§ Order read, for resuming Adjourned Debate on Question [24th March], "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Pulley.)
§ Question again proposed.
§ Debate resumed.
§ THE ATTORNEY GENERAL (Sir CHARLES RUSSELL) (Hackney, S.)
said, that the main scope and object of the Bill was to give to any two justices or a single stipendiary magistrate the power of pronouncing decrees of judicial separation if it was shown that a wife had been deserted by her husband. Such a Bill would be viewed differently by those who took different views as to the desirability of granting facilities to sever the matrimonial tie; and beyond that there was the question of granting the power proposed to such a tribunal. He did not say that it might not be necessary to grant to poor persons greater facilities for availing themselves of the law; but this Bill would enable the magistrates empowered to do so—and he desired to speak of them with all respect 345 —however unlearned in the law they might be, to pronounce the decree, without the husband being convicted of desertion, and merely upon proof being given that he had deserted his wife. The law had already taken one very important step in the way of giving power to magistrates. Under the Matrimonial Causes Act, in case a husband was convicted of aggravated assault, if it was shown that the woman was in actual peril, the magistrates might pronounce a decree of judicial separation. But this Bill appeared to open a wide door to collusion between man and wife, who might agree to leave each other, and then allege that there had been desertion; and no remedy was left in case it should thereafter be found that there had been collusion. The 2nd clause of the Bill gave an extraordinary power — a power which he was not aware was given to any other tribunal. It enabled an application to be made, a summons to be granted, and an order made, although the husband had never been served with notice at all. He would admit that the present law was cumbrous in the case of desertion, because the wife must either go to the Poor Law Guardians, get assistance, and put them in motion, or go and live with some relation, who would supply her with necessaries, and in that indirect way raise an action against the husband. Some shorter and more direct remedy was required, and he hoped it might have been possible to evolve out of this Bill a reasonable proposition to meet the grievance he had stated; but he was afraid it did not afford the means of providing a remedy. He could not agree to the provisions of the Bill as it stood.
§ MR. BRADLAUGH (Northampton)
, in supporting the Bill, said, that the objections of the hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General referred to details which could very well be considered in Committee. The principle of the Bill was that of securing maintenance to married women who had been deserted by their husbands, and to secure for them the equivalent of a decree of judicial separation. It was impossible that poor women could employ solicitors, so as to avail themselves of the remedies now provided. It was easy to make this Bill say that the husband should have been convicted of desertion; 346 and in cases of divorce substituted service of a summons was already known.
THE LORD ADVOCATE (Mr. J. B. BALFOUR)&c.) (Clackmannan,
said, that this law, for anything that appeared in it, would apparently apply to Scotland; and he wished to say that he shared the opinion of his hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General. He thought the power given in the Bill was a very dangerous one to confer upon persons with slight skill in administrating such a very delicate jurisdiction. It would be dangerous to give the proposed jurisdiction to even stipendiary magistrates, who were supposed to be appointed for their knowledge of the Criminal Law. There could be no greater evil to society than that these orders should be made matters of course, and granted without the gravest consideration and fullest appreciation of the evils they were likely to carry in their train. He should suggest that, if the Bill was to become law now, when they had the Married Women's Property Act there should be some provision for husbands deserted by their wives. The provision of the Bill relating to the custody of children was already met adequately by the Infants Bill.
§ MR. SPICER (Islington, S.)
said, there was no doubt that the Bill would meet a large number of cases of desertion, and in that way would remedy hardships that occurred in the case of many poor women; and, after all, the objections to the Bill were not so serious as they had been made to appear. The only order that could be made was one for the payment of a certain sum by the husband, and that order could be varied upon the application of either the husband or the wife to a Court of Law. Some such measure would, he felt certain, act as a restriction on the desertion of wives.
§ MR. W. F. LAWRENCE (Liverpool, Abercromby)
said, he deeply regretted that the Government were opposing the Bill. He remembered a case where a man, earning £200 or £300 a-year, owing to drink became entirely unable to earn anything; and the only way in which his wife was able to obtain relief was by taking one of the roundabout courses referred to by the hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General, and going to the workhouse. He thought it would be better to let the Bill go into Committee, to see whether some better means than those which 347 existed could not be found for dealing with such a difficult question. He thought it very hard that a woman deserted by her husband should have no other means of obtaining relief from him except by going into the workhouse.
THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE HOME DEPARTMENT (Mr. CHILDERS) (Edinburgh, S.)
said, he believed that the House would be reluctant to give to magistrates the power of granting judicial separation, although it would probably be willing to see an improvement of the machinery by which a wife might obtain a subsistence. The Government would object to any provisions of the Bill except those which, in their opinion, had been shown to be, and were admitted to be, necessary; but they did not oppose the second reading. He hoped that the Committee stage would be put off to such a time as would enable the Government to bring up Amendments for consideration.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a second time, and committed for Wednesday 19th May.