HC Deb 26 February 1937 vol 320 cc2423-30

Order for Second Reading read.

3.44 p.m.

Mr. Ernest Evans

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

This is a Bill which is designed to establish beyond doubt two rights to which Welsh people claim to be entitled and which no sensible man will deny them. The first right is the right of a Welsh-speaking person to give his evidence in his own language in a court of justice in Wales and Monmouthshire. The only surprising thing about this claim is that it is necessary to make it. The necessity arises out of old Acts of Parliament, to which I should like to refer at some length if I had the time, for it is very difficult to compress in a few minutes the history of four centuries. I do not think the Attorney-General will dispute the fact that doubts do exist as to the elementary right of a Welshman to give evidence in his own language in 1.he courts of justice in Wales and Monmouthshire, and it is in order to remove all doubt that I move the Second reading of this Bill. I shall not go into the details of it, but I should like to say that it is not put forward from a purely academic point of view, because a very practical measure of importance attaches 10 it. If a monoglot Welshman goes into a court of justice an interpreter will be provided for him at once. The trouble is not with the monoglot Welshman, but with those other Welshmen, and there are hundreds of thousands of them, who cannot claim to be monoglot Welshmen, but who do think in Welsh and can better appreciate the questions put to them if they are in the Welsh language, and can better express themselves in their native tongue.

This is not a technical or an academic difficulty, but a difficulty which arises in practically every court in Wales every day throughout the year. What is proposed in this Bill is that if a Welshman can give his evidence better in his native tongue he shall be allowed to do so. I am sure every hon. Member will agree that in any case before a court the capacity of the parties to it to express themselves properly is a matter of the most vital concern, not only to the parties to the litigation, but to the public, because of the desirability of everybody understanding that in this country there is complete impartiality on the part of the judges and that there is also complete fairness in the justice which they seek to dispense.

The second Clause of the Bill is concerned with a rather different question. One example of it arose recently when the trial of three men of education was removed from Wales to the Central Criminal Court. I do not want to say anything about that trial. The decision to remove it to London was a decision of the Divisional Court, and I have no right to criticise it, but it has given the greatest dissatisfaction in Wales. Clause 2 of my Bill is designed to establish, again beyond doubt, what is one of the elementary and essential principles of British justice, that an accused person shall be tried by his peers. It is not often that I go to a dictionary, except to help me to solve cross-word puzzles, but I had to consult the dictionary this morning, and I found out that a peer is a person of equal character, quality and ability, and I am not ashamed to say that so far as a Welshman is concerned the only peer must be another Welshman. That is all I have to say about this Bill. I should have liked to say more, but the time is not available. All I will add in conclusion is that the Welsh people are deeply conscious of their own distinctive nationality and are proud of it. They feel that existing legislation casts a slur upon their nationhood and they appeal to the British Parliament to remove that reproach.

3.50 p.m.

Mr. Clement Davies

I beg to second the Motion.

I should have liked to develop the arguments in favour of this Bill, but I do not intend to do so, and would point out only one thing in regard to the first Clause. I know of no legislation on the Statute Book aimed at any language, except the Statute of Henry VIII which definitely denies to the Welshman the use of his own language in the courts of this country. That Act, which is aimed at the Welsh people and their language, remains upon the Statute Book. No reasonable man would suggest such legislation to-day or would wish it to remain upon the Statute Book. There has been some doubt, by reason of a Section in the Act of Henry VIII, whether in the administration of the courts, that Act has been repealed, but from what has happened it is obvious that it has not been repealed.

The only question is to the extent to which we are forbidden to use our language in the courts in Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for the Welsh University (Mr. E. Evans) has spoken of the case of the monoglot Welshman. There is not a judge on the bench who would not allow him to give his evidence through an interpreter, but that is a matter of courtesy and not of right. Under the common law of England, a Chinese, a German, a Frenchman, or any other foreigner is entitled to give his evidence in his own language, and that is as it should be, in order that a just decision may be reached upon the issues raised, but the particular Statute denies it to our people, and for that reason we desire to have this injustice removed and this Clause placed upon the Statute Book.

With regard to the second Clause I would like to say only that prior to the Act of 1856 the old common law was that if there was a danger that justice would not be done in any assize town there was a right to remove the case from that assize town to the adjacent county, and nowhere else. Then came the Statute of Victoria, which gave the right to remove a case to the Old Bailey. The Bill would enable us to ask for a trial, after a case had been removed from one county, oniy in another county in Wales. If that be going too far, I should be willing to go back to the principle of the old common law under which application was made to the judge who would decide, upon the merits of the case, its proper place of trial. The law as it stands is an insult to the Welsh people, when a case can be taken away from their hands and brought to London to be heard by people who do not understand the language that was spoken in this country at least 2,000 years ago.

3.54 p.m.

The Attorney-General

I have not time to cover fully the whole ground of the arguments which have been used on this Bill but I must say at the outset that I disagree with the hon. Member for the Welsh University (Mr. E. Evans) as to whether doubt exists to-day of the right of Welsh-speaking persons to give evidence in Welsh. There is no shadow of doubt of any kind, in my humble opinion. I agree that the Section of the Statute of Henry VIII is still on the Statute Book. Under that Section it is the actual proceedings which are ordered to take place, I will not say in English but in the language we speak in this House, in the courts of Wales, but it does not in any way interfere with the right of a person to ask for an interpreter in giving his evidence. There is an equally undoubted right and in criminal cases a definite obligation on the court to see that evidence which may not be fully understood should be interpreted.

I regard that as being essential to the proper administration of justice. The rule is, as I understand the rule, that any person is entitled to have an interpreter if the language in which he naturally thinks and expresses himself is other than English. That applies, of course, to the monoglot Welshman. If Welshmen can show that English is not the language in which they can naturally express themselves, and if in an ordinary case there is any impediment placed in the way of not understanding questions in English or answering them, then the rule is that such persons are entitled to have an interpreter.

Therefore, I suggest, without any hostility to the idea at the back of this Clause, that the rule on the subject is quite clear. I regard it as vital not only to Welsh-speaking people in their own courts but Welsh-speaking people if they have the misfortune to come into courts in other parts of the country, that if they do not naturally speak the language of that court they should have the right to an interpreter, and if they require it they should be able to have the questions interpreted to them and to give their evidence in their own natural language. I do, therefore, think that it would be unfortunate to place on the Statute Book a section which declares that Welsh-speaking persons in Wales have a right which in my opinion they have already.

Mr. Lloyd George

I should like to ask one question. This is a very important matter. Supposing a Welshman understands English and can speak it, but he prefers to give his evidence in his own language. Would the judge be entitled in that case to say: "You understand English and speak it well; therefore I cannot allow you to speak in Welsh"?

The Attorney-General

I cannot say exactly what the judge would say in a particular case, but the rule, if applied, and it is a proper rule, is that if a man can satisfy the judge that the language in which he naturally thinks and expresses himself is not English, then he should be entitled to an interpreter. If he can naturally express himself in English, I think it is reasonable that he should do so. I agree with the suggestion of my hon. and learned Friend that this section goes too far. There is a case summarised in the old books of an application by the defence for removal of a trial in which both sides agreed that it was desirable to have the trial outside Wales. One can well imagine a case which might be directed against a great national figure, which would arouse much feeling over the whole of Wales. I agree with my hon. and learned Friend in that I think the discretion should be more clearly at large in these applications than it is to-day. Whether the application is by the prosecution or the defence there should be discretion in regard to adjoining counties and in regard to transfer to London, if it is thought necessary. I am making inquiries on that matter, and I do not think it will need legislation to deal with it. It is advisable to make the point quite clear. In regard to the first proposal it is, as I have said, undesirable, and in regard to the second one, it is unnecessary.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. E. Evans rose in his place, and claimed to move, "That the Question be now put," but MR. SPEAKER withheld his assent, and declined then to put that Question.

It being Four of the Clock, the Debate stood adjourned.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 2.

Adjourned at One minute after Four o'Clock until Monday next, 1st March.