HC Deb 20 June 1933 vol 279 cc647-9

I beg to move: That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law relating to jurors and juries in England and Wales. The main purpose of this Bill, as recited in the Preamble, is directed to a situation in which certain qualifications and limitations of the duty of service as jurors result in the burden of such duty falling on too limited a number of His Majesty's lieges. It means, in effect, that the present definitions of jury service make an undue call upon the services of men, and that has resulted from the view taken of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, 1919, which opened jury service to women. That Statute was regarded as an experiment, and the definition of juror used in connection with that Statute did not go back to the original definitions, with the result that a very large number of wives are not on the jury list. The principal provision of the proposed Bill is to redefine the word "juror" to include every person, and the wife or husband of such person within the Statutes. There are cases of husbands escaping jury service under cover of their wives, and such cases are also to be brought within the ambit of the Bill. A further addition to the qualification of a juror is added by the words: or the wife or husband of such householder or occupier of a shop, warehouse, counting house, chamber, or office for the purpose of trade or commerce within the said City (of London), and have lands, tenements or personal estate of the value of £100. This relates to the qualification of special juror in the City of London. That par- ticular provision is directed to the purpose of extending the burden of jury service more evenly over the sexes. I impress the view upon the House that now that women enjoy the privilege of the franchise they should be ready, as I believe they are, to undertake the duties of citizens in connection with jury service. The main purpose of the Bill is to extend that service on those lines. While this is the principal purpose to be obtained, opportunity is taken under the Bill of reviewing certain other matters connected with jury service which have been observed during the service of women on juries since the year 1920, when it began. By reason of the view taken that it was an experiment, a device was used in some cases of challenging women jurors submitted for service, for the purpose of excluding women altogether from the particular jury and from the trial. It is thought by large bodies of women to be a hindrance which they should no longer be called upon to meet, and therefore in the Bill it is proposed to lay down that no challenge shall be made on the ground of sex, and in the case of any challenge the juror challenged shall be replaced by a member of the same sex. I am aware that that may give rise to some controversy, but it is a matter which can be examined later.

It is not intended to interfere with the ancient right of a subject to select his or her jurors, but to deal with what some of us believe to be an evasion of the Statute which we think should be prevented. A further matter to be dealt with in the Bill is the limitation placed upon the service of women upon juries by the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act. A discretion was given to the judge to make an order that the jury be composed of men only or of women only "by reason of the nature of the case." It was inserted because it was thought that certain cases should not be opened in the presence of women, but I am bound to say from considerable experience of such matters that that is a restriction which need no longer be insisted upon, and therefore the proposed Bill takes the opportunity of repealing that limitation.

The Bill reviews the Rules of Court set up by the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in a particular way. One of the Rules of Court under that Statute exempts from attendance as jurors any women who are for medical reasons unfit to attend. Those words, and the way in which they have been applied, are regarded by many responsible women as unnecessary. It is proposed to substitute these words: Exempting from attendance as jurors any person to whom special hardship would be caused on account of physical unfitness or business or household considerations. The House will see that the objection —and a very proper objection—made to the present words of the Statute is cured and that at the same time opportunity is taken to enable the court to review cases of hardship in jury service not only in the case of women, but in the case of men. Such are the provisions of the Bill. I am happy to tell the House that in the main the Bill is non-controversial. The only controversial matter may be connected with the right to challenge. The Bill is supported in all quarters of the House. It has been drafted by a very highly respected Member of the House, and is brought forward by me at the request of the National Council of Women, a well-known organisation representing women of all classes in the country. In these circumstances I ask the House to give me leave to proceed with the Bill.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Holford Knight, Mr. Denman, Mr. Isaac Foot, Sir Ernest Graham Little, Major Hills, Mr. Mander, Miss Pickford, Miss Rathbone and Sir John Withers.