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a dozen cases a year, and the management of the same from their inception, gives a man a greater knowledge of the working of a system than learning by heart every line of the admittedly excellent books of practice with which some of us are familiar.
Some twenty years ago, the Incorporated Law Society, long before I had the honour of a seat on the Council, passed a resolution at my instance, appointing a mixed committee to consider the then growing jurisdiction of the courts. I had for some time previously taken part in a correspondence in the Times and other prominent journals, and being nominated secretary to such committee, I not only had occasion to closely investigate the practice, but became intimate with the surroundings, incidentally making the acquaintance of numerous judges and officers, from whom I gathered much useful information. The labours of this particular committee closed a good many years back, but it was instrumental in awakening the authorities to the consideration of suggestions and the initiation of useful reforms.
The accumulation of new work cast upon County Courts, forced the position once more to the front at the end of 1894 (before which time I had commenced to hold responsible office), and a much larger and more representative mixed committee being appointed, I had the honour of being nominated for the chair. I have ever since presided over its deliberations, and the reports and movements of this committee have become public property. I, of course, have had my mind closely concentrated on the subject, so much so that although, in the evening of an appreciably long career, I have, for health considerations, found it necessary to spend my winters in a warmer climate, and thus relinquish my seat on the Council, the privilege of continuing in the chair has been generously accorded to me, a special arrangement having been made for the labours of presiding over the meetings when I shall necessarily be abroad.
I shall hereafter refer to a special County Court Committee, which the late Lord Herschell, when Chancellor, formed in 1892, known as the House of Lords Committee (to which I became the Law Society's delegate), and to the fact that the Law Society's Council has long had a sectional County Court Committee, of which I was also a member. I feel some diffidence in making these personal allusions, but it seems more or less necessary to touch the fringe, especially as in the course of this article I sha'l claim to freely comment upon the “practical scheme for the extension of the jurisdiction of County Courts" put forward in the previous number of this magazine by a well-known County Court judge, who, both at the Bar and on the Bench, has commanded the respect of the profession.
Everybody knows that from the earliest times there were small courts, under various names, for the purpose of recovering trilling debts, but it was not until something like ten years after her present Majesty came to the throne that these courts were consolidated into one system which came to be called the County Court. In those days there was almost absolute centralization of legal business in London, it being impossible to commence any proceedings whatever in the High Courts, other than from the Metropolis. The name of County Court was not then inappropriate, as it was supposed to bring justice to the door, especially in the provinces, instead of compelling people to initiate proceedings at a great distance, but at the present moment I regard the title of the court as a misnomer.
The history of County Court legislation for the last fifty years may be briefly summarized. In 1850, the £20 limit named in the 1846 Act was extended to £50. In 1856, issues up to £ 50 in the High Court (after pleadings) were remitted to the County Court. In 1865, Chancery jurisdiction was given (out of London) up to £500. In 1867, many High Court actions for tort, where a plaintiff was unable or
unwilling to give security for costs, were turned over to the County Court. In 1868, certain admiralty jurisdiction was created. In 1869, bankruptcy work (out of London) was added. In 1875. defendants were made to suffer judgment by default in certain cases, and solicitors' costs, prior to hearing, were for the first time allowed. In 1880, work under the Employers' Liability Act was attached. In 1883, the imprisonment for debt process in all High Court cases was relegated to the County Court. Lastly, in 1888, all the previous acts were consolidated, the original Common Law jurisdiction still being maintained at £ 50, though cases up to £ 100 in the High Court became susceptible of being remitted. With the exception of certain small company liquidations turned over to the County Court two years later, the 1888 Act represents the current working programme.
The introduction of the Judicature Acts soon led to fresh consideration of the County Court system. Up to 1873, the County Courts, in most respects, remained as established in 1846. Although additional jurisdiction had been cast upon them, they had not materially encroached upon or interfered with the practice of the High Court. It is in the recollection of all of us who were in practice before the Judicature Acts, that County Courts had not and could not have any attraction for solicitors, the London solicitor notably, because a writ could be issued as of right in the High Court to recover any sum exceeding forty shillings, with a liberal scale of professional fees, and it could not be expected that a creditor's adviser would choose to take proceedings in a London County Court, where he got no costs, when he could initiate a case in the High Court with costs.
I well remember that, so far back as 1868, when the anomalous procedure in the two Courts for similar sums, giving rise to disproportionate costs, was under discussion, I took part in a correspondence in the journals of the day,
wherein I predicted that the time could not be far off when the Legislature would make it worth the while of solicitors to proceed in the County Court for small amounts. So little had the profession then thought about County Court extension, that my letters were received with a certain amount of scepticism. But all the old order of things was changed, when, in consequence of the Judicature Acts creating district registries of the High Court, the Supreme Tribunal was brought within the range of everybody, and it became obvious that much of the provincial business, theretofore taken to the County Court, would go to the new branches of the High Court, unless the solicitor had, to some extent, the same remuneration for his services. This state of things went on till 1875, when, as already stated, the Act of that year conferred power on the County Court Bench to frame a scale of costs recognizing the solicitor from the inception of the case.
It will have been seen that from 1846 to 1875, a period of nearly thirty years, the County Court, in a large measure, remained what it was originally intended to be-a court for the recovery of small debts. It was supposed that litigants up to £20 would attend to their legal business in person. On this theory, the Government fixed heavy court fees, the officials presumedly taking the place of solicitors in initiating, serving, and proving the process. If the County Court had remained in its original condition, these high fees would not have appeared so unreasonable as they now most certainly are, because to this hour, if a solicitor sues for the sum of £20 in (say) the Westminster County Court, at one end of the Strand, the Government receive a fee of 205. on the issue of the process, whereas if he goes to the other end of the Strand and initiates an identical action in the High Court, the Government only receives nos. ; indeed, until lately, the anomaly was greater, for it is well known that the issuing fee on High Court writ for £20 (or £20,000) was formerly only 5s.,
while a sovereign was being paid for the same item in the County Court.
Before leaving the subject of official fees, most of which in the County Court are double or treble those in the High Court, one may remark that much of the delay in reforming the County Court has been due to the action of the Treasury, who will not allow themselves to see that although fees have been received for a generation, they must be abolished when the character of the court is so altered as to make it, in many respects, like the High Court, involving the needful levelling of one scale to the lines of the other. All Government officials understand an increase of fees, but few will even listen to the suggestion of a decrease, be the circumstances what they may. I do not make this remark in the spirit of complaint, for I suppose that, had it been my lot to be appointed a Treasury official, I should have got my mind into the same groove, so much are we influenced by surroundings.
One might write an endless essay on the anomalous jurisdiction cast upon the County Courts during the last quarter of a century, by which for one purpose a court is considered capable of dealing with thousands, while, on the other, it is treated as incapable of handling hundreds. When the jurisdiction was increased from £20 to £50, it was because High Court actions between £20 and £50 were frequently being transferred to the inferior court for trial, and, as I have said, when the 1888 Act was passed, the original jurisdiction was still limited to £50, though in a measure extended to £100. But the idea of a suitor having to start an action in the High Court for £99 for the purpose of getting it handed over to another court, instead of going straight to the latter, is so absurd that if one were laying down a law for a newly discovered colony, and proceeded in that fashion, the whole world would laugh. This anomalous state of things has slowly grown, and will go on for another generation, unless all parties interested stand together to secure a remedy.