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Clause 7—(Short Title, Extent, Repeals And Saving)

Volume 527: debated on Friday 7 May 1954

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

I beg to move, in page 5, line 3, to leave out "This Act so far as it," and to insert,

"Section five of this Act and so much of this Act as."

I do not wish to make a long speech, because there are other Measures to be discussed in which several hon. Members are interested; but the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) has had a clear and uninterrupted run up to now. I think it would be as well if he explained briefly what this alteration means.

I thought I had already done so. I am sorry if I did not make it clear to the right hon. Gentleman. The previous Amendment related to Northern Ireland and this one does also; it is purely consequential. If the right hon. Gentleman will look at the Bill as it stands, it affects Northern Ireland only in so far as the Army Act and the Air Force Act are concerned.

If the hon. Gentleman had just said that it was consequential, we would have understood.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made: In page 5, line 4, leave out "extends," and insert "extend."

In line 5, after "aforesaid," insert "this Act."

In line 9, leave out subsection (4). —[ Mr. Peyton.]

Order for Third Reading read.— [ Queen's Consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified. ]

11.15 a.m.

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

There is no need for me to detain the House at length. The Bill is substantially in the same form as it first came before the House. I wish to take this opportunity to thank those hon. Gentlemen who have supported the Measure, and to mention the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell), who has extended valuable support, particularly on behalf of the trade union movement.

The Bill achieves its main purpose of providing clarity and uniformity in the law, and I think that I may take some satisfaction from the fact that it restores to the private individual, to the ordinary citizen, some measure of his rights where public authorities are concerned. I hope that the Bill will shortly become law and that its benefits, though small, will in individual cases be undoubted and certain.

11.17 a.m.

I am glad to have been of assistance to the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton). I do not think political feelings run very deep where English workmen are concerned. I think that the matter is summed up in a letter I received from the general secretary of my union, the Amalgamated Engineering Union, which has a membership of over 900,000. The general secretary writes:

"This is certainly a Bill which I hope will have a successful Third Reading, and in connection with the proposals I certainly think that the repealment of the Public Authorities Act, 1893, will outweigh any difficulties which may occur in reducing the" 6-year period of limitation to three years in regard to other actions.
I am authorised to say that should you so desire, you may mention in your statement in the House that the Amalgamated Engineering Union supports the Bill and the proposed amendments to be made by the mover. As you are aware, at the moment our accident cases are running at a figure of over 6,000 a year, and quite a number of claims for negligence arise against public authorities. The 12 months' limitation in England has on more than one occasion meant that action could not be taken due to the fact that when we have been advised of the circumstances it has been far too late. The repeal of the 12 months' provision will considerably assist, and I trust that this Bill will be successful."
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that as something of a tribute from the trade union movement and will feel that he has rendered some service to us. I congratulate him on being able to move the Third Reading of this Bill, and we are glad to have been privileged to play some part in its success.

11.20 a.m.

I do not wish to detain the House for any purpose other than to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton). The hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell) spoke about the welcome which the Bill received from the trade unions. In point of fact, the Bill has been widely welcomed by all manner of persons, with the effulgent and almost unique exception of the hon. and learned Member for Gloucester (Mr. Turner-Samuels). I think that it has been so welcomed because it brings the necessary evils which attach to the law of limitation more into harmony with modern justice.

I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend on the use he made of his place in the Ballot, and on his brevity and lucidity all the way through, which has made our labours on the Bill so pleasant, so swift and so satisfactory.

11.21 a.m.

It was a purely tendentious statement for the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for York (Mr. Hylton-Foster) to say that I am the only "effulgent exception" to the chorus of approval that has been given to the Bill. I say at once that I participate in that chorus. I approve of the Bill most heartily. Because of that, I am sorry that there is one blemish on it. It is a blemish which those who promoted the Bill must appreciate ought not to have been there. The Government, who are behind the Bill and have adopted it, ought to know that this blemish is wrong and ought to have been put right. That was what my Amendments were designed to do.

While wishing to congratulate the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) on introducing the Bill, and conceding that it will remedy defects in the law which have been standing for a long time, and which on all sides have been agreed to be completely unjustifiable, I must, however, refer the House to Clause 2 which falls, woefully short of what it ought to be.

Clause 2 seeks to get rid of an existing, right in the subject. That must always. be a very grave thing to do. Unless there is a very strong case to support it, it ought not to be allowed by Parliament. The truth is that no real case has been sought to be made to justify the taking away of this right. On the contrary, there is abundant authoritative evidence against taking away that right, evidence-which came through the channel of the Tucker Committee, which sat for a considerable time and thoroughly sifted evidence from every section of the community on this matter. Every section of the community, including the Trades Union Congress, was unanimous as regards the period in which there should be a right to bring an action in respect of personal injuries.

The Tucker Committee, contrary to-what has been done in this Bill, said that the period in which an action should be allowed in both contract and in tort, without exception—except the one which I propose to mention—should be six years. The exception they made was on the question of personal injuries, but the exception was couched in very cautious and qualifying language. It was conceded that there may be cases of personal injury where, through neglect, or otherwise, an action has not been brought and where there is no excuse for not having brought it; where the evidence is ascertained and where the plaintiff is in a clear and definite position before the expiration of two years to say whether or not he wants to bring an action.

There were, however, cases, and this is the grave position with regard to the present Bill, which included those where, after the period of two years, or three years for that matter, the position arose in which there was a genuine and proper claim and an action on it could not be brought because of the expiration of the period which was allowed for that purpose. Therefore, under the Bill, with the exception I have mentioned, we get the position in which it is conceded as a universal principle that the limitation of the period in which an action should be brought, whether contract or tort, should be six years.

For some reason that I cannot imagine, and which has not been explained, there is a departure from that in the case of personal injuries, which may be a grave case and which may affect the livelihood of the person concerned or his family. In the case of the Fatal Accidents Act, where the dependants are concerned and where they have no control over the action at all while the deceased is alive, they may be gravely and permanently prejudiced because of the limiting provisions of the Bill.

I hate to interrupt the hon. and learned Gentleman in full flood, but I must point out, I hope not unreasonably, that this matter was very fully discussed in all its aspects during the Committee stage. Indeed, the hon. and learned Gentleman very fully expounded his view to the Committee, and I would suggest that the point he put forward then, and which he is putting forward now, was fully met.

Naturally the hon. Gentleman is most anxious to justify this grave omission. The trouble is that the matter was not thoroughly discussed in Committee. I made a contribution to try to get the Committee to change what was being done. Unfortunately, some of my own colleagues were satisfied to play the role of rubber stamps for the promoters of the Bill.

On a point of order. Is not the term "rubber stamp" an offensive one? The hon. and learned Member for Gloucester (Mr. Turner-Samuels) referred to his colleagues playing the rôle of rubber stamps. Might I say that his name appears as one of the sponsors of the Bill, but never have I heard a Bill so heavily criticised in Committee, for 40 minutes at one stretch on this point, by one who was a sponsor. I should have thought that, in that context, to refer to an hon. Friend as a rubber stamp—as merely a tool of other interests—was offensive.

I do not think that it is out of order to refer to an hon. Member as a "rubber stamp." I have heard it done once or twice. The words must be taken in a figurative rather than in a literal sense.

I presume that Mr. Speaker will judge. When you say that the words are figurative, Mr. Speaker, I suppose also that we must judge from whence the remark came.

If there was any justification for a point of order, that last remark did provide one. If my hon. Friend does not like the words "rubber stamp" he can erase them. It is not correct to say that this matter was fully debated in Committee. No case was made out for doing what has been done in Clause 2.

It is essential that this fact should go on record, because cases will arise where grave injustice will be done through the reduction of the period of time from six years to three. This is not a case of arguing that the period of three years should be extended to six, but a case where an existing right to bring an action within six years should not be cut down to three. In paragraph 22 of its Report, the Tucker Committee says:
"…the evidence before us showed that the great majority of claims are notified at an early date after the occurrence of the incident giving rise to the claim and that actions are in the main commenced reasonably promptly. Where there is great delay the probability therefore is that either there is good reason for the delay, or that the claim is not a bona fide one, and we are of opinion that whether the reason is the one or the other may be safely left to the decision of the court upon any application for leave to commence an action which would otherwise be out of time."
It concludes by saying, in paragraph 23:
"We consider that the period of limitation we have recommended should apply to all actions for personal injuries, whether the defendant is a public authority or not."
The Tucker Committee, in the face of evidence from professional, industrial and business men, and, indeed, from every section of the community, came down most definitely and unqualifiedly in favour of the view that the court should have a discretion to extend the period from two years to six. I know that the Bill lays down a period of three years, instead of the Tucker Committee's two, but as to that concession there is an apt saying about fearing the Greeks bringing presents. Attempts may be made to justify this position by saying that the Bill provides for a three-year period instead of a two-year period, but it would be better to leave the two-year period suggested by the Tucker Report and still leave it open for an action to be commenced within six years if the courts deem it proper. This was the unanimous recommendation of the Tucker Committee. Those who support the Bill are naturally trying to gloss the matter over, but the plain fact is that this is a blemish in what is otherwise a very good Measure. It will inevitably lead to injustice in cases where it is proper for an action to be commenced within a period of six years.

Feeling as I do about this flaw in the Bill, it would be completely wrong on my part not to ventilate it. In my view, the interest of the subject is being attacked because a most valuable right is being taken away from him. It is being attacked, too, because in the case of the Fatal Accidents Act, where the period in which actions may be commenced under the Bill is also three years, it means that whilst the deceased is alive his dependants will have no control over his decision whether or not to bring an action, and their only chance of bringing such an action may be when he is dead and the three-year period has expired. They will then be shut out, and that must be very wrong, because the whole object of the Fatal Accidents Act is to provide for dependants.

In those circumstances, although it has nothing whatever to do with the rest of the Bill, this provision is absolutely wrong. The hon. and learned Member for York must, I think, have been facetious in his remarks about my attitude, because it is wrong to say that I oppose this Bill. I gave my name and support to it, but I sincerely feel that the matter to which I have referred is a blemish on it, which will be the cause of grave and recurrent injustice. Though I support the Third Reading because of what is in the rest of the Measure, I must deprecate and deplore the defect which is inherent in Clause 2.

11.36 a.m.

In supporting the Third Reading of the Bill, I should like to add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) for bringing it forward and leading the proceedings on it in such an efficacious and short manner. The proceedings have done something to belie the quite undeserved reputation which lawyers have in this House for talking at inordinate length. Our discussions on the Bill have been very brief, although it is an important Measure. I hope that my hon. Friend feels that we have been brief, although a promoter of a Bill always feeds that the discussion is going dangerously far.

This Bill reaches its Third Reading not greatly changed from its original form. As one who has caused a certain amount of trouble during the Committee stage, I should like to thank my hon. Friend for his consideration of tie points I put forward. I feel that the new Clause which he moved and was accepted this morning has improved the Bill.

It is natural that we should regard the Bill primarily as an amendment of the Public Authorities Protection Act. For more than 60 years the subject has been put at a remarkable disadvantage in relation to public authorities, in that he has had to bring his action within a period of six months after the cause of it arose. In 1939 that period was extended to 12 months, but even with that period, as the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell) knows very well, there have been many cases where grave injustice has arisen. This Bill rectifies an error of our grandfathers, which has always appeared to me to be quite unaccountable. I have never understood why they did it, and it has taken us over 60 year to put it right. For that part of the Bill, I have nothing but praise and support.

It is fair to say, however, that the hon. and learned Member for Gloucester (Mr. Turner-Samuels) has a point about the other aspect of the Bill. I am sorry that the general period of limitation for actions against people who are not public authorities has been cut from six to three years, in the case of personal injuries, but the benefit derived from amending the Public Authorities Protection Act will immensely outweigh any loss which comes from cutting down the general period, and I therefore enthusiastically support the Bill.

There will be the rare case of personal injury where the full extent of the damage caused will not show itself for rather a long time. In those rare cases the person injured does not realise what has happened to him for two or even three years, but he will now be shut out after three years instead of after six.

In the case of the Fatal Accidents Act, 1846, the position is made even worse, because the dependants have no say in the matter while the deceased is still alive.

But the cases arising under that Act will be still rarer than those to which I have referred.

Why is that so? Surely under that Act the period of limitation runs from death? It does not matter if the injury occurred 20 years before death.

That may be so. I did not raise the point about the Fatal Accidents Acts, and I have not looked into the question. I did not refer to it in answering the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Gloucester. I rather accepted his point on it. I am concerned only with the general law myself.

I think that point comes better from the other side of the House than this. However, I was concerned only with questions under the general law, under which the very occasional case will arise. I am sorry that we have had to make this change in this way, but it is a very small price that we pay for the amendment of the Public Authorities Protection Act, and it may be that in another place another view on this may prevail. However that may be, I support the Bill, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work.

11.41 a.m.

Of course my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Turner-Samuels) has every right to ventilate any difference of opinion on a question on which there can be perfectly legitimate differences of opinion, but I do not know why he found it necessary to do so so fiercely, or why he found it necessary to assume that those of us who disagreed were rubber stamps and stooges. I do believe that there may conceivably—I think it is unlikely—be the odd case of personal injuries where the limitation of action of three years would cause an injustice. I think such cases will be very, very rare indeed. I think that in the enormous majority of cases, in 99·9 per cent, of cases, the man who has been injured knows he has been injured within three years of the injury; and if he does not, it is generally not a very genuine case.

Look at it from the other angle, for the position of the defendant who suddenly has thrown at his head a claim more than three years old. How is he to meet it? If he is a public authority, his driver has probably gone into other employment and is untraceable. The same applies to a conductor. It becomes quite impossible to find evidence, and in this sort of case, where the evidence is visual and not documentary, if we delay a claim to that extent, we place a great injustice upon the defendant that the defendant ought not to suffer. I certainly do not feel that three years is too long, and I join with all the others in commending the Bill.

There is one other point I have already made in an interruption, in regard to the Fatal Accidents Act. There, certainly, inaction by the deceased cannot injure his dependants. The dependants' claim arises not from the injury but from the death. The period of limitation, which is set out in Section 3, runs not from the accident but from the death. I am speaking offhand, but I think I am right in this, that it does not matter if the accident happened 20 years before the death and nothing was done about it. However, such cases must be very rare.

11.44 a.m.

I, too, offer my sincere congratulations to those who introduced this Bill. From the practical point of view, its provisions will be very helpful indeed, not only to the individuals concerned but to the practitioners, the solicitors who have to deal with cases of this nature. There is not the slightest doubt that the average individual is very often neglectful of his rights, and one often has in ordinary practice people coming for advice long after the period allowed for making claims under the Acts has expired.

I hope that hon. Members will think a little more about the point made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Turner-Samuels). The matter is not as simple as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) has put it. Anyone who has had a fair amount of experience in these matters from a practical standpoint knows that limitation does cause very serious hardship to quite a number of people.

I should not like the impression to be left that merely because I did not make much of this matter, presupposing, as I did, that everyone understood why I did not, it has not been very seriously considered. It has been, and 1 thought everyone knew that.

The whole aim of the Bill is to ensure certainty. If we were to make the alterations suggested by the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Gloucester, the inevitable result would be that we should lose certainty and introduce a measure of flexibility which would be the equivalent of a speculative element.

I am saying what I am saying in the most friendly spirit. I am trying to give the House the benefit of experience that I have had in instances that have come to my personal notice. It is worth while considering this point.

It is the exception that is important. It is the exception that brings home in a pointed way what the difficulty is. The difficulty is that the average man, the man in the street does not always do what he should do within the right period. At some time someone, a friend of his perhaps, comes to him and advises him, "In view of the position you are in, why on earth do you not take action, or go to see a solicitor about the matter?" He turns up in the solicitor's office eventually, and then in the solicitor's office correspondence starts with the other party if it is not too late. The damage of the thing is that in the correspondence negotiations may take place, and eventually the claim becomes statute barred through no (fault of one's own, unless a writ is issued.,

I am sure that quite a number of hon. Members who are solicitors must have had experience of the difficulties created in that way. Even in an experienced office the matter is sometimes apt to be overlooked. It does happen rarely, it is true. Hon. Members, if they will consider actions on neglect in a lawyer's work, will find that that does occur. This does not affect the Bar. They are not concerned about this kind of matter. It is the solicitor and his client who are in the difficulty. A solicitor may have been negotiating for a considerable time, trying to do his best for his client, and then he may find, because of inadvertence, that he is placed in a position in which it is impossible to deal with the matter because the limitation operates. It does happen. Such cases arise. They may be—indeed they are—rare in the layman's experience, but they are not in the legal world rare to that extent.

So I would ask the promoters of the Bill, perhaps with Government support, to consider adding a provision whereby an exception may be made, or whereby a court may authorise the hearing of a case even though the writ is issued after the three years. That would probably meet the abjection. The courts would be reasonable in a matter of this sort. They have similar powers in respect of other matters already. Power is given to a court and a court can exercise it only in reasonable circumstances. In those circumstances the rights of the injured person will be protected. The point raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton about difficulties placed in the way of a person answering claims owing to the lapse of times would also be considered in such circumstances by the court.

Perhaps I may comment further on this point. In a number of cases where the party who would be liable to damages is covered by a form of insurance he would not suffer, but there are, I agree, exceptional circumstances where the party so concerned is not insured. There should be some provision in such an excellent Bill as this to give the protection which hitherto has not been afforded a litigant in connection with personal injury.

I hope the Government will also consider some means by which this provision of the Bill for the limitation period could become known and could be publicised. I hope they will also publicise the possibility of legal aid being given to claimants. That would help. I feel, however, that hon. Members who have introduced this valuable Measure would find comfort in the fact that if they could amend it to meet the point which I have made, their Amendment would be acceptable to everybody.

11.52 a.m.

I should like to add my voice to the almost unanimous chorus of congratulation which has been directed to my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) and the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell) and to give unqualified support of the Bill.

The hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Janner) drew attention to the difficulties which he has experienced—and no doubt other members of his profession have experienced them—as a result of the period fixed by the Public Authorities Protection Act. He drew attention to the fact that the service of a writ might easily be overlooked in the course of the negotiations. This Bill makes a great difference in that respect, for the period of limitation in that type of case is considerably extended. I find it difficult to believe that negotiations are likely to last as long as three years or that the same kind of difficulty will arise in the future, and I feel sure that the hon. Member will do his utmost to make his-brethren in his profession, aware of the benefits conferred in that respect by the Bill.

The hon. and learned Member for Gloucester (Mr. Turner-Samuels) complained that the Bill has not been properly explained and that the period in relation to other actions has been reduced; and he suggested that these proposals have not been thoroughly discussed. Having regard to his speeches in Committee, I was surprised to hear that criticism from him.

Perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman will allow me to continue. I did not interrupt him.

It is the case that the question of providing a degree of flexibility, such as that which the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West suggested, was not only fully discussed and considered in Committee, and the arguments weighed, but of course was most carefully and fully considered before that.

One important feature in connection with limitation of actions is the advantage of certainty. This has been most carefully considered, and I suggest to the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West that he should look again at the report of the Committee stage, for we had not the advantage of his presence on that Committee.

This Bill, for which my hon. Friend is largely responsible, will effect a great improvement in the law and will be welcomed by all sections of society, particularly by those who have experience of the operation of the Public Authorities Protection Act.

11.55 a.m.

I should like to add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton). He is very fortunate in having a Bill of this kind to his credit so early in his Parliamentary career. Some hon. Members who are fortunate in the Ballot bring forward Bills which are excellent in themselves but which do not affect large sections of our public life, as undoubtedly this Bill does. The hon. Member is very fortunate not only in having won a place in the Ballot so as to bring this Bill forward, but also in having obtained the support, which undoubtedly he has obtained, of the great trade union movement and of many of my hon. Friends. This is a non-party Measure and so far the debate has been fairly peaceful.

May I interrupt the right hon. Gentleman to ask him this question? Would he agree with me in extending congratulations a little further? I omitted, when addressing the House, to extend the congratulations to members of the Tucker Committee, whose Report in 1949 led to this legislation, and our thanks to them for all the hard work which they must have put into the consideration of these difficult problems. I meant to say that, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman does not mind my interrupting him in order to obtain his assent to that proposal.

I am delighted that the hon. and learned Gentleman interrupted me in order to make that addition to his speech. I have here a short note to the same effect. All hon. Members on this side of the House, including my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell) and others who have taken such an interest in the Bill and have studied the Tucker Committee's Report, will share with hon. Members opposite their gratitude to the Committee which sat for some time and which reported in 1949.

I do not want to prolong the proceedings, but I think that some hon. Members opposite, the hon. and learned Member for York (Mr. Hylton-Foster) in particular, were a little hard on my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Turner-Samuels). After all, many of us were not in the Committee upstairs and, subject to anything which Mr. Speaker might say, my hon. and learned Friend had a perfect right to put forward a point of view which exercised the Tucker Committee for a considerable time and to which they devoted attention in their Report. What hon. Members opposite object to in my hon. and learned Friend is his persistence. I always thought that was an attribute which most hon. Members regarded as a good attribute to possess. I certainly do not possess it myself.

The hon. Member for Yeovil has been fortunate in one direction at any rate; he appears to have excited no opposition on the part of the public authorities. Quite why that should be so, I do not know.

There was a lot of misinformed opposition excited on the part of local authorities, but it was so unreasonable that it was easily talked down.

I accept my hon. Friend's correction but in fact, realising what opposition arises to Measures which pass through this House, I think I am correct in saying that, generally speaking, considering what opposition we might have incurred, the public authorities have, not seen fit on this Measure to approach hon. Members as they might have done in-order to try to get them to oppose it.

There is only one other thing that I wish to say. In this modern time, when our lives become so complex and public authorities interfere or assist—whichever way we care to look at it—in the lives, of us all, it is essential and desirable that the law should be brought into line, and I think that this Measure will make people aware of what their rights are and that they will not find that their rights in one direction under one public authority are different from those under another public authority.

We on this side of the House welcome this Measure, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having brought it forward, and hope that when it reaches another place the noble and learned Lords there may be willing to consider the point raised by the hon. and learned Member for Gloucester. It is a point which the Tucker Committee, as I have said, considered at great length. There is something in it. We realise the difficulty, but none of us desires to see injustice done to anyone. So if the hon. and learned Gentleman would consider what my hon. and learned Friend has said, not only here but in Committee, to see whether it would be possible to insert words in this. Bill when it reaches another place, I am sure that everyone will be satisfied, and we shall all wish the Bill a speedy passage to the Statute Book.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed