HC Deb 15 February 1836 vol 31 cc385-9
Mr. Tooke

rose to move a Resolution for referring Divorce Bills to a Select Committee, empowered to hear Counsel, examine witnesses, and verify documentary evidence. His wish was to obviate the necessity of painful and disgusting exhibitions at the Bar of the House. When witnesses were examined at the Bar in divorce cases, their evidence was frequently given so as not to be heard, and when it was heard it generally-turned out to be painful, if not disgusting, to the feelings. His object was, to remedy the evil by referring such evidence to a Select Committee. He was aware that the present practice of making divorces subjects of legislative enactments was thought questionable by many persons, and that it might be considered better to refer such matters to the Privy Council, or to some other more competent tribunal; but till a new and comprehensive measure could be introduced on the subject, he was of opinion that the appointment of such a Committee as he proposed would be advantageous. He had spoken to the Members whom he proposed to nominate on the Committee, and they had promised to attend, so that he could guarantee the utmost attention would be paid in all cases referred to them, and the House would be spared a considerable waste of time upon matters with which it was incompetent to deal effectually at present. The hon. Member moved—"That a Select Committee, to consist of not more than nine Members (three being the quorum), be appointed, to whom shall be referred every Divorce Bill, on the second reading thereof, with power to hear Counsel, examine witnesses, and verify the documentary evidence produced, three at least of the Members who shall have attended at the opening of the evidence in any one case to be present at each meeting upon it, until report made; and that after the appointment of such Committee, the practice of hearing Counsel and examining witnesses on Divorce Bills at the Bar of the House be discontinued, except when otherwise specially ordered."

Mr. Hume

put it to his hon. Friend whether he would take this important step without the concurrence of a law Officer or Minister of the Crown?

Mr. Tooke

said, he had been in communication with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the noble Secretary for the Home Department, and the former had intimated his opinion, that, although a better remedy might be hereafter devised, this plan was a great improvement on the present system. The hon. and learned Member for the Tower Hamlets approved of the plan as far as it went, and would support it. He hoped that the House would agree to the experiment till some more permanent remedy could be devised.

Sir Robert Peel

recommended the hon. Gentleman to consent to a postponement of his Motion, and suggested the importance of considering whether the prospect, or at least the possibility, of publicity under the present system did not constitute a material check upon collusion and an evasion of the law, He thought that time should be allowed, for deliberation before proceeding with the Motion.

Mr. Divett

thought that the time had arrived when some change should be made in the existing system, which did not conduce to morality and encouraged collusion, He would not now enter upon a discussion of the question, but he gave notice, that when the next Divorce Bill came before them he should take the sense of the House on the subject, with a view to an alteration in the present mode of proceeding.

Dr. Lushington

was clearly of opinion that the practice of individuals obtaining private Acts in questions of divorce was most injurious; and though he did not go the length of believing that in the majority of cases collusion existed, he thought the existing system one which ought to undergo an entire revision. As soon as time and opportunity permitted, the whole question of divorce ought to be referred to some competent jurisdiction, whether to that which had at present cognizance of matrimonial matters, or to some other body, he did not say, but he was decidedly of opinion that the practice of obtaining Private Acts of Parliament ought to be abolished. He said this, because under the present system they were matters of private canvass or mutual agreement, and because Parliament was not the fittest tribunal to pronounce an opinion on questions of this description. With respect to his hon. Friend's Motion, if new Divorce Bills were to be introduced, and if no attempt was made to alter the present mode of proceeding, he agreed with his hon. Friend in preferring an examination before a Select Committee to an examination of evidence at the Bar. In reference to what had fallen from the right hon. Member for Tarn worth on the subject of publicity, he assured the right hon. Baronet that this House was never considered as a safeguard against collusion. Parties looked to the House of Lords, and when Divorce Bills passed the Lords, in nineteen cases out of twenty the proceedings of this House were considered as matters of course. Nothing but a most mature consideration of the question in all its bearings, especially with reference to the great importance of keeping the marriage tie solemn and unbroken, and affording no undue facilities to divorces a vinculo —nothing short of this would suffice to produce a satisfactory remedy.

Lord John Russell

said, that if he did not feel disposed to agree to the Resolution of the hon. Member for Truro, it was partly on the ground that so momentous a subject ought not to be disposed of in this manner, and partly because he did not think the present an appropriate remedy but he did not oppose the Resolution, because he was of opinion that the present mode of passing Divorce Bills was satisfactory. According to the present method of obtaining divorces it required the possession of considerable wealth to procure an Act of Parliament;—divorces were carried, and the investigation at the Bar was a mere form and mockery. However, the present mode of proceeding diminished the facilities of obtaining divorces, which was one of its advantages, and sanctioned the opinion that they ought not to be lightly granted. As to the proposition for referring divorces to a special tribunal and a jurisdiction created for the purpose, he would not enter upon it now; but in reference to the plan before the House, he thought that a more satisfactory one might have been suggested. This mode erected a special tribunal, but unfortunately did not qualify it for the jurisdiction assigned it. There was no security that those nine individuals would be persons in whose hands it would be proper to place great judicial powers; and when the hon. Gentleman said, that three should be a quorum, he thought the matter still worse. If a stated tribunal of one or three individuals were appointed to act as Judges in divorce, no one would canvass them; but when a Committee of nine was appointed three of whom might act, nobody would look at it in the same light, as a judicial tribunal, and persons would not think themselves debarred from soliciting its members, so that you would give this Committee the enormous power of Judges, without investing its members with the sacred character which Judges ought to possess. Great changes were making in the law from year to year, and Government was disposed, as speedily as it could, to take this question into consideration, other and more pressing matters being disposed of. The opinion of the hon. and learned Member for the Tower Hamlets would doubtless have great weight with Parliament and the country, but he implored the House not to agree to a supposed remedy which would aggravate some of the mischiefs of the present system, without producing a satisfactory tribunal in cases of divorce.

Mr. Tooke

, after the declaration of the noble Lord (Lord J. Russell),although he apprehended the reform of the law might come rather late, would, with the permission of the House, withdraw his Motion.

Motion withdrawn.

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