HC Deb 20 February 1951 vol 484 cc1232-48

11.45 p.m.

Mr. Black (Wimbledon)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Rules, dated 29th November, 1950, entitled the Justices of the Peace (Size and Chairmanship of Bench) Rules, 1950 (S.I., 1950, No. 1908), a copy of which was laid before this House on 8th December, be annulled. The Rules which we are praying against this evening are made under Section 13 of the Justices of the Peace Act, 1949, and in the brief speech I propose to make this evening I want to confine my remarks to Rule 3. I think some of my hon. Friends may wish to refer to other Rules, but I shall confine my remarks to Rule 3.

This Rule deals with the method of election of the chairman and one or more deputy chairmen of benches of justices. It is interesting to note that Section 13 of the Justices of the Peace Act, 1949, lays down and establishes the very important principle that such elections must be by secret ballot. That is incorporated in the Act itself and therefore does not arise on these Rules. But Section 13 goes on to provide that: Rules made under this section may make provision as to the manner in which this section is to be administered, and in particular …—(b) as to the term of office and the procedure at an election of the chairman and deputy chairman of the justices in petty sessions areas and the number of deputy chairmen to be elected in any such area. I want to stress the fact that the Section quite clearly provides that Rules may make provision. I say "may make provision"; it is permissive and not obligatory, and it therefore seems to me very relevant to look at the question whether the circumstances now require that any Rules should be made. I want? therefore, to confine what I have to say to dealing with two questions—firstly, are any Rules necessary in the public interest under this Section; and secondly, if there are to be Rules laid down under the Section, are these particular Rules clear and desirable in the form in which they are phrased?

On the general question whether any Rules are necessary, I should have thought that the very important provision of the Act that the election must be by secret ballot was in itself sufficient without the necessity of further Rules being laid down. I think we shall be on common ground on both sides of the House on this that in the past the election of chairmen and deputy chairmen has not always been carried out in the best possible manner; but in so far as the method and the manner of election have in the past been unsatisfactory, I suggest that the unsatisfactoriness has usually arisen from the fact that the election has not been conducted by means of private ballot and the absence of a private ballot has, led often to unsatisfactory features connected with the election. Therefore the Section of the Act itself, which lays down that the election shall be by private ballot, in my submission goes a very long way indeed, if not all the way, to remove any unsatisfactory practices that there may have been in the past in connection with such elections.

There is a very strong feeling up and down the country on the part of many benches of magistrates and individual justices that these Rules are unnecessary and, indeed, that they represent an unwarrantable interference with the right of the justices to conduct this type of business in the way that seems most expedient to them. We are not dealing, in the case of justices, with people who are inexperienced in public affairs and who are lacking in a sense of responsibility about public duty. Justices are chosen on account of their capacity to discharge satisfactorily duties which make very much greater demands upon them than the mere duty of electing chairmen and deputy chairmen.

Mr. H. Hynd (Accrington)

Would the hon. Gentleman say what evidence he has for the statement that there is widespread dissatisfaction among justices up and down the country?

Mr. Black

My information is that quite a number of justices have expressed the view, with which I agree, that there is no necessity for these Rules. That will not be disputed by either side of the House. There are no doubt other justices who are in favour of the Rules. I am suggesting that the view of many justices is that this is a matter which could very well be left to them, without the very precise definition of the course that they are to follow which is embodied in these Rules; and it is a matter on which, at any rate, they are entitled to have their view taken into consideration—to put it no higher.

On the first of the two points I want to make, I suggest there is really no necessity for these Rules at all, in so far as they govern the procedure for the election of a chairman or vice-chairman of benches of magistrates, because any deficiencies that there may have been in the past in procedure are adequately cured by the provision in the Act that elections are now to be by secret ballot. My second point is whether the Rules—assuming the need for them—are clear or desirable in the form in which they have been drafted. Again, my information is that a good many clerks in justices' courts have found it necessary to seek advice on the proper application and interpretation of the Rules. I bring to the notice of the learned Attorney several points of doubt so that he may give some guidance to the House.

First, I suggest that it is by no means clear under Rule 3 (2), whether the word "majority" means "clear majority." It seems to me that the sense of the Rule requires that "majority" should be interpreted as "clear majority," but it is not incapable of another definition. If, in fact, "clear majority" is meant, it would be very much better if the word "clear" had been inserted.

On this point I make this further comment. If in fact "majority" means "clear majority," sub-paragraph (6), which deals with the situation which arises where there is an equality of votes, can only come into operation where the following circumstances are fulfilled—first, that the number of votes cast in the secret ballot is an even number; and secondly, where all the votes cast are equally divided between two, and only two, candidates. That, I think, must be the case if "majority" means clear majority.

The next point which I think is not clear is this. It is laid down in subparagraph (3) that the voting is to be on lists containing the names of all the justices in the petty sessional area. It must be obvious that there is a high degree of probability that some of these justices would not be prepared to accept office as chairman or vice-chairman even if they were to be appointed as a result of the ballot. If that is the case we are entitled to ask whether it would be in order before the ballot actually occurs for any members who would not be willing to accept office if elected to declare their unwillingness to serve, and to ask for their names to be deleted from the voting paper.

If the answer to that question is in the affirmative, what is the position if all but one of the Justices withdraw their names from election, and there is only one name left? Does the justice whose name remains become automatically elected as chairman or vice-chairman? If we are to be told that it would not be proper for justices not willing to serve to withdraw their names before the election, then it must follow that the bench may well go through several abortive elections until those not willing to serve have been finally eliminated.

A further practical difficulty seems to arise. The rules provide for what one may describe as a first ballot in each case for chairman and deputy chairman; but it is clear that the first ballot may well be abortive. It may result in certain circumstances in the election of a member as chairman who is not willing to serve; or it may be abortive for the reason that the first ballot does not give a clear majority, if that be required, to any one candidate.

I think that, by inference, the intention is that there should be subsequent ballots if the first ballot is abortive, and that these subsequent ballots should continue until a chairman has been found who is willing to serve and who secures a majority of the total votes cast. But the rules are silent on the question of whether subsequent ballots should take place. If the intention is, in the event of the first ballot being abortive, that subsequent ballots should occur, then I suggest that the Rules should make clear the provision for these subsequent ballots. As framed, they are entirely silent on the important question of what is to happen if the first ballot is abortive.

In conclusion, I hope that we are not going to be told that these are improbable circumstances in practice, because if the House comes to the conclusion that there is a merit in having Rules of this kind defining the procedure to be followed in the election of chairmen and vice-chairmen, surely it is desirable that they should be framed in such a way as to cover all contingencies and make it clear to all who have to operate them what is to be the next step after a particular situation has arisen under the rules. In a number of particulars, what is to be done is not at all clear, and I hope that as a result of our discussion this evening we may be able to get some light on matters which are at present dark.

12.2 a.m.

Mr. John Hay (Henley)

I beg to second the Motion.

I have two points I should like to put to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I am worried about the wording of Rule 2, which seems to me to be ambiguous. That Rule requires that each court of quarter sessions—I emphasise the word "each"—shall prepare a list of the number of justices who are to sit to hear cases. I ask whether or not that would be deemed to apply to courts where justices do not normally sit in quarter sessions, where the presiding judge is a recorder. I think that is an ambiguity which might be cleared up.

My second point relates to the second part of Rule 2, which provides, The Lord Chancellor may approve a scheme, with or without modifications, or may direct the preparation and submission to him of another scheme, to carry out the object of the Rules. That Rule is rather widely drawn. It seems to me to put very substantial powers in the hands of the Lord Chancellor. We have had examples earlier this evening of what can happen when a scheme is drawn up by a Minister, and I hope the Attorney-General will tell the House exactly what is envisaged in connection with the use of these powers by the Lord Chancellor. We have to realise that the benches know their own local circumstances. If they decide that some scheme is best for these circumstances—we ought to be chary of giving power to a Minister of over-riding that decision. They know their own "form" and they ought to be the people to- run their own local affairs.

12.5 a.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Hartley Shawcross)

I cannot help thinking that our discussion of these Rules has had a certain degree of artificiality, because these Rules have been approved by the Magistrates' Association, and other bodies were consulted in regard to them. By now the majority of chairmen of the benches concerned have been elected in accordance with these Rules and are carrying out the duties of their offices. No real difficulty has been experienced in practice. I am not saying, and am not intending by that to say, that these Rules are in the form in which they will for ever remain. The time will come when we shall have to amend them in the light of the practice and experience of the first year of their operation. I can undertake at once that the points raised by the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Mr. Black) and the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Hay) will not be lost sight of.

I concede that some of those points have weight which we shall not disregard when the time comes, but I cannot help thinking that the real criticism which was addressed by the hon. Member for Wimbledon to the Rules is based upon a misconception of what was recommended by the Royal Commission on Justices of the Peace, and on what, following these recommendations, Parliament decided to do. The House will remember that, in par 175 of the Report of the Royal Commission, the Commission said that it was, in its opinion, essential for the method of selection to be by secret ballot. Only justices on the active list should be entitled to vote. Each justice attending the meeting would be provided with a list of justices for the division, and would put a mark against the name of the justice whom he wished to be chairman. There would be no proposing of names, and no disclosure of how individual justices had voted.

I venture to think that most of us know, from our experience in many areas, particularly I think in country districts, that a justice, once elected as chairman of his bench, has often enjoyed almost permanent office, although with the passage of the years he has shed some of the qualifications which no doubt he possessed when he was elected. "Old So-and-So," the justices will say; "well, he has always been the chairman, and it would be a sad blow for him if we were to turn him out now." And so, he is elected again. No one likes to tell him that nothing would become him more, as chairman of his bench, than to relinquish the chairmanship. So he goes on in that position year after year.

It was no doubt that consideration which led Parliament to provide, as the hon. Member for Wimbledon pointed out, in Section 13 of the Act of 1949, that the chairman must be elected annually by secret ballot and, in one part of a subsection of that Section, to go on to say that the Lord Chancellor had power to make Rules providing the necessary machinery for the secret ballot. The hon. Member has made the point that the word used in the Section was "may"—that the Lord Chancellor may make provision. But, as the hon. Member for Henley will no doubt advise him, very often the word "may" means "shall." I never know why or quite when. But this is clearly one of the cases in which it was necessary for the Lord Chancellor to make Rules, if it were not his duty to do so, to make sure that the provisions of the Act in regard to the secret ballot were properly carried out.

That leads me directly to the question of nominations, which was referred to by one of the hon. Members who spoke. In some elections, nominations are very necessary and very proper preliminaries to the election. But I remember my experience in the early days of the United Nations. At one time, attempts were made to secure election by nomination alone. The chairman would ask for nominations, and Mr. So-and-So would get up and nominate Mr. Somebody-Else as chairman. Then Mr. Somebody-Else, as chairman, would get up and nominate Mr. So-and-So as deputy chairman. By careful pre-arrangement there would be a burst of applause, and everyone else would feel shy about nominating any other candidate for the office.

That is exactly what sometimes happens—I do not want to caricature it—at meetings of magistrates. The thing is canvassed beforehand. There is discussion about it, and the moment the meeting opens, somebody gets up and says, "I nominate Mr. So-and-so." Somebody else seconds it, and then some influential individual intervenes and says, "That is exactly how it was done in the day of my grandfather. Why bother to have a ballot at all?" The result is that there is really no free election.

I do not want to draw too close an analogy with the proceedings of the United Nations and petty sessional divisions, but in the United Nations it was found that that system became—if I may use an unparliamentary expression—a complete racket, and it was done away with. Nominations were done away with, and the practice of a secret ballot on a list was resorted to. In this Act and under these Rules we have adopted exactly similar procedure because we think it is the best procedure to secure an absolutely democratic election uninfluenced by any outside considerations of the kind which sometimes have affected the election of chairmen of local magistrates. I hope the House will think that this procedure on the whole is the convenient and the right procedure.

I was asked one or two questions about individual provisions of the Rule. What does majority mean? Majority means majority, and I believe it always means majority. Even if preceded by some epithet or other, such as a big majority, or a small majority, or a clear majority,. it is still a majority. What is meant by this Rule is a majority of all the votes that are cast. If it happens, as it may well, that at the first ballot one magistrate gets six votes, another five votes, and another four votes, nobody has a clear majority and consequently nobody is elected, and then there has to be another ballot. Theoretically, of course, that process may go on till the crack of doom, but in practice it is generally found that it is avoided owing to the fact that the justices have the annual luncheon at one o'Clock and they get their business over in time to take part in that celebration.

Then I was asked whether a justice might withdraw his name. I should think certainly a justice might withdraw his name. It seems to me most unlikely that all but one would withdraw their names. If that happened we should have to give consideration to it, but I have always been advised not to lay down any ruling on purely hypothetical cases, and I do not think that kind of problem is likely to arise in practice. It certainly has not arisen up to now.

I was asked by the hon. Member for Henley about Rule 2 (1). The answer to his question is that the Rule does not apply to the case he had in mind, that of a borough court of quarter sessions. It does not apply because such justices in such courts, although they may attend, take no part as members of the court. The recorder is the judge of the court and he alone is affected. In regard to Rule 2 (2), it is not the intention—I think this is what the hon. Member had in mind—for the Lord Chancellor to lay down any model scheme which all quarter sessions would be compelled to adopt, because one quite realises that local cir- cumstances in different counties may vary greatly and the fullest consideration will be had to local differences.

I hope that, having explained those points, and having reminded the House that before these Rules were made they were the subject of consultation not only with the interested departments but with the Magistrates Association, the Clerks of the Peace Society and the Magistrates Clerks Society and were approved, as I understand, by these bodies, particularly by the Magistrates Association, that they were laid on 30th November, that they came into operation only after being laid for over a month, and that now they have been fully operated so that the vast majority have been elected under them for this year, hon. Members will think—

Sir John Mellor (Sutton Coldfield)

The Attorney-General said it was laid on 30th November, but was not that Order withdrawn and re-laid on 8th December?

The Attorney-General

I am obliged, I have no doubt that if the hon. Gentleman says so he is right. He is a great authority on these matters. His dates are better than mine. No doubt he has also the advantage of having the corrigenda before him. I give the hon. Member eight days. I think no objection was taken to them at that time. The magistrates who were concerned, the local benches, certainly made a number of inquiries as to their correct interpretation, and my noble Friend's Department gave the fullest possible information as to what that interpretation was thought to be.

After they came into force, the vast majority of the chairmen were elected in accordance with the Rules. By next year when the time comes for re-election we shall probably have had the opportunity of reconsidering the matter, and what has been said will be taken into account. In these circumstances I hope those who have laid this Prayer, I think principally for information, will see fit to withdraw it.

12.17 a.m.

Mr. Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

When the Attorney-General replied to the points raised before some of us were able to make our contribution, we may have felt rather slighted, but in view of his contribution we feel that no more. He has explained that he has been convinced that many of the points made are worthy of consideration and is strongly of the opinion that he may well carry into effect some of our recommendations. I feel, therefore, we who are left will not waste our time even now in making general points because it may have the effect of bringing into effect more quickly the things we desire. I was interested to note that the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd) had quite made up his mind that all the J.Ps. of the country were in agreement that—

Mr. H. Hynd

I said no such thing. What I intended to say was that an hon. Member had said, without any proof, that a representative body, the Magistrates' Association, had given their approval.

Mr. Nicholls

The hon. Member certainly gave me the impression that he was convinced there was no real opposition throughout the country. I should like to assure him there is far from unanimity of agreement with this statutory instrument as it stands. I do not think the fact that the Magistrates' Association had approved it without its being put before individual magistrates at annual meetings is a fair test as to whether they are right or not.

I do not think any magistrate objects to an annual meeting to decide who should be chairman or the size of the court, nine at Quarter Sessions and seven at the borough court; but I know many object to Rule 3 (3) and (4) which deal with the actual proceedings by which that shall be done. Magistrates are handed sheets of paper with the names of those eligible clearly given. They have to put marks against the names and have to be perfectly certain that nobody sees where they have put their marks. I must say that the petty sessional bench of which I am a member were very surprised when this was explained to them by the learned clerk. It is reminiscent of examination papers handed out at a kindergarten school. We did not think this was in keeping with the importance of magistrates. The Attorney-General should know that while the concurrence of the Magistrates' Association may have been given it has certainly not been carried down to individual J.Ps. I can assure him that what I also resent is that this particular instruction verges on being ridiculous; to suggest that a magistrate is not responsible enough to decide the procedure for electing his own chairman is something—

The Attorney-General

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will help us by suggesing what other procedure he would suggest, remembering that if one carries out the law there must be a secret ballot.

Mr. Nicholls

I thought the words were "may be."

The Attorney-General

No. Under the Act it is a requirement that there must be a secret ballot. That was in direct conformity with the recommendations of the Royal Commission, as with the rules in regard to the method of carrying this out.

Mr. Nicholls

If instructions had been given to any responsible group of men for the carrying out of the election of their chairman by secret ballot, and they had been left to decide their own procedure, that would have been a fully acceptable way. That would have been very different from having an instruction which is rather like one which would be found on an examination paper in a kindergarten school. Lord Sankey once wrote: The responsibility of a justice of the peace is great, for his decisions might have far-reaching effects on the liberty and the reputation of his fellow subjects. Justices have those powers, and yet these very men are not to be left free to decide the method of electing their own chairman.

Justices can issue a warrant for the search of a house; they can impose six months' imprisonment, and a fine of £100; they can order—

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that the powers of justices come into these Rules at all.

Mr. Nicholls

I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, but the point which I am trying to make is that people who have such considerable powers are not to be responsible for the means by which they elect their own chairman. I do feel it necessary to-remind hon. Members of the House who are magistrates—and there are many on both sides—just how far their powers, extend. If we take the least of those powers over other people and then remember that we have to adhere to this very narrow limit when electing our own chairman, then the position is ludicrous.

Why are these instructions given? The reason, the learned Attorney-General tells us, is that this precise form is necessary because there may be, in some areas, chairmen who are aged and past their best, clinging to office at a time when they should be relinquishing it. If that is the best reason, it forms a charge against the Lord Chancellor of having appointed people in a flippant way and, considering the powers of justices, of an even wicked choice. I would beg hon. Members tonight who are magistrates to consider their judicial oath which, at its end, states: I will do right to all manner of people according to the laws and usages of the Realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill-will. Yet, in choosing the chairman of their own bench, these magistrates are tied by this childish procedure because they may have fear of the "Blimp" or the old man who has been there for so long.

Mr. L. M. Lever (Ardwick)

On a point of order. We have just had an attack on the Lord Chancellor, Sir. Is that permissible in the House?

Mr. Speaker

I think the hon. Member did not mean to attack the Lord Chancellor, but something which the Lord Chancellor had done. That is in order, I think. A personal attack would be wrong.

Mr. Brendan Bracken (Bournemouth, East and Christchurch)

Further to that point of order. There has been no attempt to attack the Lord Chancellor on this side, Sir. We never know when he is going to join us.

The Attorney-General

I understand that if any Lord Chancellor was attacked, it was one belonging to the previous Administration, the Administration of the party opposite, which appointed the justices who are now reaching a certain age.

Mr. Nicholls

I do not know whether to continue on this point of order or with my speech. What I said was that is would be accusing the Lord Chancellor of having made a grievous mistake in present day choice if benches have to be bolstered up with an instrument such as was described to us tonight. If benches have to choose a chairman in this childish way, because they have fear of what might come out of it if they did it openly or because they may be showing favour, affection or ill-will then we are asking justices to perjure themselves, because their first oath is that they will not allow any of those considerations to weigh with them at all.

At the earliest opportunity these Rules should be withdrawn and submitted again in an amended form, leaving out paragraphs 3 and 4. If they stand, it means that one has no real confidence in the character or the courage of those appointed to this important office, if one could not leave it to them to make their own decision as to how their own chairmen shall be elected.

A question I want to put to the Attorney-General is: What is the penalty if a bench ignores these Rules, when approved? What is the penalty if this instrument is not adhered to in the details set out? If there is no penalty, does not it mean they can disregard the terms of the Rules and yet go right into court and punish others for doing just that? If this instrument stands as it is, I believe that it is likely to cause some resentment among a group of men who are doing great, important, and unpaid work in all parts of the country. If it is likely to cause resentment and no good can come out of it, I believe it ought to be withdrawn.

The Home Secretary, is sitting on the Front Bench now, and I know he is always interested in a horse-race analogy. This is one of the bets I do not like. We can lose the good will of these magistrates by leaving this where it is now; we cannot win. If we take these paragraphs out, we are on a safe bet; we can win and cannot lose. That is worthy of consideration, and quick consideration.

12.29 a.m.

Mr. H. Hynd (Accrington)

The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. H. Nicholls) seems to have been trying to make a very considerable mountain out of a very small molehill. I would like to challenge the remarks of the hon. Member about the attitude of magistrates to these Rules. He seems to be talking purely from the point of view of his own bench or a section of it. He talked about the Rules being childish. I must remind him that the Lord Chancellor took the proper course of consulting the only really representative body of magistrates in this country. There was no question of sending it to the head office of that body, but the draft Rules were considered by a representative conference of these magistrates, a very largely-attended conference, which I had the honour to attend.

That conference made certain suggestions to the Lord Chancellor which he was good enough to accept. That, surely, proves there is a considerable body of magistrates in the country—I would say a majority—who would approve the Rules as they now stand. The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Mr. Black) talked about improbable circumstances. It seems he did his best to invent many improbable circumstances and raised questions upon them. I might remind him that in giving approval to these Rules, the Council of the Magistrates' Association were not taking them lightly at all. Most of them are people of very considerable experience. Some members of the Council are leading magistrates and they had in mind some rather unfortunate experiences that have occurred up and down the country in regard to the election of chairmen and deputy chairmen.

The Attorney-General has already mentioned the difficulty of unseating a chairman who has been there for a number of years. There is also the practice among certain benches of appointing a senior magistrate automatically to become chairman—one might call it election in order of senility. That is a very bad practice and should be stopped. These Rules are designed to put a stop to that: they are a very efficient way of doing it.

The hon. Member for Wimbledon raised certain imaginary difficulties in regard to procedure. May I remind him, as he is a member of a local authority, that this is not very different from the method of electing aldermen in a borough council or county council—with the difference that there are not printed lists of everybody circulating.

Mr. Black

The whole business of the election of aldermen is done by means of a public vote and everyone knows how the vote is cast. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] The election here is private.

Mr. Hynd

The names are written by the councillors—there is no nomination and seconding of nomination. There is the difference, I agree, that the vote of each councillor may be public. I concede that point, but there is a difference between formal nomination and seconding and everyone being eligible for election.

Mr. H. Nicholls

Would the hon. Member not agree that it would be a good idea to allow benches to have that form of secret ballot?

Mr. Hynd

No, because of the difficulties that have already been pointed out.

I do not want to go into too many of the points made at the meeting, because it is not always a good thing to wash dirty linen in public, but there have been unfortunate experiences on certain benches. This was felt by that very representative body to be the best method they could think of for stopping that sort of practice and getting things on a much better footing. For all these reasons l think the Prayer is misconceived and should be opposed.

12.34 a.m.

Mr. John Arbuthnot (Dover)

The Attorney-General said that these Rules had been considered by the magistrates themselves and that as a result of the recommendations of the magistrates it is provided in them that the number of magistrates in the magistrates' court shall not be greater than seven. I understand that the Lord Chancellor, in giving effect to the recommendations in the instrument, sent a covering note in which he said that unless there were exceptional circumstances they should not, in fact, sit more than five.

I should like to ask where and what the authority was for that covering note and recommendation, because it has landed some magistrates' courts in considerable difficulty, particularly where there has been influenza resulting in magistrates not being able to attend. If the recommendations of the instrument had been carried out, and the covering note had not gone from the Lord Chancellor with his instructions, this difficulty would have been avoided.

Secondly, I would ask the learned Attorney for a ruling whether the statutory instrument is intended, in fact, to apply to magistrates sitting as licensing magistrates. Or have we the situation that where the liberty of the subject is concerned and a man might be sentenced to imprisonment up to 12 months we have seven magistrates sitting, or if the Lord Chancellor's recommendation is approved only five, whereas when the granting of a licence is concerned we may have up to 15? It would seem incongruous if that were so.

12.35 a.m.

The Attorney-General

I can speak again only with the leave of the House. The Lord Chancellor had appeared, under the Statute, to lay down the upper limit, the maximum number of justices who might sit to try a case. He thought the right figure to fix would be seven, but he thought that in practice it was desirable that number should rarely be reached. There might be special cases of local circumstances which might make it desirable that the full number of magistrates should sit—perhaps, for instance, to ensure that all magistrates should have an opportunity of getting experience on the bench. But he felt that, while he did not want to lay this down as the law, it was right to advise magistrates that, in general, their courts should be smaller than seven. He could not provide that by regulation. He might have said, as many people think would have been right, that three should be the ordinary number to sit for the trial of a case. But what he thought right was that seven should be the legal maximum, with, as a rule, not more than five sitting together in trying a case.

Does that limit apply to magistrates sitting as a licensing court? It does not. There, their function is quite different. It is not to make a judicial decision between parties; it is to decide, as a matter of local administration, whether or not it is desirable that a licence should be granted. There it is perhaps right that a larger number of magistrates should sit. The number of magistrates is now much smaller than it used to be. I remember once applying, on a special occasion, to get an hour's extra time for drinking, and 50 magistrates turned up at the court—and I lost my application. The law is now a bit better about these matters. But there is good reason why, when they are sitting in the administrative capacity, and local knowledge, circumstances, and feeling arise, a court should be larger than when sitting in a judicial capacity.

12.39 a.m.

Mr. Brendan Bracken (Bournemouth, East, and Christchurch)

I am surprised that the Deputy Leader of the House and the Attorney-General should have kept so many Members here until now. We do our best to give them the rest they deserve, but they insist on sitting here. Everyone in the House will agree that when one prays for an answer one can rarely expect it from the Attorney General. But there is no doubt that this evening the Attorney-General has largely answered my hon. Friend's Prayer. I am sorry that he brought in the story of his spree in Lancashire, with 50 magistrates attending the court, and an ample supply of liquor at low prices, but I think that, on the whole, he has met us very largely. It is a delicate matter, as the Home Secretary knows very well, better than anyone else, as he is a magistrate of long experience. Nobody on either side of the House wants to pack the bench. I thank the Attorney-General for his statement. We on this side depart happily, and a lot of his hon. Friends depart regretfully, for they should have departed long ago. The Home Secretary ought not to keep so many of his followers here so long.

Mr. David Jones (The Hartlepools)

The right hon. Gentleman does not know how we enjoy watching his antics.

Mr. Bracken

I am very glad to hear it. If I am to be part of the Festival of Britain, it may be a flop on the South Bank but it will be a good one in the House of Commons.

We on this side are very grateful to the Attorney-General. In matters of justice there is no difference between us and hon. Members opposite, and there is no divergence between us on this occasion except on how to improve certain Rules. It may be said that better than a university is the House of Commons, because the right hon. Gentleman's moderation and reasonableness fill us with delight. We are grateful for what he has done tonight, because he has approached this matter—I cannot say in his judicial capacity—but with his special qualifications and responsibilities, and he is determined to deal with his responsibilities which are outside politics in a very faithful fashion.

Mr. Black

We have had a useful discussion, and are grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for having thrown light on what were formerly dark places. Following the assurance that these matters will be brought into consideration when any review is contemplated, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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