§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ MR. MAGNIAC
said, that in the absence of the hon. Baronet the Member for Greenwich (Sir David Salomons), he had been requested to move that the Bill be now read a second time. Its object was to carry into effect one of the recommendations of the Committee which sat in 1850 on which had been founded the permissive clauses of the right hon. Gentleman's (Sir George Grey's) Act of 1861, with reference to the payment of judicial officers by salaries instead of fees. A number of small fees had escaped the operation of the first measure, and what was called "Justices' justice" had been much impaired by the inefficient means for its 1925 exercise provided by the Legislature. Hon. Members would be acquainted with such cases as were sometimes mentioned in the newspapers, where for damaging a fence to the amount of 6d., a nominal fine of 2d. and costs, which meant in reality 17s., was inflicted. Everyone knew what a dismissed case was. The person charged had offended; but the offence was so small that the Judge could not let him off altogether, and therefore he imposed a fine over which he had no control whatever. In agricultural districts a case dismissed with costs meant a fine of 8s. 6d., for, perhaps, a potty inoffensive larceny. Accumulated fees became very hard when for the same offence perhaps three persons were fined. These fees placed the clerks to Justices in a very unfair position—as if they had a pecuniary interest in the conviction of the accused. He believed, on the other hand, that Justices' clerks performed their duties in a very proper manner; but, at the same time, he had no hesitation in saying that their payment by fees was a wrong which called for a remedy at the hands of the House. The Returns which had been supplied to Parliament on this subject had not been so full and ample as they might have been; but it might be gathered from them that the enabling clauses had been availed of to a very considerable extent. Twenty-four boroughs and seven counties had availed themselves of these clauses; and if a chance was given to the other counties where the system had not been carried out, it would confer some satisfaction and benefit upon the ratepayers. Sufficient experience had been gained to show that the Act would work well. The object of the Bill, as stated in the Preamble, was "to provide for the payment of clerks to Justices by salaries in lieu of fees, and to regulate the appointment of such clerks." There had been a timidity in the framing of the Bill; and he did not think that the 5th clause of the Bill sufficiently carried out the intention of the right hon. Gentleman's (Sir George Grey's) Act, the intention of which was to pay Justices' clerks by salaries in lieu of fees. What he proposed was to put that question beyond doubt by eliminating the latter part of the clause and also the 11th clause. He thought sufficient care would be taken of the rights of the suitors and Justices' clerks, and 1926 not less of the rights of the Justices themselves, if exceptional cases were left in the hands of the Secretary of State for the time being. With regard to the 3rd sub-section of the 5th clause, it had been thought right to carry out the recommendation of the Committee which sat in 1850. That Committee had guarded carefully the rights of the clerks of the Justices. It was believed that it was secured by the three years' average, and he understood that that average had worked perfectly well. Two other clauses would be necessary to save existing arrangements under the enabling Act of the right hon. Gentleman (Sir George Grey), and it was not proposed to disturb exceptional cases during the lives of the present occupiers, except at the will of the Justices themselves. The 6th clause involved quite as important a principle as the 5th, and empowered the Justices to make tables of fees for the business before them. For that the sanction of the Home Department was required. At present, those tables were diverse and varied in every possible way. Changes of time, of place, and in the condition of the people had made them very little suitable to the wants of the case. He hoped that the provision requiring the tables to be sent up to the Home Department would be the means of producing uniformity throughout the whole country. He proposed to add a clause after the 8th clause giving the Justices power to remit the fees in cases of poverty. The 13th clause, he believed, was one which would create a great deal of discussion, and for the satisfactory adjustment of which discussion was necessary. It had been said that in the case of an unwilling prosecutor the prosecution should be conducted by the clerk to the Justices, and on the other hand he had been informed that it was a most unsatisfactory thing that the clerk to the Justices should have this duty imposed upon him. The information possessed by the House would enable it to arrive at a proper conclusion. In regard to depositions, they did not come before the Justices at all, and very good reasons could be shown why there could be no possible objection to Justices' clerks making them out. However, some did not agree with that, and objected strongly to a clerk to the Justices doing anything, except what he was called upon to do by the Act. The only remaining point 1927 on which he needed to refer was the question of qualification. It was at present required that the clerk should be a fit and proper person; the Bill proposed that he should be an attorney-at-law. At the present time, the clerk held his office at the will of the Justices; the Bill proposed that the appointment be made for life. These were two changes which were much too important to pass over in silence. One of the most curious objections to the Bill was, that the counties would make profit out of the transaction; but he did not see why the possibility of their making a profit should be a reason for their paying the clerk to the Justices more than he was entitled to. Looking at the probabilities of the case, the counties would rather lose than gain. If the second reading was carried the Bill should be remitted to a Committee in order that it might be printed again, with a view to bringing the Amendments he had indicated within the knowledge of the House. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving that the Bill be read a second time.
§ SIR HENRY SELWIN-IBBETSON
, in seconding the Motion, said he was exceedingly glad to hear from the hon. Member who had just sat down, and from the hon. Baronet who had introduced the Bill (Sir David Salomons), that they were prepared to accept Amendments which he had considered necessary. One of the most important Amendments was referred to in connection with the 3rd clause, by which, instead of a combined payment by salary and fees, the remuneration would be entirely by salary. He had been for some years a strong supporter of the principle advocated by the Bill, and he had done so for reasons stated by the hon. Member who had introduced the Bill, because the magistrates would be thereby relieved from many difficulties when they wished to remit fees in eases where they conceived them to be a hardship. It would also relieve the clerks themselves from a suspicion which was entertained by the public at large, that business was encouraged on account of the remuneration attached to it. And such a system would be an improvement on what already existed, as it would bring about a uniformity in the mode of keeping accounts throughout the country. He thought an Amendment would be necessary on the 5th clause—namely, that in case the 1928 clerks did not or could not return the amount of fees or disbursements, in order that the calculations as to their salaries might be made, the return should be taken from the average incomes of the last three years. He thought that there were details which would require amendment in Committee; but, at the same time, he had no doubt that some measure of this kind was strongly required.
§ Motion made and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Magniac.)
§ SIR MICHAEL HICKS-BEACH
said, that the Motion for the second reading had been brought on at so late an hour in the afternoon, that the arguments in its support had been got over in a very hurried manner. Now he (Sir Michael Hicks-Beach) protested against a Bill of this importance being treated in such a manner, and against the arguments in its favour not being amply stated. As one of those who opposed the Bill, he felt that, if the change it proposed were to be made at all, it ought to be made upon the authority of the Government, and not at the instance of private Members. He felt it to be his duty to move the rejection of the Bill for several reasons. The statement that confused accounts were kept at present furnished an argument against rather than in favour of the Bill, because the manner in which the accounts were kept was a matter of no importance except to those who received the fees. If the Justices' clerks kept confused accounts now that they were personally interested in their, correctness, might not the Bill open a door to mistakes, and possibly to fraud upon the counties or boroughs, which could not be committed now because the authorities were in no way interested in the amount of the fees, and therefore had nothing to do with the keeping of accounts relating to them. He doubted very much whether the administration of justice at petty sessions would be improved by the proposed change. At present, in the event of a committal, the clerk was paid according to the number of depositions, and he had a direct interest in taking as many as possible, and, therefore, in seeing that the case was made out clearly; but if the clerk were paid by salary he would have no such interest, and there would be great risk of his duty being discharged 1929 in a perfunctory manner. If prisoners were committed for trial without full depositions being taken, the result might be the failure of prosecutions which would have succeeded under the present system. But his main objection to the Bill was that the proposed change was likely to place an additional burden on the county rates. He admitted the individual hardship of such cases as had been put, in which the costs were so exceedingly disproportionate to the penalties imposed; but such cases only proved the necessity for a revision of the existing scale of fees. If the fees were revised as they ought to be, and adapted to the circumstances of these petty cases, there would be no hardship in exacting the costs as at present. If that was done, where was the necessity for this change? But the arguments of the supporters of the Bill implied that there would be a very considerable remission of fees in the future, in the case of poor persons or of persons guilty of trivial offences. If the salary of a clerk was fixed upon an average of fees received in the last three years, and if many fees were remitted in the future, the salary would be in excess of the fees received, and the balance would have to be paid by the ratepayers. That would be a charge of anew description, because the county ratepayers were not now legally liable in any way for the salaries of clerks to Justices, unless their representatives at quarter sessions of their own free will adopted the permissive Act. This Bill would make the permissive Act compulsory, and it would impose upon the already overburdened ratepayers a charge for the administration of justice, the cost of which hitherto had not been met out of local rates. If it were preferred to pay clerks by salaries, the magistrates were at liberty to make the change now; but though the permissive Act was passed more than 20 years ago, it had been adopted by no more than five counties in England and two in Wales, with the result that in four cases the rates were burdened, and in three the counties were gainers. In one the tender-hearted justices had remitted within a year no less than £500 in fees. More than 150 boroughs in England and Wales still paid their clerks by fees, and only 24 paid them by salaries. The proposed change, therefore, was clearly in opposition to public opinion; and, for the reasons he had stated, 1930 he moved that the Bill be read a second time that day six months.
§ Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."—(Sir Michael Hicks-Beach.)
§ MR. SCLATER-BOOTH
said, he thought that so important an officer as a magistrate's clerk might well be paid by salary; but still the change proposed was one of great importance, and would certainly carry with it a claim which could hardly be gain-sayed for super-annuations. It was worthy of consideration, that as the matter now stood there was no book-keeping between the clerks and the county, whilst possibly under the new system there would be expensive book-keeping. A system of stamps, however, might remedy this. No doubt, as a general rule, the proposed change would place a burden upon counties, and it had hitherto been contrary to our practice to place such charges upon counties. He should have preferred that the Government should have taken up the subject.
§ VISCOUNT MAHON
supported the measure, because he thought that in many cases under the present system justice had miscarried. He had known a case where a man had been fined 1s. and 19s. costs. In those counties where the permissive Act had been adopted there had, upon the whole, been a saving, and Surrey gained £300 a-year by the change. He cordially approved of the measure.
§ MR. HUNT
said, he was sorry to differ from his hon. Friend who had moved the rejection of the Bill (Sir Michael Hicks-Beach); but in so doing he acted upon his own experience. The question was, whether it was desirable that the legal advisers of the magistrates in petty session should have any pecuniary interest in the cases which came before them. He believed it was not, and on that ground he should support the Bill, which, however, would require to be amended in details. The payment of fees by stamps under the Local Stamp Act would facilitate its operation. Salaries had been paid for two years in the county of Northamptonshire; the county gained one year and lost the other, and the two years had nearly balanced each other, fie had not heard that there had 1931 been any lack of attention to their duties on the part of the clerks. He advised his hon. Friend not to press the Amendment; but to assist in making the Bill as perfect as possible.
§ MR. WINTERBOTHAM
, reserving what he had to say until the Bill got into Committee, stated that the Government heartily approved its two objects—compulsory payment by salaries instead of fees, and compulsory revision of the table of fees.
§ Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."
§ And it being a quarter of an hour before Six of the clock, the Debate stood adjourned till To-morrow.