HC Deb 22 November 1945 vol 416 cc715-24


Commander Maitland (Horncastle)

I rise to address the House, for the first time, with great diffidence, and particularly so tonight, at this late hour, after such an extremely interesting Debate on foreign policy. For a very short time, I want to bring the attention of the House to more local matters, and to discuss the question of the appointment of justices of the peace in this country. At first sight, it would appear that that was a subject far divorced from that which we have been discussing today —

It being a Quarter past Ten 0'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn." —[Mr. Mathers.]

Commander Maitland

However, 1 think that with a little thought one can sec a very close interrelation between the two subjects. Justice in this country is the fairest in the world. If there had been more justice in Europe, it might have been entirely unnecessary to have had such a Debate as we have had today. This is no new subject. As has been stated today it is not the duty of this House, nor can it ever be, to interfere or to make suggestions in reference to the administration of justice, but it is very natural and very proper that we in this House should interest ourselves in the right to justice of the common man. I suggest that the appointment of the correct and proper people to administer 99 per cent. of the criminaljustice in this country is a very proper thing in which this House should be interested. I will not weary the House with a long disquisition on the history of justices of the peace, except to say that they have in the past been the beginning of local government, and their administrative capacities have gradually changed into judicial capacities, but they still retain to some extent their administrative capacities as well.

The question of their political composition and what politics they should have has long been of interest to this House, and has been discussed" many times before. The last and great occasion when it was discussed was in 1909 when the then Lord Chancellor set up a Royal Commission under the chairmanship of Lord James to study the whole question. I would like to quote to the House some points from Lord James's report. This is one passage:

In many cases the numerical preponderance of one party on 'the magisterial benches as noted and resented whilst the causes which have occasioned it are forgotten and ignored. A desire then springs up and a claim is made to 'redress the balance.' This claim is then presented to the Lord Chancellor, full political support is accorded to it and unfortunately those who make and support the claim are often willing to see the redress of the balance secured without making sufficient inquiry at to the magisterial qualification of the person nominated. Later they say: We therefore express the confident view that political opinion or political services should not be regarded in any way as controlling the appointment of Justices. The man most fitted to discharge the duties of the office should be appointed. The declaration contained in the Statute of Henry V should still prevail—Justices of the Peace must be resident in their several counties 'of the best reputation and the most worthy men of the county.' Further on they say: We seek to express these views by recording our opinion formed after full enquiry, that appointments influenced by considerations of political opinion and services are highly detrimental to public interests and tend to lower the authority of Magisterial Benches of this country. We hold that anyone who takes share or part in giving effect to such influence is playing an injurious part in the citizenship of this country and is therefore deserving of much censure. This Commission also expressed its opinion, and it is recorded, that the magisterial benches of the county had far too many of one party on them. I entirely agree with that, but they suggested that the magistrate should be appointed from every section of the community. They did not suggest—and they were most careful to stress this—that it was the right thing to do to appoint a magistrate of one party to redress the balance. They maintained that if you take a section of the community, then the political balance of the bench will readjust itself. That principle has been followed on and supported by, I think I am right in saying, all the Lord Chancellors since that date. Let me quote from an address given by Lord Hailsham to the Magistrates Association in, I think, 1928. He said:

There are even some political associations and even, I am afraid, some Members of Parliament, who seem to think that because a person has rendered valuable political service, that that constitutes a claim to be promoted to the Magisterial Bench, and some few have even gone so far as to suggest that the Bench should be apportioned in each district so that its political complexion should bear the same proportion among the different parties as the area over which it rules. I need hardly say that I regard anything of that kind as a complete and absolute misconception of the principles upon which justices should be appointed. Again, in 1932, Lord Sankey said: Neither is the fact that one political party in a certain area may have met with considerable success in political or municipal elections a ground for immediately appointing to the bench a large batch of supporters of that party for the purpose of redressing what has been described as the 'balance.' In remedying one evil it is necessary to avoid the creation of another; and in my opinion overcrowded benches are not consistent with the dignity with which justice should be administered. Those opinions have also been repeated, and I will not weary the House by further quotations, by other Lord Chancellors since that date. Let me say that I speak entirely from a non-political view on this matter, and I have no intention whatsoever of appearing to criticise—indeed, I have no right—anything the Lord Chancellor may have said. He may say what he likes, and I have no right to criticise, but I have a right to disagree. This is what the present Lord Chancellor said in a recent address to the Magistrates Association, on 19th October: Then I come to the question of politics. How far should politics be allowed to enter into the composition of the bench? I speak with a little diffidence on the subject. After all, I am Lord Chancellor, and if it had not been for politics I should never have been Lord Chancellor. I am entirely unable to assent to the proposition that there is something discreditable, dishonourable in being a politician. Indeed, I think exactly the reverse. I think that there have been some countries where their political misfortunes are largely owing to the fact that men of character and in sight do not go into politics; they regard politics as too dirty for them. If that is so, it is all the more reason that they should go into politics to try and make them clean. I am making this rather long quotation because it is important that I should try to get the proper sense. He went on to say that the ordinary Labour man—with a capital "L"— rises above his fellows and shines out by reason of the fact that he does take some part in politics. He has no other opportunity of showing himself to be distinguished. Though God forbid that the administration of justice should ever become mixed up in party politics—that would be a great disaster—yet justice must not only be done but seem to be done. The ideal Bench would be a chairman with some practical experience and, if possible, with some legal training, with, sitting on one side of him two fellow magistrates drawn from the Right, and on the left of him two fellow magistrate drawn from the Left, so that you have a perfect microcosm of the nation. You would know that justice and the administration of justice is not the prerogative or preserve of any one class or section of the people, but that the administration of justice is perhaps the greatest task which citizens of this or any other country can take part in. That, too, I want to do. I have said that I disagree with some of the remarks which the Lord Chancellor made and, with great respect to him, I feel very strongly that this is not the moment to bring politics into it and to give a blessing of a party political character to the Bench, which is something which has always been our great pride in this country. It should be avoided in the future.

I should like to put two questions to the learned Solicitor-General. The first is that he should explain to the House what exactly the Lord Chancellor meant. Those remarks have created a certain amount of misunderstanding in the country. There have been many letters in the Press, as well as a leading article in "The Times," which dealt at some length with this subject. My object is to give the Solicitor-General an opportunity of making the whole thing clear. Secondly, I would ask him whether there is any truth in the letters which I have seen in the papers, but whose origin I do not know and have been unable to find out, saying that pressure has been put on the authorities concerned in the various counties to appoint magistrates on a political basis direct. It would be most helpful if the right hon and learned Gentleman would clear up any misconceptions on these matters.

Finally, I understand that there has been a Commission to discuss the whole question referred to by the Lord Chancellor in his speech. If we can have any more details of that Commission I, for one, shall be very grateful. I hope we are to have a Commission with the result of ruling out the whole question of politics, and seeing if we can deal with the matter in the same manner as Lord Hal- dane referred to in reply to a question of this nature. He said: I know nothing of proportions. What I want of a magistrate is a God-fearing, decent person, of a just mind and a fair outlook, who does not care what the politics or social position of the people before him is, but will try to come to a just conclusion.

10.30 p.m.

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)

It falls to my lot to congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Horn-castle (Commander Maitland) on a very able speech. I am sure the House will be in agreement with me when I say that if his future contributions to debate, which we hope will be many, do not fall below the level of the one he has just delivered, he cannot go far wrong.

I want to raise a cognate subject; and that is the fact that licensed victuallers seem to be precluded from membership of the Commission of the Peace. I have always felt that that is an injustice. I have felt it is an injustice that any section of the community, of any sort, should be precluded from membership of the Commission. I am raising this point at this moment because a constituent of mine has just been removed from the Bench. He is a Mr. Berg, who keeps the Crown Hotel at Camberleys. I am informed he has served as a justice for 16 years, during nine of which he has been engaged as a licensee. Apparently, he is now removed from the Commission by order of the Lord Chancellor, for no other reason than that he is a licensed victualler, and he thus becomes dispossessed of his ordinary citizen rights. Licensed victuallers, like every other section of the community, have good men and bad men amongst them. They feel it is a great slur on their reputation that they should -not be allowed to be justices of the peace. They have to pass a severe scrutiny as to their character before they are allowed to hold licences. I ask, on their behalf, that they should have the same rights that other citizens have, and I hope that this grave slur on an honourable and useful profession will be removed.

10.33 p.m.

General Sir George Jeffreys (Peters field)

May J say in the first place that, speaking with some experience of the Bench, I think that the worst possible qualification for the Bench is a political one. So far as county magistrates are concerned, I would say that what is necessary is that the magistrate should be known and respected in his district.

Mrs. Braddock (Liverpool, Exchange)

By whom?

Sir G. Jeffreys

By everybody. He should be of blameless character and reputation. I hope that that, at least, will be agreed. Lastly, he should be, what I would for want of a better word, term a judicially minded magistrate; that is to say, capable of coming to an impartial conclusion on the evidence before him, without being influenced by any other consideration of any kind. Magistrates are bound to have political views, but those views or sympathies, in my submission, should not enter in any way either into their appointment or into their conduct, which is much more important. There should never be any objection raised by anybody, by chairmen of benches or anybody else, to a person because of his political views. There should, equally, never be anybody appointed because of his political views. Magistrates are naturally bound to have political sympathies and ideas, as other people have, but these ought not to enter in any sort of way either into their appointments or into their duties. It is, perhaps, the greatest objection to the present system of advisory committees that political matters do enter into the appointments of those gentlemen. I know the time is limited, and I will not take up any more of it.


The Solicitor-General (Major Sir Frank Soskice)

I am very glad that the hon. and gallant Member for Horn-castle (Commander Maitland) has raised this matter in what was, if I may say so, a most admirable maiden speech, on which I also should like to congratulate him. It gives me the opportunity of dealing with a misconception which has become current and appears to have had its origin in certain words used by my noble Friend, the Lord Chancellor, in a speech which he addressed to the Magistrates' Association on the 19th October. I will at the outset state the view which is held by my noble Friend. The function which is discharged by a Justice of the Peace as a member of a petty sessional court is a judicial function, and a judicial function of the very highest importance.

Clearly, the first consideration to be taken into account in making appointments of Justices of the Peace is the personal suitability of the candidates. By personal suitability I mean suitability in point of character, integrity and understanding. As hon. Members will be aware, each. county or borough which has a separate commission of the peace has its own advisory committee which, from time to time, submits to the Lord Chancellor the names of persons suitable to fill vacancies which occur in the number of the Justices of the Peace of the area concerned. These advisory committees, as the hon. and gallant Member for Horncastle stated, were set up as a result of the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Selection of Justices, which made its report in 1911. In counties they are presided over by the lord lieutenant, and in county boroughs by some local person of standing. My noble Friend, the Lord Chancellor, naturally assumes and expects that the advisory committees will submit to him only the names of persons who are suitable in the respects which I have just indicated—that is to say, in point of character, in general probity, and in capacity. In accepting any recommendation which may be made by such a committee, the Lord Chancellor assumes, and has to assume, that only persons who are so qualified are recommended to him by the advisory committee, and will not, of course, in any circumstances whatsoever, appoint any person in relation to whom there can be any question at all whether he is so suitable.

The first and overriding consideration, therefore, is the one I have indicated. Having said this, however, I wish to make it perfectly plain that, in the opinion of my noble Friend, it is impossible to disregard political affiliations in making appointments. Once an adequate number of suitable persons is available, it is also an important consideration that there should be no overweighting in favour of any one section of the community in the matter of appointments of Justices of the Peace. This is also a consideration of the very first consequence. You have above all to ensure that those appointed are personally suitable and then, having ensured this, you must also see to it that those appointed do represent all sections of the community. It would be in the highest degree undesirable that any particular section should have an unduly pre- ponderating influence on the bench. How then can this be brought about?

It is of course essential that the administration of justice should never in any sense become a matter of party politics. At the same time, while the Lord Chancellor has to take steps, so far as he can, to bring it about that all "sections of the community are adequately represented, he naturally finds that political affiliations are a convenient guide to follow. That does not mean, by any means, that he would only appoint persons who were known to be adherents of any particular party in this House. Persons of no known political affiliations, or persons who are known to be independent of any political party, equally are included in his appointments; but where you are trying to ensure that you have not got too many justices from any one section of the community, you will naturally look to see, with regard to any candidate, what his political affiliations, if any, are. [Hon. Members: "Why?"] After all, particularly in the case of lower income categories, it is the fact that individuals, to a very large extent, only become known because they have connections with the Labour Party. [Hon. Members: "No, No."] The Lord Chancellor, in making appointments, must naturally have regard to this circumstance, merely as a guide in enabling him, so far as he can, in the exercise of his supervisory jurisdiction, to maintain a fair balance.

The first essential, therefore, is personal suitability, but, having secured an ample number of suitable persons it is also of the very greatest importance that they should be drawn from all sections of the community so as to represent a microcosm, or cross-section, of all shades of the life of the citizens of this country. I would like, if I may, to remind the House of the words actually used by my noble Friend. He referred to the great difficulties involved in problems affecting the magistracy and alluded to the fact that it was nearly 40 years since a Royal Commission had been set up to consider this subject and he went on to say: I feel I have not got sufficient material on which to reach conclusions. I want another Royal Commission to be set up to examine certain aspects of the subject, one, for example, to find out how best I can get the most suitable qualified people to act as magistrates and what disqualifications there should be. He went on to refer to disqualifications attaching to licensed victuallers and to the clergy, and when he came to the question of political affiliations he used these words: Though God forbid that the administration of justice should ever become mixed up in party politics—that would be a great disaster—yet justice must not only be done, but seem to be done. The ideal Bench would be a chairman with some practical experience and, if possible, with some legal training with, sitting on one side of him, two fellow magistrates drawn from the Right and on the other side, two fellow magistrates drawn from the Left, so that you have a perfect microcosm of opinion. It would be fair to say that justice and the administration of justice is not the prerogative of any one class or section of the people but that the administration of justice is perhaps the greatest task which citizens of this or any other country can take part in. That, too, I want to bring about. It is, I suggest to the House, abundantly clear that what my Noble Friend was saying was that, in order that justice should be done and should patently be seen by everybody affected to be done, benches should as far as possible repre- sent in their membership something in the nature of a general cross-section of the life of this country. It will be observed that my Noble Friend used the words "Right" and "Left", words of general import. He used them in respect of the contention that every section should be represented so that you had a sort of microcosm. He states, and firmly states, that all sections of the community should be equally concerned in the administration of justice, and that when lay persons are dealing with the administration of justice they should, as far as possible,' be drawn from all sections of the community. I want to make it plain that in adopting the view I have indicated he was adopting the view of successive Lord Chancellors.

It being half an hour after the conclusion of Business exempted from the provisions of the Standing Order (Sittings of the House), Mr. Speaker adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order, as modified for this Session by the Order of the House of 16th August.