HC Deb 15 June 1928 vol 218 cc1385-92

Order for Second Reading read.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This is a Bill to amend the law relating to solicitors and to do away with a crying scandal which has caused hardship to a number of innocent persons. At the present time the solicitor who has been struck off the rolls for misconduct is able with impunity to continue to carry on his practice under the cover of some other name, and thereby many people who think they are dealing with a solicitor who is under the discipline of the Law Society are, in effect, dealing sometimes only with a man who can be called nothing but a swindler. The Clauses of this Bill, except for the definition Clause, are only two. The first one provides that no man who has thus been struck off the rolls for misconduct shall be allowed to practise without the consent of the Law Society, which is a statutory body, with statutory powers, and there is an appeal from them to the Master of the Rolls. The Law Society does not desire that men who have been struck off the rolls should be prevented from being able to earn a decent living. All that they desire is that they should not impose upon the public and do the work of a profession which necessarily has to be trusted, and should be manned by people who can be trusted, but it leaves him at liberty to work, so long as he works as an employé genuinely on those genuine terms. The first Clause is to prevent any solicitor from employing such person without the consent of the Law Society.

The second Clause makes it an offence for any man who has been thus struck off to get employment, or to attempt to get employment, by means of this method of getting himself covered by another name, without divulging the fact that he has been struck off. The moderate penalty which is inserted in the Bill can only be inflicted if action is taken within six months, and action cannot be commenced except by or with the consent of the Attorney-General. This Bill was first introduced in the House of Lords, where it was very carefully thrashed out. It went through all its stages and came down to this House, unfortunately, too late to be parsed into law. Last Session it was introduced in this House under the 10 minutes rule, with an explanation being given of the effect of the Bill, and leave to introduce it was given without a dissentient voice. The Bill then went to a Standing Committee, where again it was very carefully considered, with the representative of the Government present, and it passed through Committee. It has, therefore, already been fully discussed in both Houses in a previous Session, and it comes before the House now in the same form. It is promoted by the Law Society, the statutory body charged by Parliament with the management and discipline of the solicitors' profession. It has been approved by the Law Officers of the Crown and the Lord Chancellor's Department, and I understand it has the approval of the Government generally. Moreover, the Government, I know, have received, as I have, formal notification from a In tuber of important commercial and business bodies in the country, urgently asking that this Bill may be passed into law in order to stop a crying scandal.

May I, in conclusion, as an illustration of what we want to stop, tell hon. Members of a thing which happened to me only three days ago in the precincts of this House? An ex-service man called upon me and asked me to give him professional assistance, because he had been swindled out of some £200 or £300, with which he had been persuaded to part in consideration of being given a job, for which he could get a salary. The whole thing turned out to be a fraud. There was no money to pay the salary, and his own money was lost. It was done to some extent through the medium of a company, and I said to him, "What do you know about this company? There must have been some solicitors concerned in originally registering the company 12 months ago." He said, "Yes, but I do not think it is any use for me to communicate with the solicitor. The solicitor, as a matter of fact, apparently does no work at all. The work is entirely done by an old man there, who is really his managing clerk and who was at one time a solicitor, but has been struck off the rolls." That is the evil which we are trying to stop. These men who have been struck off for misconduct continue, in fact, to practise as solicitors and to assist rogues and rascals in getting the money of honest men. I therefore commend this Bill to the favourable attention of the House.


I beg to second the Motion.

I think the House will realise that the intention of the Law Society in promoting this Bill and asking our consent is wholly to protect the public. Persons are not struck off the roll of solicitors unless they have been guilty of serious misconduct. Their cases are investigated by a statutory body composed of some of the most competent and highly-equipped members of the solicitors' profession, and there is an appeal to the High Court from the decisions of that body. We may, therefore, fairly assume that any solicitor who has been struck off the roll or suspended has been so struck off or suspended for adequate need. In these circumstances, it seems a pity and a misfortune that a person, who has been found incompetent, by reason of misconduct, to be entrusted with the functions of a solicitor, should be allowed to creep back really by a side door into the very occupation from which he has been excluded. The public are not able to distinguish nicely between a solicitor and a solicitor's managing clerk, and so on, and the illustration which the hon. Member for Watford (Mr. D. Herbert) has given us seems to me a sufficient reason for proceeding with this Bill. The hon. Member did not mention the fact that this Bill is supported by no less an authority than the right hon. Member for Spen Valley (Sir J. Simon), and so far as the support of another ex-Law Officer of the Crown is of any value to the passage of this Bill, I also think this Bill ought to become law, not only for the solicitor's profession, but for those who practise the profession of barrister, who equally think it will be a protection for the public.


I support the principle embodied in this Bill, because it is a good, sound, trade union principle. At the same time, I wish to call attention to the fact that every name but one on the back of this Bill is that of an hon. Member who endeavoured, during the passage of the Trade Disputes Act, to deprive the trade unions of the very principle for which they are asking in this Bill. We asked for protection against a similar kind of evil against which the solicitor seeks to protect himself. The solicitors are asking us to protect them against the blackmailer, and I agree that they should be protected. Yet what happened during the Debate on the Trade Disputes Act? Every solicitor and lawyer on that side of the House supported the proposal forbidding trade unions the right to exclude an undesirable member who undersells his labour. What is sauce for the trade union goose is sauce for the lawyer gander, and I hope that when the opportunity occurs again, these legal gentlemen, having obtained this protection, will not deny it to trade unions.


Does the hon. Member, who has just spoken, seriously suggest that there is any comparison between the case of an individual member of a trade union who undersells his labour, and the case of a solicitor who has been convicted of a criminal offence, and, following that conviction, struck off the roll? Does he seriously ask the House to accept such a proposition? If he does, I suggest that his method of thought on this occasion is somewhat faulty. As a solicitor, I welcome this Bill, because there have been a number of cases where a person who has been struck off the roll, has restarted his profession under the cloak of a managership of another solicitor. It has been extremely difficult in the past, and in fact impossible, to deal with these cases. If it could be shown to the Law Society that the person who ostensibly is carrying on a solicitor's business, is a cipher, and that the actual business is being carried on by the man who has been struck off the roll, the Law Society has certain powers, but it is very difficult to prove a case of that description. By this Bill that objectionable practice—because it is an objectionable one—will be put an end to. It will be within the right of the Law Society to give permission to enable anyone, who has been struck off or suspended, to obtain employment in a solicitor's office, and the Law Society, I have not the least doubt, will act reasonably and mercifully in these cases. They are fair-minded people, who, however, will not tolerate a state of affairs which enables someone who has misconducted himself, who has embezzled his clients' money, who has proved himself in every possible way unfitted to undertake the conduct of a lawyer's business, again to carry on that business under the cloak of someone else, and so deceive the people with whom he comes into contact. As a member of that profession, I am very glad to give the Bill my support.


Like the hon. Member for St. Helens (Mr. Sexton), I as a trade union official and a trade unionist for many years, welcome the proposal laid down in this Bill, and also the statement made by the hon. Member who spoke last. None of us desire to support anybody who has infringed his profession, and done something thoroughly wrong, and say that he should have the same rights as those who keep themselves straight. If that is good, as I say it is, for a profession which has got a high dignity to uphold—and everybody must admit that, taking things generally, the profession is a very high profession, and it is looked up to by a great number of people—the same thing applies to the trade unions. Trade union officials are usually held responsible for the conduct of the members, but it is a difficult job when there are so many thousands of members. When the Trade Disputes Act was passing through the House, everything that was bad was brought forward by the very people who are advocating this Bill, and it had a great influence on the views of the Members of the House. After all, the solicitors have a very strong trade union, which ought to be strong enough to do its own work without coming to the House, but I can see that there are likely to be people who have misconducted themselves, and eventually got struck off the roll, and not allowed to practice in the profession of which they have given many years of study. If a man is struck off the roll he is known as a "wrong 'un," to put it in agricultural parlance.


They say he is not.


They say he is not, but he is a "wrong 'un." At all events, if he is not a "wrong 'un," they say, "He is not one of those people who is good enough to be associated with us in our profession." If he is not good enough to be associated with the profession, why strike him out? Evidently be is struck off because he is not good enough, and is not suited, and has not done what the profession desire him to do. He has evidently done something wrong, and has got disqualified and got struck out of the profession which is upheld by the Master of the Rolls. We learn that he has a right of appeal to the High Court, but he cannot go there for nothing. Evidently this Bill means to protect the profession.


And the public.


And the public, of course, but that is the last consideration; the profession say, "Let us protect our profession first. Of course, if we protect our profession, and if this blackleg has not conformed to all the dictates of the association to which he is a member, and does something derogatory to our interests, we must have protection, because he is going on with his profession under a cloak end he is doing it to get a living from the public," only he is getting money from the public while not a member of the society or contributing to uphold the reputation of that society. That is wrong according to this Bill, and I agree that it is wrong, but the same thing is wrong in the case of a man who, when his colleagues decide they will not accept certain conditions of work, and hold out against them, agrees to accept them. You glorify him for going in. You say his colleagues have no right to dictate to him as to whether lie shall work or not. You glorify him and put haloes round his head; say he is a loyal man, that he is one of the best. When his colleagues, after they have made their sacrifice and are enabled to resume work, say, "He is not good enough to work with us," you say, "But he must; and you must not intimidate him; you must not even look at him askance."

When the Trade Unions Bill was going through we were, asked to consider the possibility of this man feeling that he was going to be molested or interfered with. A mere look would be sufficient, according to some hon. Members opposite, to show that his life was in danger; and if any of his colleagues were passing down the street where he lived when he was standing at the door, and happened to look towards him—

Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Mr. James Hope)

The hon. Member is entitled to draw a certain analogy, but we really cannot discuss the provisions of the Trade Unions Act on this Bill.


I wanted to give another analogy, but as you have said I am infringing the Rules of the House I will not go further with it. I would like to say in conclusion that when we get the opportunity it is just as well to remind those who are so very anxious to safeguard themselves and do not mind about anybody else, that we on this side are not going to take up that attitude. We are going to adopt the advice of the Scriptures; we are going to turn the cheek, so that you may hit the other side; we are not going to oppose this Bill or divide against it—we like its ethics and its principles—and we hope that some day or other those of you who have got control will show the same spirit as we have displayed over this matter.


I certainly do not propose to follow the line of argument of my two hon. Friends, but I must say a word upon the machinery of this Bill. Hon. Members opposite know that on many occasions in the last four or five years I have opposed anything which would strengthen the position of an incorporation for professional purposes. The object of this Bill is in every way good. There is not an hon. Member who has had any experience, say, of the manipulations of company law who would not want to prevent a man who has been struck off the rolls for fraudulent practices from being used to do certain things in connection with the Companies Acts, to mention no other Statute. But I always feel a little anxious regarding the grant of considerable powers to incorporated bodies dealing with professions.


Perhaps the hon. Member does not realise that this body does not, strictly speaking, incorporate the profession. It is a body which is established by Act of Parliament and given judicial powers for an express purpose. It is only the first court, from which there is an appeal to another court. It is a judicial body, and not a body representing the profession.


I quite understand that, but it is a serious matter for individual citizens, even though they may have done wrong, if their fate lies in the hands of a private body to whom certain powers have been given by Act of Parliament. I admire the object of the Bill, and having regard to the rest of the Statutes which have been passed concerning the legal profession, I do not see there is any course open to the House except to pass the Bill in its present form; but I do suggest that we ought not to grant additional powers to bodies of this kind unless they are absolutely necessary. I should have been even more against the Bill but for the Amendment made in Standing Committee last year. The position of a person struck off the rolls and unable to obtain employment is difficult enough, and if he were to be subject to prosecution and a penalty of £10 for every offence in connection with his efforts to obtain employment, he would he in a serious position. The Amendment accepted last year that the prosecution should not rest with the Law Society, but must have the consent of the Attorney-General, is all to the good, and though I feel on this Bill very much as I have felt towards Bills dealing with architects, accountants and other professions, I do not see how we are to prevent in any other way the continuance of fraud. Therefore, I shall not oppose the Bill.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Resolved, "That this House will immediately resolve itself into the Committee on the Bill."—[Mr. D. Herbert.]

Bill accordingly considered in Committee and reported, without Amendment; read the Third time, and passed.