HC Deb 16 April 1937 vol 322 cc1323-8

Notwithstanding sub-section (5) of section seventy of the Supreme Court of Judicature (Consolidation) Act, 1925, and the rules made thereunder, no matrimonial cause, other than a cause brought under the Poor Persons Rules, shall be heard by a commissioner acting under a commission of assize or any other commission unless the Registrar shall have given a certificate certifying that the petitioner has been resident within the jurisdiction of the assize for upwards of six months or that by reason of the poverty of the parties to the cause it is desirable that the cause shall be heard by the said commissioner.—[Mr. Turton.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

11.13 a.m.

Mr. Turton

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

A commonly-shared view of the divorce law is that a number of divorces go through which, if all the facts were known, would not go through, and that is what this Clause is intended to stop. The present Bill will, I fear, make it more easy for divorces to go through when they should not go through unless it is subject to safeguards. At present we frequently hear of collusive adultery. If the Bill passes, there will be the additional grounds of desertion, incurable insanity and cruelty which, if they are being heard in a place where the parties are not known, may well lead to an increase in what is feared by very many people. I have a high regard for the activities of the King's Proctor. He does his duty most efficiently and with great care, but the increase of divorce work at Assizes has made his task far more difficult. In the old days, although you could have civil causes tried at Assizes, matrimonial causes were triable only in London. In 1925 an Act was passed which enabled matrimonial causes to be tried at Assizes if they were undefended, or if they were defended causes brought under the Poor Persons Rules. Within five or six years of the passing of that Act the judges found that this system was being so abused that they had to make a special rule that divorce causes which were based on hotel evidence should be tried only in London, and that has been the rule since that time. There are two safeguards. There is, first of all, the safeguard of notoriety. People do not wish to enter the Divorce Court because of the notoriety that it gives them and, when a divorce court cause is brought in a court near where they are living, they will not bring it because of the public opinion that surrounds them and the notoriety that is given them. The other safeguard is that divorce causes must not be brought in a hole-and-corner manner.

These two safeguards are not working successfully to-day. Last month the Lord Chief Justice was trying a cause at Lewes Assizes. The petitioner used to live in Hampshire and was living, at the time when the cause was presented, in Paris. The Lord Chief Justice asked, "To what do I owe the advantage of having to deal with this rubbishy case at Lewes?" It was pointed out to him that the alleged adultery took place at a Brighton hotel, and for that reason the case was before him. That is unsatisfactory. The circuit system is being overloaded by these divorce causes. Under the 1925 Act divorce causes are not being tried by those judges who habitually try them in the Divorce Division in London. They have to be tried by King's Bench judges. That is a hardship to the King's Bench judges. It does not mean that divorce causes are any the less well tried, because King's Bench judges are quite competent to deal with them, but it is most unfair to those who are on circuit, working very long hours in order to help those who live in the circuit area to get their litigation through, to give them work that does not really belong to them. The hours on circuit are very different from those in London. The judges sit from half-past ten often till seven o'clock at night, and the increase in divorce work has been tremendous. Fifteen causes uses go through every hour. Some of these cases have no connection with the circuit, and it may well happen that some undefended cases go through which, if all the facts were known, would not go through.

One of the results of this Bill must undoubtedly be, certainly in the early stages, an increase in the number of divorce cases brought, and, unless you have the safeguard which I propose, the circuit system will be nearly unworkable. So many people will want to bring their matrimonial causes that work of a civil and criminal nature will have to be sacrificed. The remedy that I suggest is to limit the hearing of divorce causes at Assizes first of all to poor persons' causes. No one wishes to make it more difficult for poor persons working under the Poor Persons' Rules to obtain divorce. The second reason for bringing divorce work to the Assizes is the poverty of the parties. There are causes which are not true poor persons' causes but where the parties are so badly off that the extra pound or two in witnesses' expenses may be a real bar to the obtaining of divorce. Lastly, there is the case where the petitioner has been resident for six months in the area of the Assizes. That appears to me to be a fair way of dealing with the problem. If it is a local case, if instead of a person living in London going to Manchester or Liverpool, as has been known lately, in order to get a divorce, the divorce causes at each assize town are limited to these poor people, or to cases where the parties have been resident for six months, justice will have been done. There may be objections to the Clause, and I am quite ready to alter the drafting, or to allow it to be altered in another place. It is quite likely to be open to criticism, but I commend the Clause to the sympathetic consideration of the House.

11.25 a.m.

Mr. Lewis

I beg to second the Motion.

I hope very much that the Solicitor-General will not think it necessary to oppose the Clause. If he should not do so, it will be safe to assume that there is no technical or practical objection to the proposal. Speaking as a supporter of the Bill, I hope the promoters will see their way to accept a Clause which does not in any way detract from the essential purpose of the Bill, and which, in my judgment, affords a method of checking certain abuses which have come to light under the present working of the law.

11.26 a.m.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Terence O'Connor)

It may be for the convenience of the House if, on this the first Motion on the Amendment Paper, I indicate the general attitude of the Government. This is still, as it was on the Committee stage, a Private Member's Bill, and the Govern- ment are not intervening upon any matter of policy. What guidance I can afford to the House as to detail I am here to give. But there are one or two matters on the Amendment Paper where it will be necessary for the representative of the Government to indicate a view, because only a representative of the Government can know all the facts of the situation. This is such a case. The proposal that is involved in this proposed new Clause is a proposal which completely alters the present legislative and administrative arrangements under which divorce cases are tried at Assizes, and it is my duty to tell the House what those arrangements are at present, and, why whatever be the fate of this Bill, the Government do not contemplate altering those arrangements in the sense of the new Clause.

At present, by a section of the Judicature Act, passed in 1925, divorce cases can be tried at Assizes subject to Rules of Court, and the Rules of Court prescribe the class of the case that can be tried at the Assizes and the circumstances in which cases can go to Assizes for trial. Under that Act Orders have been made, and an Order was made directing that Assizes may try undefended cases or poor persons' cases. There is another Order of the High Court which specifies that the place of hearing is to be determined by the Registrar, and there is a direction issued by the Judge, which for this purpose has the effect of law, which specifies that the Registrar must consider affidavits that are put forward by the parties in determining where the case should be tried, and the affidavits have to set forth the residential circumstances of all the witnesses and any facts which bear upon the question of whether any particular place should be chosen.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) has said, there have, of course, been abuses of the system, and no doubt local venues have been obtained in cases where the parties desired to obscure from the more elaborate publicity of London what is, in fact, going on. Steps have been taken to improve that. The affidavits are tightened up, and, in addition to that, there has been a direction by the Court, that where the only specific charge of adultery is with an unknown woman at a hotel, an order for the venue shall direct the hearing in London. That is to avoid the sort of case referred to by my hon. Friend which received certain animadversions by one of the learned Judges—I think it was the Lord Chief Justice—sitting at Lewes Assizes. Suppose the present Clause were passed, of course there would be a substantial limitation of the present power to try undefended cases a Assizes. The limitation to people who live in the county does not take account of the fact that by far the most important matter from the point of view of expense is where the witnesses live, and it is the place of residence of the witnesses that is of vital importance when the Registrar comes to make his decision.

There is one other matter to which it is proper to call the attention of the House. If this new Clause were passed, the already hopelessly congested lists in London would be still further congested by directing to London cases which were more conveniently and cheaply tried at Assizes. And the last observation I have to make is this. My hon. Friend said something about local venues. The jurisdiction of the Assize Courts to try civil cases is not a local one at all. It is local in criminal cases, but not in civil cases. Order 36, Rule 10, says: There shall be no local venue for the trial of any cause, matter, or issue except where otherwise provided by Statute. It would be rather a strange anomaly if we separated off this civil matter and said that, notwithstanding the general law on the subject, it should be a matter on which there should be a local venue and a local venue alone. For these reasons the Government cannot recommend the House to accept the proposed new Clause.

11.33 a.m.

Mr. Morgan Jones

The learned Solicitor-General has taken the occasion of this Motion to indicate what the view of the Government will be with regard to this Bill, and, if I may venture to do so, I should like, also, to say one or two words about the action of my hon. Friends officially. The hon. and Learned Gentleman said that this Bill is a Private Member's Bill. Frequently on Private Members' Bills we have to ask our friends to take an official party line in respect to them, and hon. Members will understand that quite easily. But to-day it is a matter of a different character. Opinions are sharply divided in all parts of the House, and those opinions arise from deep religious convictions very frequently, and therefore I have been asked by my hon. Friends on this side to say that as a party we shall take no party action on this Bill at all. That is not to say that Members will not be free to express their views one way or the other on any particular Amendment, but whoever speaks on this side will be speaking in his own personal capacity, and not as representing the party.

Mr. Turton

In view of the objections that have been taken, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Clause.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.