HC Deb 01 February 1949 vol 460 cc1514-8

3.32 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Hartley Shawcross)

I beg to move, in page 1, line 14, to leave out from beginning, to "or," in line 15.

It might be for the convenience of the Committee to consider together this and the next Amendment on the Order Paper, which also stands in my name. The Committee may remember that on the Second Reading of this Bill I said that it might be necessary to reconsider the proposal contained in Clause 1 as originally drafted that notaries public should no longer be required to take out practising certificates. We have given further consideration to that matter, and on reflection we have come to the conclusion that the more convenient course would be to retain the effect of the existing provisions of the law, which ensure the registration of all those who practise as notaries public, and which at the same time provide those gentlemen with tangible evidence of their qualifications so to act.

The present position, as I told the House on Second Reading, is that of the 523 gentlemen who are qualified to act as notaries public, 500 are in fact solicitors and have their practising certificates as such. These practising certificates are registered by the Court of Faculties, which knows of these 500 solicitors as being entitled also to practise as notaries public. The remaining 23 who are not qualified to act as solicitors but who have qualified as notaries public by the other methods available, that is to say, by being members of the Scriveners' Company or by having been apprenticed for some considerable time to a person who was a notary public, received their practising certificates from the Inland Revenue Department on payment of the appropriate Stamp Duty, and were thereupon registered by the Court of Faculties in the same way. In future, following upon the abolition of the Stamp Duty, the Inland Revenue Department will no longer have any particular interest in the matter, and practising certificates will consequently no longer be issued by them.

In these circumstances the new Subsection which the second of my Amendments proposes to embody in Clause 1 will enable the Court of Faculties to issue practising certificates to the very small minority of notaries public who are not themselves practising solicitors. It is no doubt a little anomalous that the Court of Faculties, with its ecclesiastical association, should retain a jurisdiction in this now most temporal matter, but many of the traditions and forms of our law are perhaps anomalies when they are viewed through the magnifying glass of some modern realist, although I am not sure that they are any the worse for that.

We are advised by the Law Society, who have considered this matter, and from such information as we have been able to obtain we believe that the present system is not unsatisfactory in practice. Accordingly, it is not and never has been the object of this Bill to sweep it away merely because it is founded in the history of days long since past. For that reason we propose, by the Subsection contained in the second Amendment in my name, to enable the Court of Faculties to issue practising certificates to the small minority of persons involved, and so to leave the law in regard to this matter substantially unaffected.

Amendment agreed to.

The Attorney-General

I beg to move in page 2, line 6, at the end, to insert: (3) A reference in any enactment to a duly certificated notary public shall, as respects things done after the commencement of this Act, be taken as a reference to a notary public who either—

  1. (a) has in force a practising certificate as a solicitor issued under the Solicitors Act, 1932, and duly entered in the court of faculties of the Archbishop of Canterbury in accordance with rules made by the master of faculties; or
  2. (b) has in force a practising certificate as a public notary issued by the said court of faculties in accordance with rules made as aforesaid.

Mr. Charles Williams (Torquay)

I do not quite understand how many people are likely to be affected by this ancient practice. Apparently there is one list which has to go before the Archbishop of Canterbury. It would be interesting to the Committee and to the country if the Attorney-General could give us a rather fuller history of how this takes place. I was charmed to be able to agree with him that this was one of the cases in which, in spite of his usual lack of caution on these matters, he was able to think that it was an ancient custom which it would be advisable to retain. I fully appreciate that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is learned in these matters. I should also like to have from him a fuller explanation of this rather curious matter. It is most interesting suddenly to find in the course of an ordinary afternoon's Committee stage, that the practice mentioned in the new Subsection continues. I should like to know what changes were made in the 1932 Act and how what the new Subsection contains is brought about. Can the Attorney-General tell us whether an Archbishop has this kind of duty placed upon him in any other country in the world? It would be interesting to know whether this was unique. For instance, is there any similar sort of position in Scotland? I see that the Scottish Law Officer is present, and obviously aching to give some information.

Mr. McKie (Galloway)

I support the concluding remarks of the hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams). I am not entering into the merits of what he said in the earlier part of his speech, although the Committee should be indebted to him for raising this point, but it is desirable that the Lord Advocate or the Attorney-General should tell us how this will operate in Scotland. The Bill says in its title that it is: To repeal the enactments requiring certain legal practitioners in Great Britain. … to do certain things. Therefore it is a question of the possible functions of the Archbishop of Canterbury in Scotland, and that will raise a great deal of public interest.

I do not propose, indeed it would be outwith the scope of this Debate, to enter into the merits so far as Scottish history is concerned. Our great respect and regard is always paid to whoever fills the chair of St. Augustine, but any unlawful introduction of that office to Scotland in any way would, even now, be very much resented. I am sorry to see the Lord Advocate smiling and even laughing and chuckling to himself at what I say, because he knows my words are true. Many people in Scotland, not merely those connected with the legal profession, but members of the general public—and I hope I am not saying anything to inflame prejudice—would wish to know why at this late day it is necessary to introduce into a Measure submitted to this House requiring changes concerning certain legal practitioners in Scotland any mention of the Archbishop of Canterbury, whoever fills that important post or function.

I may say without disrespect that in Scotland the Archbishop of Canterbury has no place at all, even in the table of precedence, and now we are about to give him, if this Clause, as amended, is agreed, a very important function indeed. There can be no doubt about that, otherwise why is he named? I feel certain that the general public in Scotland will be very interested. There is an old saying that once a Scotsman is started on a theological argument it may go on for a very long time. There will be great interest taken in this matter by persons in Scotland interested in the historical position, and we shall be glad to know just why it is necessary, so far as Scotland is concerned, to introduce the name of the Archbishop of Canterbury at all in this matter.

The Attorney-General

Beyond pointing out that this Amendment has no relation to Scotland at all, I do not think that it would be wise for me to enter into the difficult questions of comparative law raised by the two hon. Gentlemen. So far as the history of the institution of notary public in this country is concerned, I commend the hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams) to the illuminating speech which I made on the subject on Second Reading.

Mr. C. Williams

I should like to think that the speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman was illuminating, but unfortunately it was not. It was very far from being illuminating. It was lacking in clarity, illumination and any other quality. I was hoping this time that he would have something interesting to say, but he is apparently unwilling to help in the matter. I was very polite in my speech and I hoped that he was beginning to show some courtesy to the House. I regret that he cannot explain this matter at the present time. It is most unsatisfactory when a high Law Officer brings an Amendment of this sort and will not give an explanation. After all, we have some right to know the history of these matters. I hope it is satisfactory. I should have been more satisfied if I had heard some hon. and learned Gentleman from this side of the Committee who could have told us about it. But now we have no information and apparently the learned Attorney-General will not give us any.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause, as amended. ordered to stand part of the Bill.