HC Deb 20 March 1940 vol 358 cc2086-94

Order for Second Reading read.

7.46 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Donald Somervell)

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

As the House knows, the solicitors' profession and its organisation is regulated largely by Statute. This Bill is designed to enable modifications of the statute machinery to be made in circumstances arising out of war conditions, and, in particular, for the benefit of those who are training as solicitors who may be serving in the forces or otherwise engaged on war work. It does for the Law Society and the solicitors' profession very much the same kind of thing that was done for the universities of Oxford and Cambridge under an Act passed some little time ago and for other universities and chartered bodies under a somewhat later Act. If hon. Members look through the Bill they will see the sort of matters with which it deals. I hope it will be regarded as a useful and non-controversial Measure.

Clause 1 gives the Council of the Law Society power to grant exemption from passing the intermediate examination on account of circumstances connected with or arising out of the present emergency. In the ordinary course, a solicitor's articled clerk has to pass a preliminary, an intermediate and a final examination. There may well be cases in which an articled clerk is away for a year or more—we cannot say how many years—and it would be quite reasonable to let him off the intermediate examination. He will, of course, have to pass the final examination. Clause 2 gives power to allow earlier presentation for the final examination. Under the principal Act an articled clerk can only present himself for final examination at the end of his articles or thereafter. This Clause will enable someone who is, perhaps, within six months or a year or even 18 months of the end of his articles, and feels that he can get through the final examination, to take it now, perhaps before he is called up for service. Clause 3 enables the Council to reckon national service as service under articles in certain cases, particularly of course in war circumstances.

As the House knows, the full period of articles is five years. In certain cases where a man has a law degree from a university that period may be reduced to three years, and in other cases where he has taken a law course but not a full degree it can be reduced to four years. This Clause enables the Council to reckon national service, no matter into which of these categories an articled clerk falls, as part of the qualifying period with the proviso that he must have had at least two years' actual employment as an articled clerk. Clause 4 deals with a subsidiary matter. It provides for cases in which, under present regulations, if a course of legal instruction of a certain kind has been taken it counts for, I think, a year's articles. Where a man is not able to complete the course and therefore is not entitled under existing regulations to that concession, the Council is entitled to permit a reduction in the term of service.

Clause 5 deals with prizes, scholarships and so on. It is, of course, the inevitable result of war not only that those serving as articled clerks may be taken away but that others will not enter into their articles. There may well be prizes and scholarships for which there is no real application at the present time, and it is much better in the interest of everybody that there should be power to suspend their award and that the money accumulated should be made available to help those who continue or start as articled clerks after the war. Clause 6 provides that powers exercisable by the Master of the Rolls may be exercised under his direction by a judge of the High Court. That enables possible emergencies, such as, for instance, disorganisation by air raids, to be dealt with, and the Clause is on the same lines as provisions in other Bills which the House has passed. Clause 7 enables the Law Society to reduce, if they think fit, the statutory number of examinations, which at present is three in every year. Then follows an interpretation Clause, and after that there is a Clause dealing with Scotland. The House will see that, so far as Scotland is concerned, the Bill only deals with the question of periods of national service being taken into account as part of the qualifying period. The reason for that is that the other matters dealt with in this Bill are not in Scotland at present regulated by Statute, and difficulties which arise therefore can be dealt with under the present organisation of the profession in Scotland.

7.53 p.m.

Mr. Kirkwood (Dumbarton Burghs)

I should like to ask a question on Clause 9. That Clause says that the General Council of Solicitors in Scotland may, at their discretion, permit the whole or any part of the period of service to be reckoned as actual service under indentures for the purposes of this Act. There is nothing extraordinary in that, because in May of last year I got the managing director of John Brown and Company to give a lead to the shipbuilding industry in this country so that apprentices would have their time counted while they were in the Army. I know, however, of a very hard case in my constituency and I would like to know whether it is possible to give any help in that case under this Bill. It is the case of a young solicitor who is now in the Army—he was a Territorial—and whose father, now over 70 years of age, has built up a good business. I want to know whether there is any possibility under this Bill, of getting that young man out of the Army in order that he may assist in carrying on his father's business which has been built up as a result of a life's work? Unless he can be got out of the Army, that business will be ruined, and I would like to know whether the Attorney-General can assist, under this Bill, in a case of that kind?

7.55 p.m.

Mr. E. Smith (Stoke)

There are some questions which I would like to ask about this Bill. As far as I am concerned, I object to a Bill of this kind. The Attorney-General told us that the legal profession is regulated by Statute. That is perfectly true, but there are thousands and even millions of people in this country who will be affected by this war and I should like to ask why preferential treatment should be given to members of the legal profession. I want to know, in the first place, whether I am right in saying that Clauses 7, 8 and 9 are not limited to the duration of the war?

The Attorney-General

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to interrupt in order to give him an explanation I think it may save time. The original Bill introduced in another place did contain Clauses which did not relate to war conditions, but they are not in the Bill presented to this House.

Mr. Smith

The next point I want to put has reference to the statement of the Attorney-General that before articled clerks are called up for service, Clause 2 will apply to them and they will be allowed earlier presentation for the final examination. There are thousands of young men thinking of their position in this matter, and I do not think it would be right for us to sit here and see this Bill go through without making some observations on this point. Thousands of young men are being called up. I think that the calling up is being done more fairly than was the case during the last war, but the whole future of these young men is at stake. If one small section of the community is to have the future safeguarded for them by a Bill of this character, it seems to me that there is something wrong. It means that there will be preferential treatment.

Take the case of apprentices for example. Parents of working-class boys have to make great sacrifices in order that their sons may get the technical and theoretical equipment to enable them to become skilled craftsmen. They are taken away at the age of 20. Their parents are not saying much about it because they realise the position in which the country is, but it is a little annoying to feel that, while one section of the community is safeguarded, our lads are being called up at the age of 20. I would like to refer also to the case of superannuated people and pensioners. They cannot have their future safeguarded. We know what happened to the policemen after the last war. While we have agreed not to oppose this Bill, we do think that the Government ought to introduce a Measure to safeguard these other people as far as possible. If that cannot be done, they should not have introduced a Measure of this kind to deal with a few well-placed people.

7.59 p.m.

Major Milner (Leeds, South-East)

I feel that my hon. Friend's speech is based on a misapprehension. No special preference is given to articled clerks. This Bill has no reference to calling up. As far as I know, articled clerks will be subject to calling up just as are apprentices in any other class. As far as I am concerned, and I think I might speak in this matter for the legal profession, they do not want any preferential treatment of that kind. The sole purpose of this Bill is to grant certain exemptions from examinations and so on to articled clerks—that is to say, young men who are apprenticed, to use a more familiar expression—and to enable them to count the period during which they serve in His Majesty's Forces as part of the period for which they would normally be articled and have to serve with a solicitor. To that extent it is true that the object of the Bill is to ensure that articled clerks, who are mostly between 17 and 22, should suffer as little as possible by the war. I do not think any special preference is being granted to members of the legal profession. They are subject to being called up, like the rest of the community, and I am not aware that they are asking for any special privileges. I believe that similar provisions were passed during the last war, and I hope they will be passed on this occasion. I should, however, welcome any more general provisions which will put other sections of the community on the same basis if—which I do not think is the case—any special favour is being conferred by the Bill.

8.2 p.m.

Mr. Tomlinson (Farnworth)

The only special favour which it can be suggested is conferred by the Bill is that the practice of the law is determined by enactments and, when changes are taking place, there must be changes in the law in order that solicitors may practise according to that law. To that extent, they are, I will not say a privileged but a favoured class. The conditions under which they carry out their work are laid down by Act of Parliament. It is very necessary that it should be so when we remember the kind of work that they are doing, because it is for their interpretation of Acts of Parliament that those who are not in that privileged class may be called upon to pay, and perhaps pay "through the nose." I am concerned that these people should understand their business, as long as they are necessary. I should like to ask whether the safeguards which are being provided, in regard to those who will be excused from certain portions of the normal procedure, are sufficient to guarantee that they will be fully qualified to carry out their work as solicitors when the time comes for them to do so. I believe it is necessary that some leniency should be shown, and an individual allowed to sit for his final examination without having passed his intermediate examination. That seems to me a wise procedure, unless there is something in the intermediate examination which is not contained in the final and is essential to the carrying out of the person's work as a solicitor when he is qualified. If that is the case, then to the extent that the intermediate examination is being passed over, we may get less-qualified solicitors at the end of this period.

Clause 5 deals with the power to suspend the award of prizes if necessary. I understand that these prizes are at present granted under Act of Parliament, and I should imagine, from the phrasing of the Clause, that they must be awarded from year to year. In war circumstances the examinations at which the prizes are granted may not be carried on as they have been, and certain amounts of money will accumulate. This Clause, if I read it aright, gives the Law Society power to spend that money as and when they think fit. It seems to me that, if we are safeguarding the interests of those who are being called up, there should be something in the power that is granted to ensure that the generation which is suffering as a consequence of the war, should have the benefit of those awards which are not now being given because the war is in operation. I think if some words could be inserted by which the House would give a lead to the Society in exercise of that power, it would be a step in the right direction. It appears, to me that power is being given to the Law Society to amend the principal Act, under which it is compulsory that so many preliminary, intermediate and final examinations should be held in a year. Are we giving them power to abandon examinations altogether if they so desire—to determine that no examination shall be held in that year? If it is so, it seems to me that it is too great a power. I have had a lot of trouble during the last few months with parents who spent a good deal of time and money in bringing children up to the age of 18, and qualifying them, as they thought, to sit for Civil Service examinations. It has been decided that on account of the war, Civil Service examinations shall be abandoned for the year, and it seems to the parents that their time has been wasted. I do not want to give the Law Society power to abandon these examinations. Does the Clause mean that they have power to vary them or to abandon them altogether?

8.7 p.m.

The Attorney-General

The hon. Member for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirkwood) put a specific case, if I understood him aright, not of a person who was indentured but of an admitted solicitor who desired to get back to look after his father's business. The hon. Member will have to approach the War Office on that matter, if he has not already done so, because it is quite outside the Bill. I should like to disabuse the hon. Member for Stoke (Mr. E. Smith) in the attitude which he took up towards the Bill. I think I can do so by referring him to what the hon. Member for Dumbarton Burghs said. He pointed out that he persuaded Messrs. John Brown to do this very matter in respect of engineering apprentices. No one had to come to Parliament in order to enable Messrs. John Brown to do that.

Mr. Kirkwood

Following that, it was agreed between the Employers' Federation and the trade unions that it should apply all over Great Britain.

The Attorney-General

The point that I wanted to make is that here the Law Society want to make the same concession that the engineering trade has done, because they think it right, but they cannot do it unless Parliament gives them leave, and it is not therefore giving anyone a special privilege. It is enabling a body which Parliament has restricted in its action to do acts which other people can do without coming to Parliament. If the hon. Member realises that, he will realise that this is not quite the sort of Bill that he thought. I would also point out that bodies which carry on a somewhat similar educational function, universities and so on, some of which are also tied by Statute, have received from the House the same power of elasticity in modifying their regulations as we are conferring on the Law Society. Speaking generally, any body which is tied down in that way and wants to do what the House considers reasonable will have the sympathy of the House in enabling it to act in this way.

The hon. Member for Farnworth (Mr. Tomlinson) raised two points, one on Clause 5 with regard to prizes, scholarships and awards. It is always difficult not to tie people up too tightly in putting in words what they are to do in circumstances at present unforeseeable in detail. One can have little doubt that the Law Society will do its best to ensure that people are not hampered in their career through serving their country. I will look into it and see whether it is possible to put anything into the Bill, but I cannot say at present. I read Clause 7 as meaning that at least one examination will be held every year. That is the inten- tion of the Law Society, and, in my view, that is what they are legally bound to do under the Clause.

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

Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House for Tuesday, 2nd April.—[Mr. Boulton.]