HC Deb 28 March 1906 vol 154 cc1293-5

I have to ask the leave of the House to introduce a Bill to amend the law relating to justices of the peace. The principal provision, and, indeed, the only specially important provision, in the Bill, is one for abolishing the existing property qualification, known as the qualification by estate, for county magistrates. That qualification was imposed in 1744 under a statute which made it imperative for any one appointed justice of the peace in a county to have land, freehold, or copyhold, or long leasehold, to the value of at least £100 a year. There was another qualification in the Act very much to the same effect, with which I need not trouble the House. The severity of that somewhat high qualification was mitigated by the Act of 1875, under which it became possible to appoint persons in a county if they occupied a dwelling rated for the poor at £100 a year. I need not point out that these qualifications very materially restricted the area of choice in the appointment of gentlemen living in the county to this important judicial office; indeed, there are some industrial districts in mining and manufacturing counties where it has been not only difficult, but almost impossible, to procure gentlemen in any way competent to fulfil magisterial duties, who at the same time possess this qualification as resident landowner or occupier. But there is a wider reason than that for the alteration in the law which we propose by the Bill. When the qualification by estate was originally devised and enacted there was some reason for it in the fact that education, especially that higher education which is derived from the responsible conduct of public affairs, was almost a monopoly of the propertied classes. You might say it was the privilege of property. That state of things exists no longer. Not only is education of the scholastic variety more widely spread, but public life has been thrown open to all classes, with the happy result that in every district of England are found men of position and authority well qualified to hold office, quite irrespective of the wealth they may possess, especially landed wealth. It may be that in relation to local government or other forms of leadership they have done good work which has a more educating effect for the discharge of magisterial duties than even the possession of a landed estate to the value of £100 a year. There is this difference in the forms of the existing qualifications. Where a magistrate is qualified by occupation he holds office only by virtue of continuous occupation, but where he is qualified for appointment by estate he may part with his qualification and still retain his office. I think the House will agree that it is somewhat incongruous, and I may say unfair, that persons of the class I have described, men who have secured the esteem and regard of their fellow-citizens, should be unable to assume office because the law requires that they shall have a certain amount of a particular kind of wealth. I will not argue upon the qualification one way or another; the House is competent to judge of it, and I desire to be brief in my introduction of the Bill because I have no doubt the House is desirous of proceeding to the more important Trade Unions and Trade Disputes Bill. There are other parts of the Bill to which I may make brief reference. Alterations of the law are proposed in minor particulars. For instance, it is proposed that a man may be appointed justice of the peace for the county though he does not actually live in the county, but within a distance of seven miles. This is the qualification in boroughs, and is found convenient, and it would be convenient in counties where a petty sessions division is near the border of the county. It is also proposed to remove the disqualification of solicitors living in a county, but it is suggested that it would be well to provide that they must not practise, directly or indirectly, before a justice of the peace in the county or in a borough within the county. There is just one provision more. I hope the House will not discover in it or suspect it has any malign motive; it is, I think, purely formal. A great many ex officio magistrates have been created by recent legislation, and it is thought desirable that they should be removable on the same terms as other magistrates. These are all the provisions of the Bill, and I think I may claim credit for having kept well within the limits of my allotted time.

Bill to amend the law relating to Justices of the Peace, ordered to be brought in by Mr. Solicitor - General, Mr. Secretary Gladstone, and Mr. Herbert Samuel.