Public Authorities (Judicial Proceedings) Bill, 1954—Second Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

This is a short Bill, but at the same time a very important Bill. It proposes the total repeal of the Public Authorities Protection Act, 1893, and of the enactments applying that Act in a full or modified form.

The 1893 Act has over the years been severely criticised and I doubt if very much need be said to justify its repeal. Under its provisions, a person suing the State or a local authority has to bring proceedings within six months of the act, neglect or default complained of, and not within six months of the date the cause of action arose. The period of six months is, of course, far too short and cases have arisen where a person could not bring his action because the damage caused to him did not manifest itself in time.

A second objectionable feature of the 1893 Act is that a public authority gets specially favourable treatment as to the costs. An unsuccessful plaintiff is liable to pay solicitor and client costs instead of party and party costs. Even a successful plaintiff is liable for solicitor and client costs in some instances as, for example, where the court is of opinion that he did not give the public authority sufficient opportunity to make an offer for settlement.

The new Act is expressed to come into operation on the 1st January next. Under sub-section (4) of Section 2, the repeal of the 1893 Act and the repeals of the other enactments will not apply to any proceeding if the cause of action arose before the 1st of July of this year. This provision is designed to prevent stale claims being brought against public authorities and is a reasonable provision.

I recommend the Bill to the House. It provides a highly desirable and long-needed piece of law reform. There is really no valid reason why public authorities should be placed on any different footing from private persons or from public companies like C.I.E. to which the Act does not apply. Senators may consider that extending the period of limitation to six years, as the Bill will in effect do in most cases, is going too far. The point is, of course, that six years is probably too long a period for anybody, whether public authority or ordinary citizen. We hope, however, at no far distant date to have ready for discussion a Statute of Limitations Bill which will deal with the periods of limitation for all legal actions.

I would like to express agreement with this measure. I think everyone will agree that it is very unfair to the ordinary citizen to be debarred from taking action against a local authority if a period of six months has elapsed. In many cases it may happen that the citizen may not be aware that he has a claim against the local authority for a period of six months; and by the time he is aware of it the period may have expired and he may suffer thereby very considerable injustice. I quite agree that there is a good deal to be said for the suggestion that six years appears to be a rather long period, particularly if a claim brought by a citizen is a very large one and if the local authority concerned is a very small one, as in the case of a small urban council or the town commissioners of a comparatively small town. Their resources would be rather limited and in the course of six years very considerable claims could accumulate against them which it might be very difficult to meet. I accept the Minister's statement that the whole question of the Statute of Limitations is under consideration and I think we can await the Government's decision in that matter. It might be desirable to have a shorter term or to have the term limited in a way that would affect different interests in different ways—for example, in the case I have mentioned, of a very small local authority which may have to meet excessive claims.

I think the Bill is generally acceptable. A proposal for such legislation was discussed in the Dáil some time ago, when a much shorter extension of time was suggested, but the matter was deferred. On the whole, I think it desirable that the citizen against whom claims could be made and the local authority should be put on exactly the same footing.

I support the Bill, but it occurs to me that the Minister might consider whether the technical wording might not be improved. It seems to me as a lawyer that some confusion may arise as between sub-sections (1) and (5) of Section 2. Under sub-section (1) the existing Act of 1893 is repealed, but sub-section (5) says that this repeal is not to affect any action or prosecution arising before 1st July, 1954. It seems to me that it might be better drafting to say that these other Acts are repealed except as regards matters where the cause of action accrued before the 1st July, 1954. If the Bill is passed in its present form, a court might find itself in rather a difficulty. Under sub-section (1) it is being told the Acts are repealed, yet sub-section (5) is not very clear as to the effect of the repeal. The Minister might consider whether the wording might not be happier than it is. Subject to that, I approve of the Bill. I think it is long overdue, and I am very glad to hear that there is general assent to it.

While supporting the Bill in general principle, I would like to have from the Minister some guarantee that in the new measure that he proposes to introduce, the period of years will be a much shorter one. We all agree that a local authority should be put on a par with private citizens. While that may be so in general principle, the local authority is entirely in a different category. The local authority has to strike a rate for its requirements for the year. We can foresee a set of circumstances where there may be legal actions taken and suspended for a number of years and that local authority at the end of six years might find itself having to meet these demands, at the end of the six year period. While we all agree that six years is too long a period I think we would be in agreement in meeting the point by making it at least three years.

I am not entirely in agreement with those who suggest that a local authority should be put in the same position as a private company or a private person. If the local authority estimate is to mean anything, if the rate that they strike over the year is to be the correct demand for the year, then some indication must be given to the local authority as to what that demand might be.

We can foresee a number of persons who suffered at the hands of a local authority over a period of years, making a demand at the end of the six-year period, a five-year period or whatever the period might be. That would make a very serious demand on the rates for that particular year. I do not think we should allow that position to arise. Therefore, I think that on the Committee Stage that is one of the matters we might go into in more detail. We should take all the precautions we possibly can to ensure that such a situation does not arise.

I should like to join with Senator Hawkins in suggesting that the period of six years is unduly long in the case of a local authority. It is unlike a private individual. In the case of a local authority the preparation of the defence of the action is carried out by an official who treats it from an abstract point of view. It may well encourage the plaintiff to delay in taking action against a local authority until such time as the officials who had been dealing with the action had resigned, had been transferred, suspended, or had died. For that reason the liability or the potential liability, which would accrue to the local authority, may not be known for several years after the local authority has struck the rate. It may mean, as a Senator has already remarked, that the period of liability in the case of a small local authority, might be very much extended. There might be an accumulation of a number of these actions which would fall due in one particular year. I think instead it would be desirable if the judge had a discretion, as he has in a case of workmen's compensation, where the action must be brought within six months, but in any case it should not be a bar if the failure arose from a mistake, absence from the country, or other reasonable cause.

I think if there was a provision whereby the judge would have discretion, and the period was extended to two or three years, it would be sufficient. When one considers the number of actions, which are very limited, in the case of death, where the action must be brought within 12 months from the date of death, one realises that this has been a source of tremendous hardship on occasions. There are other limitations for different other actions in tort, for instance, two years in the case of assault, and four years in the case of trespass. I think, therefore, that the Minister should consider, at an early date, putting local authorities on a definite period, and that that period should be less than the period for ordinary civil action in the case of individuals.

I congratulate the Minister on bringing this Bill. Going to law with the State is like playing poker with a very rich man. The best advice is: "Do not."

Over a very long period public bodies have been taking advantage of the Statute of Limitations against persons who might not be able to prove a cause of action until after seven or eight months. I have known of public bodies in the case of workmen's compensation to take advantage of the Statute of Limitations to deprive a man of his compensation. The ordinary citizen or business man would not be in that privileged position. When the Act was passed in 1893, this limitation was necessary because public bodies had to make their estimate for their demands within a particular time. Since the employees are covered by insurance, local authorities have power even to bring in a supplementary estimate. The principle of the Bill is that the local authority should not be placed in a better position than anyone else. The existing Public Authorities Protection Act does not apply to contracts generally, but to what is known as tort.

I can assure the House that a Bill will be introduced to deal with the Statute of Limitations. I understand that in the County Management Bill there probably will be a section which will shorten the period of six years.

In connection with Senator Cox's point about Section 5 I shall have to consult the draftsman and ascertain his opinion. I can tell the Senators that the public authorities are not alarmed about this Bill. They recognise that they should not be placed in a position different from an ordinary business man. We had a very important case where a small shopkeeper whose house was damaged by a steamroller did not realise until six months afterwards that the steamroller had damaged his house and had cracked the walls. The Circuit Court maintained that action should have been taken within six months from the date the steamroller passed not from the date that the damage was discovered. I think every Senator will agree that an Act that gives a public body certain advantage over a poor person should not be allowed to operate.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 1st December, 1954.
Business suspended at 6 p.m. and resumed at 7 p.m.