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Report No. 85

3.37. Viscount Sankey's speech.-

The Lord Chancellor (Viscound Sankey) in the course of the Debates expressed these views1:

"My Lords, with your permission, I desire to say a few words upon the legal issues which are involved in this Bill. It is difficult to offer any strong opposition to the Second Reading of the Bill. On the contrary, some of its proposals are attractive. I would go further and say that some of them are not unreasonable, and must command a considerable measure of sympathy. As the law at present stands a pedestrian who has been injured by a motor vehicle on a road has to prove, in order to obtain damages, that the person driving the car was guilty of negligence which caused the accident and the injury. The purpose of the Bill, as expressed in the first clause, is to shift the onus of proof and in some respects to alter the incidence of liability, by limiting the defence to showing that the accident was caused by the negligence of the pedestrian.

It is a usual principle of English law that the plaintiff in such a case must prove that the defendant has been negligent, and probably those of us who have had experience of trying these cases would say that the plaintiff succeeds in the majority of cases. There is, however, more than one principle in the law, and in the application of principles there is always a law of diminishing returns. The further some principles are extended the less useful or expedient they are apt to be found. There is another principle in our law which says that a person who keeps a savage animal, such as a tiger or a lion, does so at his peril, and if he brings such an animal on the highway and if the animal escapes or gets out of control the owner is liable for the consequences, apart from any negligence on his part.

This is no new principle, but a principle which has been in our law for generations, and it does not seem to be a very alarming or revolutionary change to apply it to a potentially dangerous machine like a motor vehicle. At any rate, it does not seem unjust to say that where a motor car has injured a pedestrian the onus should at least be on the driver to establish some lawful defence, if he is to escape paying damages. What defences should be open to him may be another question, with which I will deal in a minute, but it cannot well be disputed that a motor car which is being driven at a high speed is a potentially dangerous machine. I need hardly remind your Lordships that a railway train has fixed rails, a fenced track and signals, while a motor car on the high road has none of these, and motors are often driven at the speed of an express train.

Those of us who have tried such cases know well the rule of thumb, which is more or less accurate, that half the number of miles per hour is the number of yards per second, so that fifty miles per hour is twenty-five yards per second. That is to say, while I count one, two, a motor travelling at fifty miles per hour will have gone fifty yards, and that does not give a pedestrian very much time to cross the road when a motor which is fifty yards off is coming along. The difficult question is not that of putting the onus on the motorist, but on deciding what defences shall be open to him, and it is there the Bill may be going rather too far. The only defence permissible under it is for the defendant to satisfy the Court that the accident was caused solely by the negligence of the pedestrian. This Bill, if it passes, will make a considerable difference in insurance policies.

That is a subject on which I am not able to give your Lordships much assistance, but the information supplied to me is this. Informal inquiries have been made as to the possible effect which the passing of this Bill would have upon the rates of premium charged for policies complying with "Part II cf the Road Traffic Act, but it seems doubtful whether the companies will :le able to give any very definite figure. That a substantial increase in these sates would be necessary can hardly be doubted. In the first place an entirely new class of accident would rank for compensation-namely, where these has been no negligence on the part of the motorist, or no proved negligence. Secondly, the number of cases in which excessive or even unfounded claims would be pressed by unscrupulous litigants would undoubtedly be increased and the evil is one which already is a matter of serious concern to insurance companies."

1. Vol. 84, H.L. Debates, Co. 554.

Claims for Compensation under Chapter 8 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1939 Back

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