HC Deb 22 April 1836 vol 33 cc116-20

On the order of the day for a Committee on Hodges's Divorce Bill,

Mr. Divett

said, that in a former stage of this Bill, he had given notice that he should on this occasion move certain resolutions, with a view to put an end to the practice that at present prevailed, of hearing witnesses at the Bar of that House in support of divorce bills. He believed that on that occasion his hon. Friend, the Member for Truro, who had charge of the Bill, complained that he (Mr. Divett), in giving such a notice, was holding out a threat to the parties interested in the present case. Now, he held out no threat whatever, nor had he the slightest intention to stop the proceedings that might be going on in any particular case before the House. In moving the resolutions which he now intended to submit to the House with regard to its proceedings generally in divorce cases, he did so without having the slightest acquaintance with the parties interested in the case immediately before the House. He brought forward these resolutions because he had seen that the proceedings in divorce cases before that House were calculated to excite feelings of shame and disgust, because such proceedings appeared to him to be a total mockery of judicial investigation, grossly indecent in their character, and by no means productive of the ends of justice. He might be told, to be sure, that all such cases had been previously investigated elsewhere—in the House of Lords—where the evidence was properly sifted and examined. He believed that the judicial proceedings there, in such cases as these, were conducted with becoming decency and due deliberation. But he was altogether opposed to the principle of legislating on such a subject, and it appeared to him that if the power of granting divorces should be continued, a certain jurisdiction should be established for the purpose, and it should be left in the hands of the courts of law. Under the existing law the power was given to individuals, by coming to the Legislature and obtaining an Act of Parliament, to dissolve their marriages. But the enormous expense attendant upon such a proceeding amounted to an actual denial of justice to the poor man. Where he was not in a condition to entitle him to a divorce, it was vain for him to appeal for such a thing, or to come to that House for redress. It was only the rich that could obtain redress in such cases. He repeated, therefore, that if it was wise and proper that the power of granting divorces should be continued, it should be invested in some tribunal easily accessible to all parties, and where rich and poor could meet on equal terms. He would not go the length of saying that divorces should not be allowed at all, but he believed that in the greater number of cases the parties coming to that House for the purpose, came there with anything but clean hands. In the majority of cases there was gross collusion, and it frequently happened that the party most guilty reaped all the advantage, while the party that was comparatively innocent was subjected to degradation and punishment. He had the greatest confidence in the virtue of the females of this country, and he believed that in the greater number of divorce cases that came before Parliament, the thing was caused by the misconduct of the other sex. He would not on this occasion go at length into the law on the subject of divorce, in order to show, that the practice was not conducive to the public welfare, virtue, or happiness, but he would content himself with proposing resolutions for the purpose of removing a gross and acknowledged evil—for the purpose of putting an end to the scenes connected with the examination of wit- nesses in divorce cases at their bar—scenes that he never was present at without pain, and for the purpose of abolishing what was a total mockery of a judicial investigation, and which was only calculated to excite shame and disgust. The hon. Member concluded by moving three resolutions to the following effect:—First, that the practice of examining witnesses at the bar of that House in Committees on Divorce Bills was an imperfect mode of judicial investigation, and ought to be discontinued. Second, that the privilege of obtaining divorces by Act of Parliament is, from its expense, exclusively afforded to the rich; and therefore calculated to bring discredit on the impartial distribution of justice, and the character of Parliament. Third, that the only effectual remedy for these evils would be found in the confinement of legal proceedings for divorce to the courts of law. Sir Robert Inglis said, that when the hon. Member had on a former occasion intimated his intention of bringing forward this proposition, he did not then object to it because it went to take away the jurisdiction of Parliament in such cases; he did not go into that general question at the time, but he objected to it because it was calculated to cast needless expense upon parties who, on the faith of the existing law, had applied to Parliament for relief, and who would find new difficulties interposed in their way by these resolutions, to which their attention had not and could not have been previously called. He would, therefore, respectfully suggest to the hon. Member that it would be better to withdraw his present proposition, so that it should not have reference to any particular case, and to take the sense of the House upon it on some other occasion, as a distinct and abstract proposition. He believed that he only spoke the general feeling of the House in throwing out that suggestion. Let the hon. Member propose these resolutions at the end of the Session, or at any period during the Session, provided that they were made prospective. It would be better still if the hon. Member would give notice of them for next Session; at all events, the Bills brought this Session into either House of Parliament on this subject, and which had been introduced on the faith of the existing law, should be allowed to go on. Feeling the inconvenience of discussing a question like this on a motion of which no notice bad been given, and of debating a great public principle in a stage of a private Bill, he would again suggest to the hon. Member the propriety of withdrawing his motion for the present.

Mr. Ewart

said, that he felt thankful to his hon. Friend for bringing this matter under the notice of the House. The hon. Baronet, the Member for the University of Oxford, should recollect that his hon. Friend, when this Bill was last before them, gave notice that in the present stage of it he would propose these resolutions. He cordially concurred in the general principle laid down in them. He thought that that House was never turned into a judicial tribunal with good effect. Nothing could be more disgusting than the exhibitions which were made at the Bar of the House in Committees on such Bills—nothing could be more disgraceful to them as a Legislature than all the proceedings in such matters; he had always witnessed them with pain and regret, and it was therefore with great satisfaction that he found the matter taken up by his hon. Friend. He trusted that the subject would hereafter be brought as a general question under the consideration of the House.

Mr. Tooke

said, that the hon. Member for Exeter had, in making his proposition, disclaimed any intention of throwing any additional expense on the parties in the present case. The fact was, however, that if he persisted in his proposition, a great deal of extra expense would be thrown on the parties, who had their witnesses in town, and their counsel in attendance. He thought that a proposition of this kind should be brought forward as a general proposition, and should not have reference to any particular case. He therefore hoped that the hon. Member for Exeter would withdraw his motion.

Mr. Divett

said, that he had no wish to persevere in his motion against the expressed sense of the House. He was ready to admit, that he had made the motion without proper notice, and he would confess that his object in moving the resolutions was to produce the discussion that had taken place. It appeared to him that the subject was one well worthy the attention of the House. As to bringing it forward on some future occasion, there were several Members more competent to do so than he was, more especially his hon. and learned Friend, the Member for the Tower Hamlets, whose knowledge and experience would recommend any motion from him on the subject to the peculiar consideration of the House. His (Mr. Divett's) object was to abolish the present system, than which he believed none worse ever existed in any country. His opinion on that point he desired to record in the resolutions he had proposed, but he would not press them on the present occasion against the sense of the House, and more particularly as he did not wish to throw any difficulties in the way of the case immediately before them. Under such circumstances, he begged to withdraw the resolutions.

Resolutions withdrawn.