§ Section 39 of the County Courts Act 1959 (which prescribes the general jurisdiction of county courts in actions of contract and tort) shall have effect in relation to hire-purchase agreements and credit-sale agreements to which the principal Act applies and conditional sale agreements to which section 21 of this Act applies as if for the reference to £400 there were substituted a reference to £2,000 or such larger sum as may from time to time be specified in any Order in Council made under section 1(3) of this Act.—[Mr. Silkin.]
§ Brought up, and read the First time.
§ Mr. Silkin
I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.
The purpose of the new Clause is to give to the county courts full jurisdiction in all cases to which the Bill applies. The position is broadly as follows. Under the County Courts Act, 1959, the juris- 737 diction of county courts stops in the majority of cases at £400. The amount of money affected by the Bill is £2,000. Under the former legislation, all hire-purchase transactions affected by the hire-purchase legislation were within the jurisdiction of the county courts. Now, unless the new Clause is accepted, they will not be.
As the Parliamentary Secretary will recall, he and I played rather curious rôles at an earlier stage in Standing Committee, when I appeared rather to my surprise, as the defender of Jaguar owners and the hon. Gentleman, rather to his surprise, appeared as their attacker. We would, however, both agree that where we stand side by side is in endeavouring to protect the consumer, and to protect the consumer with, perhaps, less income than the normal Jaguar owner. It is that sort of person to whom the hire-purchase legislation applies, and it is precisely that sort of person who is most likely to be affected by actions in the courts.
If one could give that sort of person the ability to go to the county court rather than to the High Court, two things would be achieved. First, his costs would inevitably be reduced, because to go to the county court costs considerably less than going to the High Court; and in general terms, the length of time before which an action was heard would be reduced.
At best, an action in the High Court may take only four months or so, but in general, as every practitioner of the law knows, it is likely to take considerably longer. In fact, if an action were entered tomorrow it could not possibly be heard in the High Court before November, because of the long vacation intervening, which would be six or seven months from now, whereas an action entered in the county court might well—I agree that this is at the best—be heard before July. These are the basic reasons why I urge that the county court is the proper venue for actions based on hire purchase.
A number of arguments can be adduced against this proposition. The first is that in 1954, at the time when the hire-purchase limit was raised to £300, the jurisdiction of the county court was less than that figure and, therefore, an action based on a £300 hire-purchase 738 contract would have had to be brought in the High Court. This, however, was a fault which lay with the jurisdiction of the county courts. Most practitioners had been saying for some years that the jurisdiction should be raised; and a few years later, in 1959, the jurisdiction of the county courts was so raised. That has meant that up to now all transactions within the purview of existing hire-purchase legislation inevitably were fought out in the county court rather than in the High Court.
The second reason adduced against the change envisaged in the new Clause is that a county court has not the special expertise of the High Court in considering questions of this nature. Well, this is not entirely true. The county court has considerable experience of the sort of difficulties which ordinary men and women get into on a day-to-day basis as a result, for example, of shortage of money, and so on.
Therefore, hire-purchase troubles and hire-purchase difficulties are not strangers to the county court. On the contrary, they have been heard in the county court for a considerable number of years now. I doubt whether this is really true of the High Court, and if one talks in terms of expertise I would hazard the guess that far fewer cases based on hire-purchase legislation ever go to the High Court, or ever have, than go to the county court at this moment.
Indeed, the county court itself is capable of dealing with the most complex problems. It has, for example, unlimited jurisdiction in the question of landlord and tenant. Complexity of the law is no stranger, as I have said, to the county court; nor is complexity of hire-purchase law either.
The other factor, which I would have thought the determining factor, is that in the Bill as it stands Clause 14 gives the owner rights to bring actions for recovery of possession in the county court regardless of whether the figure in the hire-purchase agreement is over £400 or not. The exact words are:Where goods have been let under a hire-purchase agreement to which the principal Act applies, and the owner brings an action to enforce a right to recover possession…the action shall be brought in the county court…".I am merely suggesting that this principle, which already applies where 739 the owner seeks to recover possession, shall likewise be given to the hirer also. If it were to be contended that the county court is not the proper place for hire-purchase actions of this sort, I should reply that I cannot then for the life of me understand why Clause 14 was introduced into the Bill at all.
I should like to see this new Clause added to the Bill, and I know that I speak for practically every solicitor, for every practitioner of the law, in this respect.
§ Mr. Graham Page
I want to support the hon. Gentleman the Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin), who has proposed this new Clause. The county court has been recognised as the appropriate court for actions in connection with hire purchase, and that, as the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, is clearly recognised in this Bill itself, by putting actions for possession of hire-purchase goods firmly within the jurisdiction of the county court. It does seem rather ridiculous if one type of hire-purchase action is placed by the Bill within the jurisdiction of the county court and another type, merely because of the amount of money involved, is taken outside the jurisdiction of the county court.
More and more this House has been placing duties on the county court. We may, perhaps, be over-burdening the county court judges. Nevertheless, we have found that the county court has served the public so well that we are apt to place more and more burdens on the learned judges of the county courts. We have done so more and more from the nature of the case, not from its importance reckoned by the amount of money involved. All rent control cases go to the county court. In many other instances we have placed cases within the jurisdiction of the county court, because of the subject matter of the case rather than the financial importance of the case. We have recognised that the county court is the right court for hire-purchase cases.
There are, as the hon. Member has pointed out, the advantages of time and cost—time in that the case can be brought before the county court more quickly than before the High Court; 740 and cost—I say this in the presence of a number of counsel who are in the House at the moment—because the solicitor has audience in the county court and frequently a case can be conducted there at far less expense to the litigants. Normally, hire-purchase cases of this sort are merely debt collecting, and the county court, in the light of the many hours that it spends on judgment summonses and judging the means of those who have got into financial difficulties, is particularly appropriate for this type of case.
Therefore, if it is merely a simple case of debt collecting it is greatly to the advantage of the plaintiff that it should come on quickly in the county court, and come on at no great expense. On the other hand, if the case is complicated and if the defendant has some serious defence to it, it is right that the defendant should have the benefit of bringing the case on quickly and cheaply in the county court.
I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to accept the Clause. I am sure that it will bring benefit to both sides who are unfortunate enough to have to litigate over hire-purchase agreements.
§ Mr. Weitzman
I, too, support the new Clause. What I am troubled about is what possible objection there can be to it.
It has been recognised in Clause 14 that in settling the most difficult cases the action should be brought—not "may" be brought—in the county court. The value of the county court has long been recognised in dealing with hire-purchase agreement cases. Why it should not deal with all these cases I do not know. Is it suggested that they might be too difficult for the county court judges? That cannot be right. In many instances, landlord and tenant cases are very difficult and involve estates, land, houses or tenements of very considerable value. But we have recognised that those cases ought to go to the county court. Consequently, I cannot see why we should reject the county court in this instance.
There is a strong argument in favour of it, that in the county court one can get an action brought much more quickly. I do not know whether it is a real advantage that solicitors are 741 allowed to take cases in the county court. That is another matter. However, from the point of view generally of convenience and from the point of view of trial in regard to all these issues, surely the county court is the right court to deal with these matters. I await with very great interest the possible objections which may be made to the Clause, which, I hope, will be accepted.
§ Sir E. Errington
In general terms I think that the new Clause should be supported, but I am not altogether certain that the wording:or such larger sum as may from time to time be specifiedis right. I should have thought it wise to have the flexibility of being able to alter the situation.
So far as the High Court is concerned, there may be certain classes of case which can be dealt with under the Order 14 procedure. If that is done in the High Court, it would be quicker than the county court procedure. Again, if a case is started in the High Court, the parties can agree for it to be transferred to the county court. I do not think that we can tell whether there will be a substantial increase in the number of hire-purchase cases, or whether there will be clogging up in certain courts in spite of the appointment of additional judges.
I would have thought that it was a wise precaution to leave the situation in such a way that if, contrary to expectation, the county courts could not digest the extra work, that would not prevent the matters from being dealt with in the High Court.
§ Mr. D. Price
For those of us who have followed the Bill on its way, these arguments are not entirely new. However, as there are hon. Members who have joined in, as is proper, on Report and who have not sat in Committee with us, I think that it is necessary to repeat one or two of the arguments deployed in our earlier discussions.
I remind the House that at present all actions to enforce a right to recover possession of goods under hire-purchase agreements to which the 1938 Act applies and where one-third of the hire-purchase price has been paid must be brought in the appropriate county court. 742 In addition, any claim for any sum payable under the agreement or under a guarantee must be brought in the same action.
When the Bill comes into force, this jurisdiction of the courts will automatically be extended to actions for the recovery of goods under hire-purchase agreements not exceeding £2,000, or such larger sum as may be substituted by an Order in Council under Clause 1(3). Since the owner will be compelled to bring his action in the county court when one-third of the purchase price has been paid, that court will have jurisdiction.
Clause 14, which we added to the Bill in Committee, will extend the jurisdiction of the county court so that all actions for the recovery of goods before one-third of the hire-purchase price has been paid must be brought in that court. It also enables the county court in any such action to entertain any claim by the owner for a sum due under the agreement or any related contract of guarantee. This position will also apply to conditional sale agreements.
However, there are certain other actions in connection with hire-purchase agreements which the 1938 Act, as amended by the Bill., will not require to be brought in the county court and to which the county court limit of £400 will therefore apply. This is only just scaling up what is already the position under the 1938 Act. There is, first, a money claim, exceeding £400, for payments under the agreement, or for damages where no action for the recovery of goods is brought; secondly, a claim for damages, exceeding £400, for breach of warranty; thirdly, a claim, exceeding £400, when the owner has recovered possession of the goods in contravention of Section 11(1) of the 1938 Act.
The new Clause would provide that all such cases would be brought in the county court by giving it concurrent jurdisdiction with the High Court in all actions of contract and tort. The county court would also be empowered to deal with actions arising out of credit-sale agreements.
In not giving the county court power to entertain a money claim alone when this exceeds £400, we are following the pattern of the 1938 Act. Such a claim 743 might be for damages for breach of warranties, or conditions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) talked about it being rather the nature of the case than any financial limit which he would like to see imposed. I suggest that the county court has no particular expertise in dealing with claims of the kind that I have just mentioned, that is to say, damages for breach of warranties or conditions, and there seems no reason why it should be given the power to entertain an action which may be far beyond its ordinary monetary jurisdiction. The matter of repossession—taking my hon. Friend's point—lies within the nature of the case. I suggest that those are important reasons for rejecting the new Clause.
The only reason why the county court is given power to entertain a claim for money due under the agreement or a guarantee where recovery of the goods is claimed is that it is desirable that the court, in making an order for the recovery of goods, should be able to take into consideration any other claim which the owner may have. This consideration does not apply where the claim is solely for a sum of money, and there is no special ground for giving the county court power to entertain such a claim if it is outside its ordinary jurisdiction.
In the case of credit-sale agreements, we think that the ordinary limits of county court jurisdiction should apply. There is no question of the recovery of goods—this again is a point which I want to stress—and there is nothing in the 1938 Act which compels a seller to bring an action in the county court.
The whole question of raising the limits of county court jurisdiction is kept under consideration by those who have responsibility for the courts, and this aspect is clearly only one part of the total situation. One also has to bear in mind the burden of work which falls on county courts, and I am advised that Clause 14 is as far as we ought to go in this respect.
The hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin) referred to a point which he raised in Committee about the delay which is experienced in the High Court as against the county court. I have made inquiries on the subject and writ- 744 ten to the hon. Gentleman. It has been suggested that it can take two years before an action for a claim is heard in the High Court. I am advised that this is not so at all, and that if the plaintiff's solicitor were content to take his ordinary place in the High Court list and not ask for a fixed date, the action would normally come on for hearing within four days of the setting down. Even though this period is longer than the time for a defended county court case to come on for hearing, the delay is not such as to outweigh the general rule that claims exceeding £400 should be tried by the High Court.
§ Mr. Graham Page
I am sure that it was a slip of the tongue, when my hon. Friend said that a case would be heard within four days of being set down.
§ Mr. Price
I should have said four months. I thank my hon. Friend for correcting me.
In those circumstances we do not feel that it would be right, in this Bill, to raise the jurisdiction of county courts in matters which do not fall under my hon. Friend's definition of being within the same species.
I hope that I have explained to the House the particular matters which, if the new Clause were accepted, would fall to the county court, but which do not do so under the Bill as drafted. We believe that it is right that those other matters should not be brought within the jurisdiction of the county court.
§ 9.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Darling
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman can clear up for a layman some of the difficulties and doubts in my mind about the argument which he has put forward. As I understand, under Clause 14 the county court has jurisdiction over all hire-purchase cases which come within the terms of that Clause. There is no monetary limit of any kind involved, except the monetary limit of £2,000 covering hire-purchase transactions.
But then he brought forward the three cases where, so far as I follow the argument, it has been traditional for action to be taken not in the county courts, but in the High Court. The distinction was made that if the case involves £400 or less it goes into the county court and if it is above £400 it goes into the 745 High Court. We are concerned here with a division not on the type of case—the argument put forward by the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page)—but purely on an arbitrary figure that will decide whether an action will go into the county court or into the High Court.
As a layman, this distinction does not seem to make sense. Before the Parliamentary Secretary intervenes, let me put a case to him. Any Government have it in their power to alter the line on one side of which cases will go to the county court and on the other side of which to the High Court, merely by altering Purchase Tax or some similar tax. If Purchase Tax on motor cars were abolished—and most of the cases to which we are referring here are motor car purchase cases—far more car purchase cases would come within the county court procedure, on the three points mentioned by the Parliamentary Secretary, than is the case now.
These arbitrary decisions on monetary lines seem to make nonsense of the claim that if actions are concerned with more than £400 they should go to the High Court and if they are concerned with less they should go to the county court. As I understand, that is the case that the hon. Gentleman has been putting forward. To me, it does not make sense.
§ Mr. D. Price
The hon. Member refers to an arbitrary money limit, and says that variations can follow alterations in taxation. But that situation exists already. There is a monetary limit on the jurisdiction of county courts. The argument that he is applying now has already been applied in the case of every action brought in the county courts. I take the hon. Member back to Clause 14. The common theme of all matters which go automatically to the county court is the theme of the recovery of possession. It is when an action is purely monetary, without the element of repossession coming in, that the normal limitations of the jurisdiction of the county court come into play.
That is the point. The hon. Member must not complain about this in relation to the subject matter of the Bill; what he really ought to complain about is the present arbitrary limit on the jurisdiction of the county courts.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. This is an intervention upon an intervention, which would not be fair to the hon. Gentleman. Mr. Darling.
§ Mr. Darling
I shall give my hon. and learned Friend an opportunity to speak as quickly as I can. The Parliamentary Secretary's intervention has helped me. I agree that this is the present practice. But we are trying to change it. That is the reason for the Amendment. We want to bring together in the county courts all hire-purchase cases. I agree with the Parliamentary Secretary that these arbitrary divisions exist, but we want to change them. In those circumstances, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept the Amendment.
§ Mr. Silkin
I fear that no words of mine will melt the stony heart of the Parliamentary Secretary on this matter. Nevertheless, I would point out that if he believes that there is some sort of mystique or expertise, connected with repossession, which lies deep in the hearts of county court judges and not in the hearts of High Court judges he is very much mistaken. The truth of the matter is that both High Court judges and county court judges are judges learned in the law. They have a great deal of experience and they are quite capable of coping with these problems.
The hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) put his finger right on the nub of the matter when he said that this is a question of grouping together transactions of a similar sort. The Parliamentary Secretary is complaining about the lack of expertise on the part of county court judges but they could very soon acquire such expertise. This would be a helpful measure to many people and I suggest not only to hirers. It would help the finance houses as well. It is in the interests of all that in hire-purchase cases the action be brought speedily and cheaply to trial. I am not convinced by the judicial mathematics of the Parliamentary Secretary, if I may put it in that way. As I tried to point out earlier, four months from now would land us in the middle of the Long Vacation, if we endeavoured to enter an action tomorrow. It could be in the county court before that time.
§ Question put and negatived.