Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 28 Apr 1925

Vol. 11 No. 4


I move the Second Reading of the Enforcement of Law (Occasional Powers) (Continuance) Bill, 1925. The existing Act, the Enforcement of Law (Occasional Powers) Act, is due to expire on the 24th June next. The proposal is to continue that temporary Act in force until the 31st March, 1926. On that proposal two questions arise, the first being why it is necessary to renew the Act at all, and the second, perhaps, why, if the Act is to be renewed, it should not be simply made permanent. I had circulated to Deputies certain returns showing the position with regard to the execution of decrees in the three last quarters. These were the quarters ending 30th September and 30th December of last year and March of the current year. Deputies will see from those returns that there really was a very considerable problem to be tackled and that arrears are not quite satisfactorily wiped off, even up to date. At the same time it is true that the execution of Court judgments is probably proceeding more smoothly and more expeditiously at the moment than, say, at any time for the last fifteen or twenty years. That is not an extravagant claim. This side of administrative machinery was never really satisfactory in the past, and it is not an extravagant ambition to aim at making it very much more satisfactory in future than it was at any period during the past. Any solicitor in a fair way of practice in the country knows that the execution of Court judgments, and in particular the execution of the decrees of the County Courts, was never in a satisfactory position here. I consider that a weakness of that kind is a serious weakness in administration, and it inevitably reacts on commercial conditions in a country. Unless we can bring about a situation in which the decrees of the Courts will be executed smoothly and with expedition, that will be a factor against the general credit of the country, morally and financially, and against its commercial prospects.

I am asking to have the Act which we passed last year continued until March of next year, because I am not yet in a position to put before the Dáil the proposals which I would wish to make permanent and to incorporate in the permanent law of the country. In a way it might be contended that the picture shown even in the quarter ending in March of this year shows an abnormal situation, and that it might be better not to pass permanent proposals, until a situation that could be described as normal has been reached. The Act which we passed last year provided for the appointment of Assistant Under-Sheriffs, not exceeding six in number. That number was, in fact, appointed, but for one reason or another, including the fact that the vacancies had to be advertised and a Selection Board set up under the Civil Service Commission, the appointments were not actually made until the beginning of this year.

Part III. of the Act which we propose to continue provides for the examination of debtors and the making of instalment orders by Justices of the District Courts. Before a creditor can obtain that particular relief, the Under-Sheriff must have tried and failed to realise on foot of the judgment. Part III. of the Act provides a last resort for the creditor and, from the information at my disposal, no provision of the Act has been so fruitful as that providing this system of examination. I have obtained a return of applications under this part of the Act made in the District Courts up to 31st March, 1925. The return is not exhaustive, but it is instructive on the working of this part of the Act. Up to the date mentioned, 576 applications were made to the Justices of the District Courts for the examination of debtors. In 378 cases instalment orders were made, and in some 20 cases these orders were refused, as the Court was satisfied the debtor had no means with which to pay the debt. In 364 cases payments have been made by the debtors on foot of their debts. The remaining 162 cases were still pending on the 31st March, 1925, in that the time fixed for the payment of instalments had not yet arrived, or examination orders only had been made. The net fact arising from these figures is that 364 Court judgments have been made fruitful which, without Part III. of the Act, would be unproductive, as the alternative remedy afforded by Section 6 of the Debtors (Ireland) Act was cumbersome and costly from the point of view of the creditor, and was rarely utilised.

I have stated that the execution of Court judgments is at the moment probably as good or even better than it was at any time within the last ten or fifteen years. I would ask Deputies to remember, when considering that statement, that that position has been reached only by a very considerable expenditure of energy and attention in my Department. The State is at present paying £73 a week for extra bailiffs under the Act of last year. Perhaps no part of the machinery of administration in the country has received so much attention, and of necessity has received so much attention, as this question of the execution of Court judgments. The returns which I have caused to be circulated show a certain improvement in the position. It was a very gradual and a very painful improvement, but, such as it is, it is there. The number of unexecuted judgments on hands on the 31st July, 1924, was 7,063, representing a sum of approximately £126,538. On 31st March, 1925, the number was 5,712, representing a sum of £107,790, showing a diminution in the number of unexecuted judgments of 1,351, and representing in money value £18,748.

Before a permanent Bill is introduced we would like to see a considerable improvement in the position, so that we would not be passing permanent proposals on an abnormal set of circumstances. For instance, in the counties where the assistant under-sheriffs are functioning, you have very considerable arrears situations still to be dealt with. But, as I say, this question of the execution of court judgments was never very satisfactory in the past and always left a good deal to be desired. There will need to be considerable changes in that part of the administration, some of which could scarcely be introduced or even considered until the Rules of Court, which are to be brought in under the Courts of Justice Act, have been introduced and, in fact, have been in operation for some time. Any permanent proposal dealing with the under-sheriffs side of administration would need to fit in with the Rules of Court and with the permanent staff machinery under the Court of Justices Act.

Will the Minister tell us what is the reason of the delay?

About what?

About the Rules of Court, why there is such a long delay in issuing them?

It is due to the fact that the Committees can only meet on one or at most two days a week. The Committees consist of judges and justices who have their week's work to do. My information is that they are only able to meet for a couple of hours each Saturday. In addition to that, the work is highly detailed and highly technical. I imagine all three sets of rules will be probably along inside the next couple of weeks. As I say, the introduction of any permanent measure dealing with this side must of necessity have to await these rules and their operation, and a period would be needed for observation before we could bring in what we would deem to be a sound Bill dealing with a phase of administration which has never been satisfactory in the past and which, because of its importance and because of its reactions on general credit and commercial prospects, should be brought to the highest point of efficiency.

I would like to take this opportunity of endorsing what the Minister has said in this matter, and as regards the importance of the work which is being carried on. We must all recognise that at the present time the difficulties that confront this particular aspect of collecting debts in the country are very much accentuated by the known shortage of money throughout the country. I think the extension of the probationary period of the Act for another period is a satisfactory feature that the House ought to support. At the same time the introduction of a permanent measure should not be delayed beyond as short a period as can be satisfactorily arranged. I would like to take this opportunity also to compliment the Minister on the very valuable work of his department in this respect. Undoubtedly throughout the country there is a greater recognition to-day than there has been for a very long time of the necessity of meeting commercial obligations as they arise. The importance of this attitude cannot be over-stated, because the whole foundation of the credit of the country really lies in the satisfactory collection of debts as they fall due, and the education of the people as a whole into the importance of meeting these obligations as they fall due. It is very injurious to the commercial interests of the country that the feeling should be abroad that it is necessary to scrutinise closely the reputation and standing of the people before credit can be given, and that elements of doubt should arise not as to the ability of the people to pay an account but as to their willingness to do so. I think the Minister should be complimented on the firm stand his department has taken in this matter and the good work that it has done, by its recognition of the fact that this is a very important factor in the commercial life of the country.

We all know that commerce is based on confidence, credit is largely a matter of confidence, and that the good name of the country is a big factor when we go across the water or in carrying out international transactions. It is worth a great deal to the credit of the country that that should be so. In the past credit, when it was given in the country, was not honoured frequently, and creditors, rather than go to the trouble and expense of collecting small debts, wrote them off as bad altogether. I claim that any such feeling getting abroad, as regards the stability of this country and the facilities offered by our legal institutions, is very damaging to the country. Anything that the Minister can do to import honesty into transactions as between individuals and between parties in this country and in other countries in commercial dealings, will be a very good day's work for the country, and for its commercial prosperity, more particularly at present, when we all recognise that the difficulties people have in paying their debts down the country is quite abnormal. I think we do recognise that even people who are willing to meet their obligations find considerable difficulty in doing so, and when we are going to emerge from that situation into, I hope, better circumstances when money will be more plentiful, it will be fatal for the country to get a reputation that while the people are able to pay, either they will not pay, or the law in itself is not going to make them pay. I hope when the time comes when this extension of this Act expires, that the Minister will not need to ask for any further extension, and that all the machinery of the courts will be in good working order, the Rules of Court included amongst other things. On that matter the sooner the Rules of Court are issued and put into operation the better, because, I think, the Minister himself recognises that the delay in formulating these rules and putting them into operation is causing a great deal of inconvenience in legal and commercial circles. I would like to endorse the claim of the Minister for the continuation of this Act, and to recognise at the same time the very valuable attitude which he has taken up in this matter.

I feel myself in a rather awkward position. I stand and have always stood for the obligations of the debtor to pay his debts. I regret the situation in the country is such that the Minister for Justice should have thought it necessary to have prolonged this extraordinary legislation for another year. One would have thought that the ordinary common law would have been sufficient at this date to ensure that those who have given extended confidence to other people would have had the means without this extraordinary law of being able to recover their debts. I feel that had the Rules of Court been available at the proper time the Minister would have had no occasion to come here for this special Bill. I can readily understand that Deputy Hewat sees in this Bill a very great acquisition. He, of course, is on the side of those who, like Shylock, want their pound of flesh, but there are other considerations to be borne in mind. There is, I agree, a want of confidence, and that is especially shown by the bankers and by the restrictions placed on unfortunate creditors who are in the position of being unable to pay their debts. Therefore the addition of this machinery of the law only means additional unnecessary expense, and will not achieve the purpose for which it is brought forward. The Minister's statement bears that out. £18,000 has been collected. It has cost £3,796 of the State's taxable money to collect that £18,000. I may be wrong.

I think the Deputy is wrong.

Have I calculated for a year instead of for a half-year?

I do not know where the Deputy gets his £18,000.

That is the difference between the outstanding amount at a particular period and the amount outstanding on the 31st March.

I thought the Deputy suggested that it was the total amount collected.

£126,538 was outstanding on the 31st July, and there is now outstanding £111,605. There is a sum of £200 for Co. Wicklow and that is carried right through, finishing up on the 31st March. I am examining it from the point of view of my constituency.

That Co. Wicklow return struck me as being somewhat strange, inasmuch as the money value remains static, even when the number of decrees changes considerably, and I am having inquiries made.

That leads me to the conclusion that the £111,000 is part of the original £126,000. That has been a bad debt all along and you are wasting money for what should be written off as a bad debt. I am not standing for people who will not pay their debts. I would like everyone to pay, therefore you can see the difficulty in which I am. I do not want to see unfortunate debtors paying huge costs, and I can understand how hard it is when the bailiffs come in on an unfortunate farmer's place. I regret that the state of the country is such as to render the Act necessary for another year.

We have had two contributions—one from Deputy Hewat endorsing my statement that the smooth and expeditious execution of court judgments is a very important matter and has very important reactions on the commercial life of the country. Then we had from Deputy Wilson a contribution which, to my mind, showed rather loose thinking on the whole subject. He started by waiving Deputy Hewat aside as a man who is naturally on the side of those who, like Shylock, wanted their pound of flesh. Deputy Wilson presumably grazes cattle, and in his capacity as a grazier of cattle he should be the last man to be on the side of those who want their pound of flesh without paying for it.

We give no credit.

I do not know what his thesis is, or what is his main contention. I take it that we ought to be agreed that people who can pay their debts should pay their debts. The Deputy agrees?

Cordially and enthusiastically?

Yes, when they are able.

The Bill is simply directed to that end. In times of economic depression people, of course, find it hard to pay their debts and to answer the court judgments and decrees, but the remedy does not lie in bringing about a situation where court judgments will not be enforced, and as between breaking a man who owes money and a man who is owed money, any decent administration will break the man who owes money. It is a hard world and that is simply an axiom of it, that people must pay when they can. When they cannot there is provision for that too. It would simply be to make a situation, that is not yet a good situation, a fairly sombre situation, if we were to allow any clod or kink to come in the efficient execution of the judgments of the court. It would have its reaction on credit, and the vicious circle would go on until you had a depressing and hopeless economic situation confronting you in the country.

Any remedy for the economic situation that would allow that side of the administration to become clogged and the sheriff's offices to become piled with worthless judgments, which lapse by the passing of time and become simply waste paper, would be a very serious situation. The Deputy talked about ordinary and extraordinary law. I would have been very glad to come here and propose that this Bill be incorporated permanently in the law of the country. I see nothing in it which renders it unfit to be incorporated in that law. My permanent proposals will be very similar to the Act which I propose to continue up to the 6th March next year. It is only with regard to certain minor administrative details that I would like to see the operation of the new rules of court. Our minds are running towards proposals which will put this whole question of the execution of court judgments on a better footing and plane than it was at any time in the past. I am not ready to make these proposals yet, because I want to see the rules of court, and I want to see them in operation for some time. This Bill and this side of administrative activity generally are not directed against and are not properly understood as a hardship on any section of the community. It would be a hardship on all sections of the community if this side of the administration were to weaken and fail, and I think there is growing appreciation of that inter-dependence of all the various elements that go to make up the country. There were dire prophecies when the Act was introduced, and particularly in connection with Part 3 of that Act. I have shown that the net effect of Part 3 was to make 364 judgments fruitful that would not otherwise have had any result and that would have been written off as nulla bona. There was some comment on the powers to enable judgment orders to be issued against people who refuse to comply with the orders of the court. The net effect of that was that precisely two persons found their way into gaol. One of them was a Wicklow man and the other a Kerry man. It is well that Deputy Wilson should know that I do not regard this Act, which I now ask to have continued till March next year, as anything very exceptional or anything very abnormal, and the permanent proposals will be very similar to the existing Act.

I should like to say that I have quite lately been in communication with an under-sheriff. He tells me that the under-sheriffs are greatly hampered in their work by the absence of Rules of Court. I am sure the Minister realises the necessity of urging forward the formulation of these rules at as early a date as possible.

Is it proposed to bring within the scope of this Act, which we are now asked to renew for another year, the decrees issued by the Dáil Eireann Courts Winding-Up Commission, particularly having regard to the excessive costs owing to the tediousness of the processes of court procedure?

Yes, all decrees will, of course, come within the scope of this particular Act. The existing Act does not become a practical matter for the judgment debtor until he becomes recalcitrant as regards the judgment debt, and will not pay.

Does the Minister realise that the costs in these cases are far in excess of what would have been incurred in the courts under the common law?

Does the Deputy mean the costs before Dáil Eireann Commission?

Yes, solicitors' and counsels' fees.

I have no particular knowledge on that question. Surely the Deputy does not contend that that fact should exclude them from the operation of the Enforcement of Law Act?

Motion put and declared carried.
Next Stage ordered for Tuesday, May 5th.