HC Deb 29 April 1938 vol 335 cc459-62

The court may and upon the request duly filed, in writing, with the court, within such time as the rules of the court shall prescribe, by a party to the application, shall hear any application under this Act in chambers.—[Major Mills.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

11.11 a.m.

Major Mills

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

This is a proposed new Clause which stands in the name of several hon. Friends and myself, and I am sure the House will feel sorry for the reason which keeps the hon. and gallant Member for Epsom (Sir A. Southby) away from the House to-day. I will not take up much time with this matter, but as this is a Bill which involves the bringing into court of family disputes it is almost inevitable that in the investigation of such disputes a certain amount of dirty linen will be washed in public, and it would be a very good thing if the courts were able to direct that such cases should be taken in chambers. It is quite possible that when the reasons which led a man to disinherit a child or his wife are being considered allegations will be made from one side which will not redound to the credit of the other side, and it would be a great pity if pain were caused by reflections upon the behaviour of the deceased, and still worse if things were said unjustifiably which would be to the discredit of the survivors. I do not think it was ever intended that the Bill should add to the punishment of someone who has been disinherited, whether rightly or not, by reflections on the character of the man who is dead, who has acted, though perhaps wrongly, on what seemed to him good grounds, whatever decision the court may come to on the point. Therefore, I submit that it would be a good thing if at times these applications could be heard in chambers, and it is suggested that the courts themselves shall make the rules under which it will be decided whether the case shall be considered in chambers or not.

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson

I beg to second the Motion.

11.13 a.m.

Mr. Holmes

I should like, first, to associate myself with what the hon. and gallant Member for Christchurch (Major Mills) has said with regard to the absence of the hon. and gallant Member for Epsom (Sir A. Southby). I also appreciate the desire of those who have brought forward this new Clause that dirty linen should not be washed in public, but in a matter of this sort one has to allow the Chancery Judges, to make their own procedure. I am informed that it is quite likely that what my hon. Friends are endeavouring to obtain by this new Clause will in practice take place. Rules will be made so that these cases can, as far as possible, be heard in chambers. One knows perfectly well that the judges are only too desirous of keeping out of court as many things as possible, not from the point of view of keeping matters private, but in order that the courts may be efficient and may get through their work in a reasonable way without becoming choked.

There is another point which I desire to submit to the House, and that is that it has been the settled policy of all Governments since the Judicature Act, 1925, was passed, to keep matters of procedure out of Statutes. Experience showed that procedure constantly became obsolete, and that when alterations were needed to bring it into line with the times great embarrassment was caused because an Act of Parliament was required. The Judicature Act repealed all matters of procedure in existing Statutes and gave the Rules Committee the widest possible power to make the rules of procedure. Having regard to the fact that what my hon. Friends want will actually be put into practice in this way, I hope that they will not press their proposed new Clause.

11.16 a.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Donald Somervell)

There is the technical objection to which my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Holmes) has referred, that matters of procedure are now dealt with by the Rules Committee and not by Statute. No doubt the substance of this matter will be considered as well as all the arguments in favour of publicity or otherwise, and I can certainly give a pledge that the matter will, in due course, be considered by the Rules Committee. Although I cannot, of course, say what decision they will come to, we can trust them to come to a wise decision as to whether it is desirable that this power should or should not be given.

11.17 a.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Heneage

May I, as a layman, ask a question as to the procedure which will actually be adopted? Will the procedure decided upon by the Rules Committee be adopted in every case, or will some judge or court of referees, or whatever it may be, say that on a particular issue it is as well to have the case heard in chambers? The less that things are considered in secret the better, but it is true, on the other hand, that what is called dirty linen should not be washed in public. I should like to know how it will be possible to draw up the rules so as to hold the balance evenly between the different kinds of case.

11.18 a.m.

Sir John Withers

I am sure that my hon. and gallant Friend would not have raised that question had he known the enormous number of matters which have to be considered in private; in the Chancery Courts, for instance, in cases of the guardianship of infants. There is a general rule that such cases start in chambers. Nobody need be nervous at all that any action involving dirty linen will be launched in public.

11.19 a.m.

Mr. Macquisten

We are glad to have had the assurances in regard to cases of which the news hawks and the cheap Press love to get hold. There is nothing they like better, and I am sure that the Rules Committee will not permit these little family squabbles to receive undue publicity. As a family solicitor, I know that the bitterness of those who are disinherited, and very properly disinherited, when a will has come to be read is often terrific, and that there is nothing they would not do, in their venom, to throw mud. I hope that such people will not get a chance of doing it, and that the Rules Committee will realise that such affairs are private and should be held in chambers, so that there will be no washing of dirty linen in public.

11.20 a.m.

Mr. Thorne

Assuming that such cases are heard in chambers, will those who feel that they have a grievance be entitled to give evidence?

The Attorney-General

indicated assent.

Major Mills

In view of the remarks of the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Holmes) and the pledge which has been given by the Attorney-General, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Clause.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.