing than they are at present and that in cases where landlords are taken before them, and where, in fact, the tribunal comes to the conclusion that there was no reasonable justification, then the costs should be awarded to the landlord.
§ Mr. Walker-Smith
May I briefly support what has been said about the new Clause? I think the Committee will agree that this is the time when it should review the procedure of these rent tribunals. They were set up under the 1946 Act simply to last for two years. I think I am right in saying that at the present time their procedure is regulated solely by the Furnished Houses Regulations, which lay down one or two items of procedure only and leave the rest to the discretion of the tribunal.
The main new point which appears in the new Clause and is not within the present powers of the tribunal is the power to award costs, which has been referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for The High Peak (Mr. Molson). When the question was raised during the Debates in this House on the Furnished Houses (Rent Control) Act, the Minister swept aside any suggestion of power to award costs in these proceedings by suggesting that the proceedings would be of a personal and domestic character in which the award of such costs would be unnecessary and out of keeping with the main purposes and functions of the Act. 1290 As many hon. Members know, that has not been entirely true in practice and some considerable matters are now heard by the tribunals and, a fortiori, will be heard before the tribunals under the extended powers in this Bill. I think it is clear in these circumstances that there should be a power to award costs.
§ Mr. Emrys Roberts
Powers are not given to award costs to the landlord as well, and therefore it seems to me that this is one-sided.
§ Mr. Walker-Smith
I take it that the reason is that this Clause was drafted before the acceptance of the Amendment which gave the landlord the right to initiate proceedings, and since there is only one party which can initiate proceedings there is a case for restricting costs in this way. Hon. Members may shake their heads as much as they like, but there surely can be no point in allowing an award of costs to a landlord since he, by the very nature of things, could not make a frivolous application—the landlord could not at that time make an application at all. I think there should be this power to award costs, if for no no other reason than to act as a deterrent against those likely to make frivolous applications—that is, frivolous applications by tenants.
Hon. Members may have within their knowledge a parallel which one finds in the proceedings before licensing authorities under the Road and Rail Traffic Act, 1933. In that Act, for some reason, no provision has ever been made in regard to costs and the result is that in many cases applications are made under the Act and people are put to some trouble and expense in opposing applications when they cannot recover their costs even if an applicant does not appear at the hearing. That is something which not infrequently occurs.
I think there must be some sort of sanction of costs in respect of these matters. So far as that particular Act has been concerned, it has gone on for a long time without any redress having been obtained; and so far as the Housing Act, 1946, is concerned, there would have been this wrong going on for a long time without redress had not the Bill now before the Committee afforded a very welcome opportunity to put the matter right. I suggest, therefore, that 1291 it would be shortsighted not to accept the opportunity which is given.
§ Mr. Bevan
I think right hon. and hon. Members will agree that we have gone along in an amiable way up to now, but if hon. Members are going to persist in this matter I really must dig my toes in. If I conceded this point, the tribunals would be so formal that a large number of people would be frightened of going to them. We are dealing in the main with people in furnished lettings; some hon. Members think that the new Clause is not applicable to the tribunals, but to the courts of law, but if costs are assigned by the tribunals the fear might be a deterrent to people wishing to appear before the tribunals. I would remind the Committee that Section 2 (6) of the Act of 1946, reads as follows:Notwithstanding anything in the foregoing provisions of this Section, a tribunal shall not be required to entertain a reference made otherwise than by the local authority if they are satisfied, having regard to the length of time elapsing since a previous reference made by the same party or to other circumstances, that the reference is frivolous or vexatious.10.45 p.m.
So that the principal Act does attempt to deal with applications of the kind to which reference has been made. It is not always possible for the tribunal to know whether an application is frivolous until the landlord has been summoned to appear. I admit that that is the case; but I cannot accept so heavy an arbitrament, so grandiose an armament, as the assigning of costs to deal with the comparatively rare cases of that sort, a device which would have the effect of making the tribunals practically inaccessible to large numbers of people who might fear the result of going there. With regard to the other part of the new Clause, I think it undesirable so to formalise the procedure as to give these lay tribunals the effect of having in the main the appearance and austerity of a court of law.
§ Mr. J. Foster
I will not speak for long. The Minister will probably appreciate, on reading it, that the Clause for the safeguard against frivolous appeals in the 1946 Act applies only as to the length of time which has elapsed.
§ Mr. Foster
The other circumstances usually do not appear until they have started the inquiry. It is difficult to say whether they are frivolous until the tribunal has heard the case, except for the length of time. The other point is that I think the procedure of these tribunals does differ, and differs sometimes to the disadvantage of the lessee—the poor man. The Minister probably remembers that under the regulations made under the Furnished Houses (Rent Control) Act, there are set out in the First Schedule the questions which the tribunal can put to the lessor and the lessee. One of these questions is, What is the financial relationship of the lessor to the house—how much he paid for the house, what the mortgage is?—and so on.
That information clearly ought to be communicated to the lessee. He cannot judge whether the application is likely to succeed or not, and cannot argue the application unless that vital information on the full standing of the lessor with reference to the house is communicated to the tenant. This is a point which goes to the protection of the tenant, and the right hon. Gentleman has made himself the champion throughout the evening of the tenant. The tribunals differ as to whether they should communicate any information to the tenant at all. I think that shows that some regularity should be introduced into their proceedings. There are other points which my hon Friends have adumbrated.
The Minister, I think, is saying that this matter is not covered by the new Clause. He will find that it is covered by the regulations which can be made by the Minister. The new Clause says, "subject to such Regulations." The Minister can make regulations under this new Clause with regard to this procedure. It is part of the general argument. Anyone who practises in the courts sees the pathological side of these regulations. When injustice is caused, the people, tenant or landlord are, not unnaturally, very resentful. I do not think the Minister has sufficiently in mind the necessity for curing these cases and yet having an easy tribunal of which people are not frightened. He has not sufficiently in mind the injustices which are often committed. I ask him to bear these things in mind.
§ Mr. Hogg
I do not think the Minster can accuse me of taking up an unreasonable attitude. I wonder whether he has given sufficient consideration to this new Clause and to the arguments with which he resisted it. I want to draw the attention of the Committee to three or four points mentioned in the new Clause. The first is that the tribunals should sit in public. My own view is that that is absolutely essential in any tribunal which is to administer public justice, unless there are overriding circumstances, as there sometimes are in cases of domestic disputes and other things, demanding a private sitting. We often hear in the House about justice seeming to be done as well as being done, and my own view is that the only way in which you can ensure that real justice is done, especially if you put your reliance, as the Minister does, upon an informal hearing, is the right of the public, in the shape of persons who wish to hear and in the shape of the Press, to hear proceedings which come before the tribunals of this country. I do not think this is erecting the tribunal into a sort of court of law of which people need be afraid. Here is something which is absolutely essential to the administration of justice, and I wish the Minister would take this point a little more seriously than he has done.
§ Mr. Walker-Smith
Is my hon. Friend aware that under the 1946 Act, regulations already provide for hearing in public in roughly the same terms as this? To this extent it is accepted by the Minister.
§ Mr. Hogg
I hope the Minister does accept it, but the way in which he has treated this new Clause does not lead me to think so. The second point is that the tribunal should take evidence on oath. I should like to see it abolished, for it brings religion into contempt and offers no additional safeguard, but one thing it does do, so long as it remains the criterion of formal evidence, is to bring into operation the sanction of the law of perjury. Is the Minister satisfied that a person who puts forward a deliberately false case can be punished as a perjurer if he does so to his own knowledge? I should like to be reassured on this point.
The third and most controversial point is the question of means. Here I do not 1294 go all the way with the Minister. Costs are not necessarily a very large item. They may be as little as five shillings or ten shillings, but that may mean everything to a person who has been compelled to attend a tribunal out of his own time on somebody else's application. I do not think that in ordinary cases there should be an order for costs, but in cases of applications which are, in fact, frivolous, I think the tribunal should have the power to award costs. I know of many instances where the threat to a landlady, who may be a relatively poor old woman, by one of her own class who happened to be her tenant, to bring her before a tribunal, absolutely paralysed her with fear. Although the Minister cannot accuse me of having taken up a hostile attitude to this Bill, I say that there can be, especially in view of the Minister's attitude yesterday, a real burden of oppression in the case of an unscrupulous tenant, bearing in mind that he has nothing to fear by an application of this kind, and can terrorise a person, often of the opposite sex and of inferior economic position, into making concessions which ought never to have been made.
The third point deals with those who have the right, to appear before these tribunals. I cannot see that anything would be lost by granting that part of this Clause. Perhaps the Minister does so already, or intends to do so, by regulations. These persons have a right to be heard, although they are not immediately parties to the reference. It would not add necessarily to the formality or expense of the proceedings. I attach the greatest importance to matters of this kind. I do not believe it is true that by informalising justice you necessarily improve it. The necessity for the observation of certain fundamental rules in judicial proceedings is an essential means of seeing that justice is carried out. That is the more so in cases like these, where the parties are not usually experienced in conducting argument, and are liable to be swept off their feet by an opponent with a glib tongue or aggressive manner. I wonder whether the Minister has given this matter adequate consideration, and I wish he would give it more.
§ Mr. P. Roberts (Sheffield, Ecclesall)
The Minister is afraid that exorbitant costs would frighten a poor man away, 1295 but will he consider limiting the amount of costs which can be awarded by the tribunal to 20s., or some sum like that? I am much impressed with the argument that has been put forward by my hon. Friends, and equally by the argument of the Minister that to frighten off a poor man with costs might be detrimental to the intention of the Bill; but surely between the two there can be found a figure which might meet both points of view. I ask the Minister to consider such a suggestion.
§ Mr. Manningham-Buller
I should like to say a word in support of the arguments put forward by my hon. Friends. The Minister says that this might frighten people from making applications, but applicants who were not bringing forward frivolous and vexatious cases would have nothing to fear. This merely gives a discretionary power to the tribunal to award costs in proper cases. I do not think the fears which the right hon. Gentleman expressed have a solid foundation, and I should like him to say that he will give this matter further consideration. I think he will, if he accepts a Clause to provide for these matters, enabling these tribunals to function more fairly and more equitably, and to give greater satisfaction to all sections of the public who come before them. The tribunals would be strengthened by having this power put into their hands.
§ Mr. Bevan
It is evident that the Opposition, having managed to get me to throw out a large number of babies from the sledge on the way to my destination, wish now to take the sledge itself from under me. I really must resist the new Clause, in spite of the persuasive way it has been moved and supported, and I think we might now make a little progress. Hon. Members will admit that we have discussed on several occasions yesterday and today the status of the tribunals, to what extent they should be formalised, and to what extent not. The Clause does not talk about making costs in the event of vexatious claims. It speaks about assigning costs, and powers of that sort give rise to apprehension in
§ the minds of people who may come to the tribunal for justice.
§ 11.0 p.m.
§ Moreover, the costs are not against the landlord; the costs are against the applicant. It is true it has been limited, because now the landlord can apply; but in fact in only a very few cases would he apply, and then it would be only where he wanted to make sure of what would be a reasonable rent for his premises and therefore what the value of the premises would be. In most cases under the Clause the costs would be against the applicant who is going to the tribunal for justice. Can hon. Members imagine anything more terrifying in a tribunal of this sort than giving evidence upon oath?
§ Mr. Hogg
The right hon. Gentleman is not dealing with my point. I agree in general with what he says about the oath, but where deliberately false evidence is given there should be the sanction of the Perjury Act.
§ Mr. Bevan
That is a very strong instrument to use in such a case. I suggest that we do not want it here.
With regard to the other point, the Act of 1946 gives the right for both parties to be heard. In this Bill it does not give the right for the local authority to be heard. If it is not a party to the proceeding, there is no reason why the local authority should be there at all. I am perfectly prepared to make regulations permitting that in this Bill, although I see no reason why it should be done. I hope, therefore, that we can get on now with the Bill. We have done very well so far.
§ Question put, "That the Clause be read a Second time."
§ The Committee divided: Ayes, 85, Noes, 230.