HC Deb 26 June 1874 vol 220 cc524-39

I rise, Sir, to call attention to a question which I had the honour of bringing before the House two Sessions ago—the propriety of appointing to the office of County Court Judges in Wales, gentlemen who are themselves conversant with the Welsh language. And although some of the remarks which I shall have to address to the House are applicable doubtless to otter parts of Wales, I ought to state that in placing this Notice on the Paper, I have had more particularly in view the district known as the Mid-Wales County Court Circuit. That district comprises the whole of Merionethshire, with portions of the adjoining counties of Carnarvon, Montgomery, and Cardigan. It lies in the midst of the Welsh-speaking portion of Wales; a district as yet unsophisticated by contact with the Saxon, and to which, therefore, that eminently Saxon vice of drunkenness—which the hon. Member for Southwark (Mr. Locke) the other night, speaking, no doubt, from his own unfortunate experience, attributed to the whole Welsh people—has not yet penetrated. Indeed, few people who have not resided in that district know to what an extent the Welsh language still prevails there. It is not an exaggeration to say that nine-tenths of the population habitually speak it, and probably one-half speak nothing else. They use it not only for the ordinary intercourse of life, but for the purposes of business—they write their letters, they draw up their contracts, and they make their wills in that language. Now I should have thought that to have required a County Court Judge administering justice in such a district, to understand that language would have been almost a matter of course. It is no answer to say that justice is efficiently administered in this very district in the Superior Courts by Judges who do not understand Welsh. Admitting that to be true—though I am disposed to think that there is another side to the question—there is, really, no analogy for this purpose between the Superior Courts and the County Courts. In the former the cases are sifted by intelligent solicitors who understand both languages, who take the instructions from their clients in Welsh, and communicate them to counsel in English, and who are at hand to correct any slip into which an interpreter may be betrayed. Moreover, the interpreters are generally men of skill and education, and last, but not least, the verdict is found by a jury conversant with both languages. It is obvious, therefore, that the risk of a miscarriage of justice is reduced to a minimum. But the County Court Judge in most cases is his own jury. His functions, too, bring him into more immediate contact with the parties, being often more those of an arbitrator than those of a Judge. But above all, he has to have the case stated by the parties themselves. Now, to give evidence through an interpreter is an awkward business, but to make a speech or state a case through an interpreter is utterly impossible. The result is that the unfortunate Welsh suitors—who constitute by far the larger number of litigants in the Mid-Wales County Court—are compelled to choose between placing themselves at an enormous disadvantage by conducting their own cases, or engaging the services of an advocate at a cost probably disproportioned to the amount at stake—a serious tax upon poor men. The case, then, bears a far closer resemblance to the local Courts in India, or our colonial possessions, where the Judge administering justice is always required to understand the language of the district in which he holds his Court. But, be that as it may, Lord Lyndhurst, in whose time these Courts were first established, made it a sine quâ non that every Judge whom he appointed to a Welsh-speaking circuit, should understand the Welsh language, and Mr. Richards and Mr. Johnes, both of whom acted as Judges of what is now the Mid-Wales County Court Circuit, spoke that language with ease and fluency. I lay particular stress on the fact, for I have been accused of seeking to establish a new precedent, whereas, in fact, I am only endeavouring to follow out that which was set by Lord Lyndhurst and his successors. When, however, Mr. Johnes retired about three years ago, Lord Hatherley (then Lord Chancellor) appointed in his place, a gentleman of high legal attainments, but one who, unfortunately, did not know Welsh. I mean Serjeant Tindal Atkinson. He held the post only a short time and was succeeded by another gentleman (Mr. Homersham Cox), of whom I wish to speak with all possible respect. He is not only, I believe, a good lawyer, but a very prolific writer, having written upon a great variety of subjects, beginning with the "Differential Calculus" and ending with the "British Constitution." And I am quite willing to admit that he was qualified for his post in every respect but one—he, too, did not know Welsh. Now these two appointments following close upon each other naturally produced a great deal of discontent in the district, and the result was, that a number of memorials, signed by several thousand persons of all classes and shades of opinion, were addressed to the Lord Chancellor, praying him to transfer Mr. Cox to some other Court and to appoint a Welshman in his place. Lord Hatherley did me the honour to address his reply to me, and that reply, together with a letter which I toot the liberty of addressing to his Lordship on the subject, has been printed by Order of the House, and was delivered to hon. Members some six weeks ago. The House will see that besides adverting to the analogy between the Superior Courts and the County Courts—with which I have already dealt—he relied upon three grounds in refusing the prayer of the memorialists. First, he took his stand upon an old statute of Henry VIII., passed immediately after the incorporation of Wales with England, which required all persons holding office under the Crown "to speak and use the English language only, upon pain of forfeiting their offices." Now, if that statute were literally enforced, I am afraid it would deprive Her Majesty of the services of some most valuable public functionaries, including those of a most eminent Equity Judge. But, as a matter of fact, that statute has been a dead letter for generations. To my own knowledge, magistrates in petty sessions and County Court Judges also, who knew Welsh, have, where the parties and the witnesses understood no other language, heard and determined cases in Welsh to the satisfaction of everybody concerned, and nobody ever thought of questioning their right to do so. But apart from that, even where proceedings are conducted in English, a Judge who knows Welsh can himself act as a check upon the interpreter; and this power is in itself often a very valuable one. But Lord Hatherley was also of opinion that—" a Judge selected for his Welsh acquirements would become subject to mistrust on the part of English litigants." Now, if we had been asking his Lordship to appoint a Judge who did not know English, I could understand that there might have been some force in this objection. But surely Welsh litigants—who, in this district, form an immense majority of the suitors—have at least as much ground for "mistrusting" a Judge who cannot speak Welsh as English litigants would have for "mistrusting" a Judge who could speak both Welsh and English. Besides, as a matter of fact, no English litigant ever thought of "mistrusting" Mr. Richards or Mr. Johnos, who were in some sense "elected for their Welsh attainments." The third ground taken by Lord Hatherley was, that the existence of the two languages was in itself an evil, as it tended to keep apart two nations which ought to be connected as closely as possible. But admitting that to be so, the obvious answer is that we must take things as they are, and considering that there are at this moment 500,000 of people who speak little but Welsh, it does seem a strong thing to say that in order to drive the next generation to learn English, you have a right to subject the existing generation, who, through no fault of their own, have not learnt English, to what is practically a denial of justice. But besides that, all these attempts to stamp out a living language by such means as this, even if justifiable, are utterly futile. The attempt has been made more than once. It was made in Wales about a century ago, when the Government of the day thought that they could wean the people from their mother tongue by sending down to Wales Bishops and clergymen who spoke what was to them a foreign language. And what was the result? The people did not abandon their mother tongue, but they did abandon their mother Church; and in the end Dissent obtained a hold upon the people of Wales which has never been relaxed. Well, Sir, Lord Hatherley having very courteously, but very decidedly, refused to entertain our request, I was compelled very reluctantly,—for I need hardly say it was anything but agreeable to me to impugn, however indirectly, the conduct of a high public functionary, particularly one for whom I entertain so genuine a respect as I do for Lord Hatherley—to bring the matter before this House, which I accordingly did on the 8th of March, 1872. Upon that occasion I cited the opinions of a most able Welsh County Court Judge, and of a most experienced Welsh County Court Registrar, to the effect that no Judge who did not understand the language could possibly do justice to Welsh litigants. I also cited several cases in which miscarriages of of justice had arisen from the proceedings being conducted exclusively in English—one of a farmer who had travelled 20 miles to Llanidloes, in order to conduct himself a case in which he was defendant, and who not understanding a word of English, had sat in Court while his case was being disposed of as an undefended cause, and found at the end of the day that judgment had gone against him by default. Several speakers followed me, none of whom seriously opposed my Motion. Lord Aberdare, who then filled the post of Home Secretary, after expressing his own concurrence in my Motion, said— In this case the Lord Chancellor had authorized him to say that he admitted the force of much which had been urged. Legal fitness would, of course, he always the first consideration; but after the representations which had been made by hon. Members connected with Wales, the Government—as also, he was sure, all future Governments—would have regard to a knowledge of Welsh.…He agreed with his hon. Friend (Mr. Richard) that the Welsh could only be won over by kindness, attention to their wishes, and ample provision for education. It was a mistake to suppose that the life of the Welsh language would be prolonged by insisting on County Court Judges understanding it, for the only effect of such a change as that implied in the Resolution would be to impart in the minds of the people a feeling that they were treated with a degree of justice and consideration which he was bound to say they had not hitherto received. That was what the Government were desirous of doing, and therefore he would, on their part, say they were willing to accept the Motion with the Amendment of the hon. Member for Montgomery."—[3 Hansard, ccix. 1672–73.] Eventually, my Resolution, with the slight qualification suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hanbury-Tracy) was carried without a dissentient voice. That Resolution was to the following effect:— That, in the opinion of this House, it is desirable, in the interests of the due administration of justice, that the Judge of a County Court district in which the Welsh language is generally spoken should, as far as the limits of selection will allow, be able to speak and understand that language. Now, Sir, that Resolution was directly pointed at the Mid-Wales Circuit, and was introduced by a reference to the gentleman who held the office of Judge there. And certainly we did hope that after it had been passed, some arrangement would have been made by which Mr. Cox might have been transferred to an English speaking district, and a Welshman appointed in his place. But although numerous vacancies have occurred, of which advantage might have been taken to carry out such an arrangement, no such changes have been made, and although I several times called attention to the subject, the Resolution has practically remained a dead letter. Do not let my right hon. Friend think that I blame the present Government for it. Since they were in office they have not had an opportunity of giving effect to my Resolution. But be that as it may, the disregard shown to it has created a deep and growing feeling of disappointment in Wales. And in order to show that that feeling is not without justification, I may refer to an incident which occurred in a case of Jones v. Price, tried at Bala in October last, which, in order to prevent mistakes, I have had authenticated by the written statement of the plaintiff's advocate. That statement was to the effect that a plaintiff who declared that he could speak nothing but Welsh had been nonsuited, because he refused to give his evidence in English, the Registrar having deposed that the man was to his knowledge, acquainted with the English language. Well, the explanation was this. The poor man really did not know a word of English; but his name (Jones) being, unfortunately, not an uncommon one in Wales, the Registrar had mistaken a namesake of the plaintiff for the plaintiff himself, and had sworn to the accomplishments of the wrong man. I am bound to say that when the mistake was discovered, the Registrar paid the plaintiff's costs, and I believe the poor man ultimately got his rights, but I think the House will agree with me that the incident was not one likely to inspire much respect for the administration of justice. I ought not to omit, too, that Mr. Cox, who, when he first came to the district expressed a strong opinion that a knowledge of Welsh might be dispensed with in a Welsh Judge, appears from a newspaper report to have lately changed his opinion on the subject. At any rate, when lately disabled by illness, he selected as his substitutes three gentlemen all of whom were distinguished lawyers and good Welsh scholars, and who gave the greatest satisfaction by their decision. Of course, I do not mean to say that there are not many others similarly qualified in both respects, and that fact is a sufficient answer to the only argument which has been seriously urged against the proposal—namely, that its adoption would limit the area of selection, and therefore necessarily lower the standard of qualification in a Judge. But I think there is a fallacy in this, for it does not follow that because the area is limited the standard is lowered. If you have a dozen men from whom to select, every one of whom is perfectly competent, you are as little in danger of lowering the standard, as if you had a hundred, and it would be an insult to the Gentleman to whom I have referred to suggest that the appointment of any one of them would involve any lowering of the standard of qualification. I remember exactly the same argument being urged against the appointment of a Welsh speaking Bishop. It was said, that as only a small portion of the clergy spoke Welsh, you must necessarily have a worse man for a Bishop, if you selected one from that small proportion. And yet my right hon. Friend the late Prime Minister did manage to appoint a gentleman, who was not only an excellent Welsh scholar, but who in character and attainments, and, above all, in good sense and moderation, will compare with any Prelate on the Bench. Sir, I now leave the question in the hands of the House. I repeat I have brought it forward in no spirit of hostility to the Government, and I have therefore purposely abstained from concluding with any Motion. All I have to say is, that if my right hon. Friend opposite will give to the question that fair and impartial consideration which he is in the habit of bestowing on all questions, I for one shall be quite content. And he will, I feel sure, understand that I claim that consideration as due not to myself, or to my arguments, but to a Resolution of this House which so long as it remains unchallenged, no Government, however strong, can afford to disregard or despise.


said, that the subject to which his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Denbighshire had directed the attention of the House had excited great interest in the Principality. It was an important subject, because it closely concerned the administration of justice, and on that ground it merited, in his opinion, the careful attention of the Government. It was not a question of sentiment, of separate nationality, or even of language, but a question as to the due administration of justice. If it were not so, he should not trouble the House with a speech in favour of the Motion. It was one of the first principles in the administration of justice, which had been acted upon in all civilized countries, that every opportunity should be given to the litigant to state his case fully before the tribunal which had to decide his case. So far as the County Court Judges were concerned, it was perfectly impossible to give a full and effective hearing to the litigant, unless the Judge understood the litigant's language. There was a vast difference between the Superior Courts in Wales and the inferior Courts there as regarded the question of language. In the Superior Courts each party was represented by counsel and attorneys, and had others to speak the language for them; but in the County Courts the case was different—there the cases were mostly from the Welsh speaking parts of the country, and the sums involved were very small, not exceeding 40s. or 50s.; and it was idle to suppose that the litigant could employ counsel and attorneys in cases of that sort. He came from the mountains or the farm, was a stranger in Court, and was brought face to face with a Judge who did not understand the only language he himself could speak. It was impossible for a Judge to understand that man's case unless he could speak and understand the Welsh language. The least that could be done in a case of that nature would be to have a competent interpreter who could be relied upon. As matters stood, the thing was a mere farce. It might be said that those who did not understand the English language, or could not speak it fluently, were the exception and not the rule. They might be the exception in the course of the next 20 or 30 years, but at the present moment there were about 500,000 Welshmen who spoke nothing but the Welsh language, and to whom English was practically a foreign language. He did not mean to justify that state of things. That was an open question. The real question at the present moment was—given a state of things which did exist—what was to be done in these circumstances for the proper administration of justice? It was obvious that the only way of providing a satisfactory remedy was to give the Welsh people Judges who could understand them. Better have a man of inferior learning than one who, however high his other qualifications, did not understand the language of the people amongst whom he had to administer justice. Objections had been taken to the proposal under consideration. One was, that there existed a statute forbidding the use of the Welsh language in the County Courts of Wales; but at the time when that measure was passed, legislation and legislators were very different from what they were at present. It was at a time when there was passed a solemn Resolution of the House appointing a Commission to inquire into the pedigree of the reigning Monarch, and which Commission ultimately reported that His Majesty Henry VII. was the 105th in descent, by direct male line, from Brutus. That was a specimen of what was thought and done in those days. But the times had changed, and Resolutions of a more practical nature were expected from the present Parliament. He trusted that the House and the Government would give the matter its best consideration.


thought that if the hon. and learned Member for Denbighshire wished that where two men had equal qualifications in all other respects, and only one of them possessed a knowledge of Welsh, the latter should be preferred for a judicial appointment in Wales, then he could agree with him; but if he meant, as one could not help suspecting he did, that the area of competition should be restricted to persons who could speak Welsh, then he thought the disadvantages of such an arrangement would more than counterbalance its advantages. During his own experience of more than a quarter of a century as a Chairman of quarter sessions, he had often had cases brought before him in which almost the whole of the evidence was given in Welsh, but he had not the slightest reason to think that there had been any failure of justice on that account, and he had never heard any complaint on the subject. There was in such cases a sworn interpreter, who gave his evidence in open Court, and whose words were watched by persons who never hesitated to correct him if he said anything that was wrong; while the whole of the evidence was deliberately taken down, and that part of it which was interpreted was usually better reported in the Press than the rest. He might add that, although a Judge might have a good knowledge of the Welsh language, he would hardly be understood in many districts of Wales unless he were able to speak the patois of the locality. He recollected a case in which a Welsh Judge addressed a jury in their native language, and the observation they made was that he would have been more intelligible to them if he had spoken English. The Registrar of the County Court in the part of the country with which he (Mr. Scourfield) was connected had written to him to say that a Welsh speaking Judge would not, in his opinion, render an interpreter unnecessary; on the contrary, as many of the advocates and their clients did not speak the language, they would not be able properly to conduct their case without an interpreter, and would not be satisfied with the Judge's interpretation of the evidence. That cry about Welsh Judges for Wales was equivalent to the cry of Wales for the Welsh. They should take care it was not met by the cry of England for the English. If it were so, he was afraid the Welsh would have the worst of the bargain. While he thought that a competent lawyer who spoke the Welsh language should have the preference over one who did not, he should be sorry to see a knowledge of the Welsh language made the sine quâ non in the appointment to a legal office in Wales; for he hoped he might not be considered unpatriotic if he said he should prefer a right decision given in English to a wrong decision given in Welsh.


reminded the House that very often cases occurred in which no counsel or attorney was employed, and the Judge was called upon to exercise the multifarious functions of jury, counsel, and attorney. Hon. Members would be able to imagine the confusion likely to arise, if a Judge who was called upon to examine a Welsh farmer, or publican, was not able to understand the language he heard. In regard to interpreters, he observed that where cases had come before him and an interpreter was engaged, the first question was, who should pay the interpreter? He (Sir Eardley Wilmot) generally ordered the cost of the interpreter to be divided between the parties, but it necessarily made the cost of litigation much greater, and was therefore to be avoided if possible. He quite agreed with the hon. and learned Member for Denbighshire, that when a competent man who understood "Welsh could be found it was desirable that he should be employed; but, in the absence of that competency, he thought it was desirable that the best selection possible should be made from among the members of the Bar.


, while observing that the Welsh Members were much indebted to the hon. Baronet for his remarks upon the subject, regretted that the hon. Member for Pembrokeshire (Mr. Scourfield) should have deemed it to be consistent with his duty to throw cold water on the proposal under discussion. He respected the hon. Gentleman very much, but he could not attach very great weight to his testimony in the present instance, because he resided in one of the most Anglicised counties in Wales. The hon. Gentleman seemed to think that it was necessary not only that a Judge should know Welsh, but that he should be conversant with a particular patois. He (Mr. Richard), however, did not share that opinion, and he undertook to say that there was no such thing as Welsh patois. He could understand the language spoken by any Welshman in any part of Wales, from Cardiff to Holyhead. Everybody acquainted with Wales knew that, especially in the rural districts of Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire, and in the counties of North Wales, there were many persons who spoke the Welsh language only, or who, even if they had a smattering of English, did not know sufficient of it to enable them to state a case clearly in a Court of Law. There were at least 12 newspapers published in Welsh, and having enormous circulations, 2 quarterlies, and 12 or 14 monthlies—a fact which proved that the Welsh language still prevailed to a large extent. He stated that fact because he knew there were some Englishmen, not in that House, but outside, who thought that a man could neither be civilized nor a Christian unless he could speak English. He would remind those who imagined that by appointing Judges who only spoke English to the Bench in Wales, they could stamp out the language, that the same experiment had been tried in the case of Bishops, and without success. When the late Government came into office, the Prime Minister sought out with great pains, for a vacant Welsh Bishopric, a clergyman who was a perfect master of the Welsh language. It was reported that another vacancy of the kind was about to occur, and he heard with regret that Her Majesty's Government was likely, in filling it up, to return to the old system. As a Welshman, he resented such a course of action as a slight upon his countrymen, amongst whom there were plenty who were competent to sit on the Episcopal Bench with efficiency and dignity; but as a Dissenter, he might rejoice over it, as nothing tended more to strengthen Nonconformity in Wales than such alien and unpopular appointments. If a competent lawyer, who knew Welsh, could not be found for a Judgeship, it would be necessary to appoint some one else; but where other qualifications were equal a knowledge of the language ought surely to decide the choice.


observed that there was a great difficulty in regard to interpreters, and also a great waste of time. He know of two appointments of Welsh speaking Judges, which had given general satisfaction in the districts in which they administered justice. It was a curious fact, that on one side of the boundary the people spoke Welsh, and those on the other side English.


testified, from his own experience, that the aid of an interpreter was far from adequate as a means of enabling a County Court Judge in Wales who did not know Welsh to discharge the duties of his office. If that was the case, the expediency of appointing Welsh speaking Judges in Wales was obvious. The business of the Court was much of the nature of Petty Sessions business, for it often happened that no attorney appeared in a case, and considerable skill on the part of the Judge was required in order to extract the real grievance on the one side, or the defence on the other. And when an attorney was engaged he was often able, by questioning the interpreter, to give to evidence a particular shade of meaning which the witness had not intended. Indeed, a fair estimate of the value of the evidence could not be formed if the Judge did not understand the language. Should the Motion of the hon. and learned Member for Denbighshire be pressed to a division, he would feel bound to vote in favour of it, for he believed that the appointment of gentlemen to the country districts in Wales as County Court Judges, with a knowledge of Welsh, would give great satisfaction, and he hoped the practice would be adopted whenever it was practicable.


said, that although great interest was naturally taken in the subject, he did not think it necessary to prolong the discussion. He for one—and he could say the same on the part of the Government—deeply regretted the line of conduct pursued in regard to the Welsh Church, to which persons who could not speak Welsh were expressly appointed to teach the Welsh. He had lived long enough in Wales to regard Welsh as one of the most beautifully-sounding languages; but, in his opinion, although Welsh might continue to be spoken for a long time to come, the fact could not be concealed that English was rapidly spreading throughout the Principality, so much so that in the course of the next generation there would propably be no one in all Wales unable to speak English. It could not be denied that it was a great advantage to have a Judge conversant with the language of the people who came before him. With regard to the question of interpreters, the more important trials before the higher Judges of the land would probably with the aid of sworn interpreters go on very well, although the Judges did not know the language; but in smaller cases, where it was necessary for the Judge himself to sift the evidence of contending parties who had not previously been examined, the matter was very different. At the same time he believed that an able Judge, perfectly versed in law and in the system of evidence, would not rest content, although unacquainted with the language, till he had ascertained the actual truth of the case. His hon. and learned Friend when bringing this subject before the House in 1872, acknowledged that first of all due regard must be paid to the legal qualification. There was practically no difference between those who were in favour of and those who were against the Motion. As he had said, in cases of great importance, he thought that Judges not familiarly acquainted with Welsh might be enabled to decide questions rightly, but in more minute cases the difficulty was greater. What they wanted was to appoint the best qualified men to judicial positions, and the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Osborne Morgan) would hardly desire to bind the hands of the Government by an iron rule which might every now and then be found to work very hard. It must be remembered that there were parts of Wales which had become almost Anglicised—to repeat an expression which an hon. Member had used—and, therefore, what was proper in one part might be undesirable in another. This was a matter which might safely be left in the hands of the Lord Chancellor, whose duty it would be to see that the person appointed was thoroughly fit for the particular work; and, no doubt, the special qualification which was desirable in a man sent as Judge to a peculiarly Welsh part of Wales would always be borne in mind. Let the House take an analogous case—that of police magistrates—some of whom whilst well fitted for certain places, would not be qualified for the post of stipendiary magistrate in London. In making appointments in Wales he assured the House that the Government would well consider, not only legal qualifications, but special qualifications for Judgeships.


thought the promise of the Home Secretary to give due consideration to the matter would not accomplish the object of his hon. and learned Friend, which was to give confidence to the people of Wales that their claims were fully and fairly considered, and especially to give them confidence in the administration of justice. He had formerly directed the attention of the House to the question of appointing Welsh speaking Bishops, and he thought that in the matter of Judges, as in that of Bishops, the wishes of the Welsh speaking population should be considered. He trusted the Home Secretary would give his earnest attention to the statements which had been brought before the House.


said, the remarks of the Homo Secretary must, on the whole, be accepted as satisfactory; but he would, at the same time, caution the right hon. Gentlemen against placing too much confidence in the "Anglicisation" of Welsh districts. His district bad increased, of late years, more in population than any district in the Kingdom, and although there had been a large immigration of English and Irish, yet the Welsh language was still the language in which the people at large thought, and to which they preferred to resort when they were called to express themselves in words. He believed it would always be desirable to appoint Welsh speaking County Court Judges; and, as far as possible, also stipendiary magistrates in the whole of the counties of Wales, and he trusted therefore that duo weight would be given to the recommendation of his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Denbighshire.


said, he knew of a case where the proceedings were conducted in Welsh, by reason of which the business was despatched in half the time that would otherwise have been occupied. Apart from that, if the Welsh language were adopted, the people would feel that their cases had been fully gone into. He supported the Motion, and hoped its intentions would be fully carried into effect.