HC Deb 09 November 1951 vol 493 cc588-600

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

3.56 p.m.

Commander Harry Pursey (Hull, East)

I wish to raise the general question of the present administration of the law in all county boroughs or boroughs for which quarter sessions are authorised because the County Borough of Kingston-upon-Hull, where I have the honour to represent one of the constituencies, namely, Hull, East, has a separate quarter sessions; and representations have been made to me by constituents of mine about the Act of Parliament under which all quarter sessions are authorised.

The Act in question is the Municipal Corporations Act, 1882. It may be that after an interval of nearly 70 years, and the changed conditions of the present day it is desirable to look into the interpretation of this Act and its application. Part VIII of the Act is headed "Administration of Justice." Because I have given the usual notice of the subject of this debate, I assume that the Solicitor-General is conversant with the Act and that I need not quote from it, but simply state the salient points necessary for my case today.

The Act provides authority for quarter sessions to be held in boroughs after the local council has applied for them and for a recorder of the borough to be appointed whose salary is to be paid by the council. So the local council has some important standing as regards quarter sessions. The Act also states that the recorder during his office shall not be liable to serve in Parliament for the borough, but that he shall be liable to serve in Parliament except for the borough. The Act further states that a court of quarter sessions shall be held once in every quarter or oftener and, what is of importance, that the recorder may in the case of sickness or unavoidable absence, appoint a deputy recorder. The object here, presumably, is that the law shall be administered without unnecessary delay which is one of the high standdards of British justice and one of supreme importance to everyone concerned, namely, complainants, defendants, lawyers and in particular, jurors and jurors-in-waiting; but more particularly to any cases remanded in custody so that their loss of liberty shall not be unnecessarily extended.

The Act further provides that in the absence of the recorder and the deputy recorder the mayor shall at the times for the holding of the court of quarter sessions open the court and adjourn the holding thereof until such day as he then and there causes to be proclaimed. I submit that is a fair summary of the Act and one which I trust the Solicitor-General will accept as covering the salient points regarding quarter sessions in general.

A question I wish to put to the Solicitor-General is, if any mayor by virtue of his office has adjourned the quarter sessions, is there anything in the Act or other authority which prohibits him from stating what he has done and the reasons to a statutory meeting of the council, in open council particularly if asked a question by a member of the council? The council pay the salary of the recorder, and the mayor holds his office because of (a) his election to the council, and (b)—

It being Four o'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. Heath.]

Commander Pursey

The council pay the salary of the recorder and the mayor holds office because of (a) his election to the council and (b) his selection by the council. Consequently, unless there is authority to the contrary, it would appear to be the duty of the mayor to take the first opportunity to inform the council of his action, and the reasons. Failing this, the council, as a corporate body, and the councillors, as individuals, have no official information of the action of their mayor acting in his official capacity in a matter of great importance to the citizens of his city.

Another question which arises is to which of the Law Officers of the Crown does the mayor report what he has done and the reasons, and what authority has the Lord Chancellor, the Home Secretary or any of the Law Officers of the Crown over a mayor if he should act in error? A further question is: If the mayor is not available, who should then open and adjourn a quarter sessions which has already been started, has a case partly heard and has re-assembled with complainants, defendants, lawyers and jurors present?

I turn now to the point in the Act which says that hon. and learned Members of this House may be recorders except for the boroughs they represent in Parliament. There are hon. and learned Members on both sides of the House who are or have been recorders, so I trust it will not be assumed that I am dealing with this point in a party manner. In the last Parliament certain of these hon. and learned Members, some of whom are no longer with us, gave serious consideration to the possible results of finding themselves on the horns of a dilemma by trying to hold at the same time the two offices of Member of this House and recorder, and the difficulty of being caught in the claws of public duty because of having ordered and begun a quarter sessions and then receiving an inescapable summons to public duty in this House.

In making their decisions these Members were presumably very conscious of the inconvenience that any prolongation of jury service must involve and the difficult problem of someone else having to advise a jury in the interests of justice not to discuss either among themselves or with other people any part-heard case which would have to be adjourned in their absence as the recorders concerned.

The problem for the present Government side was not then so difficult as it is now, because as the Opposition they were able to choose the dates and times of Divisions in this House and arrange their other commitments accordingly. In this Parliament, however, the position is reversed and the previous attackers have now become the defenders and no longer have the initiative. However, it is not for me to pursue that point any further.

The position is this. The Michaelmas Quarter Sessions of the Peace for Hull were originally fixed for 8th October but were later postponed for three weeks to 29th October. The sessions having then begun, two days later, with the calendar uncompleted and a case partly heard, the Lord Mayor created a precedent the like of which had not been known for over 50 years in the memory of the 92-year-old clerk of the peace by adjourning the sessions for another two days after the acting assistant recorder, whose position I wish to question, had, according to the Press, addressed the jury on the adjournment and advised them as to their duties as regards the part-heard case and given them and the other parties concerned notice to attend the resumed sessions two days later.

Mr. Speaker

It appears from what the hon. and gallant Gentleman is saying that he is going to criticise the action of the mayor and the assistant recorder in this case. He must be aware that, under a long-standing Rule of this House, judicial officers of that sort cannot be criticised except on a substantive Motion, properly framed and put on the Paper.

Commander Pursey

I, of course, bow to your Ruling, Mr. Speaker. Before this debate. I took the precaution of looking up Erskine May in order, I hope, to be able to keep myself in order.

The next submission I wish to make to you is that there is no such individual as an acting assistant recorder. In other words, someone had assumed the title. which does not exist in the Act of Parliament. So far as the mayor is concerned, I seek not to question what he did as mayor at the court but to ask whether, having done that, he ought not—

The Solicitor-General (Mr. R. E. Manningham-Buller)

I think I may be able to help here. Under Section 168 of the Municipal Corporations Act, it is provided that an assistant to the recorder can be appointed and subsection (2) says that the barrister so appointed shall be styled assistant recorder.

Mr. Geoffrey Bing (Hornchurch)

On a point of order. Am I not right in thinking that it is only an appointment where there is a second court? As I understand the position, at the Hull Quarter Sessions there was no second court, and such an appointment can be made only—the hon. and learned Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong—if there is a second court in existence.

The Solicitor-General

Further to that point of order. I understand that on the previous day at these quarter sessions two courts had been sitting.

Mr. Speaker

It seems to me, from the intervention of the hon. and learned Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing), that this is an attempt to criticise the administration of justice in Hull. If that is so, it would be out of order, except on a substantive Motion.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)

Further to that point of order. What is sought to be raised is what is to happen to the witnesses attending and to the counsel who were there. Who is to pay the money, who is to meet the losses incurred, and what is the Parliamentary remedy? With great respect, I should have thought this was an exceedingly appropriate matter, indeed a very apt matter, to raise upon the Adjournment.

Mr. Speaker

The only remedy I can see—not having, perhaps, full possession of the facts—would be that the Statutes which govern the position of recorders and assistant recorders require amendment; but, if so, that is equally out of order on the Motion for the Adjournment.

Mr. Hale

As I understand it, my hon. and gallant Friend is trying to find out from the Solicitor-General, who is the only authority, who is to pay the costs incurred in this unhappy incident. There seems to me, with respect, to be no criticism of the action of the recorder himself but a desire to know what consequences flow from it, what consequences will flow if it happens again, and who stands the loss.

Mr. Speaker

I merely issued the warning because I did not want the hon. and gallant Gentlemen to get out of order. So far, the debate is in order.

The Solicitor-General

I do not desire to pursue this point of order at all, but I thought the hon. and gallant Member was making some comments on the position of the assistant recorder and the action of the mayor in his judicial capacity in adjourning the quarter sessions. If that were so, I should submit that those comments would be out of order.

Mr. Ivor Owen Thomas (The Wrekin)

On a point of order. If there were grounds for concluding that the law had not been observed by recorders or mayors in connection with these courts, would they not be grounds for saying that the matter could be raised as a matter public interest?

Mr. Speaker

It could be raised on the Floor of the House, and specific machinery exists in our procedure for raising it, but it must be on a substantive Motion of which notice is given and which appears on the Paper.

Commander Pursey

I purposely avoided quoting portions of the Act so as not to take up undue time and so as to give the Solicitor-General time to reply. Perhaps I may be allowed to complete my remarks.

Before I pass on, I am going to say a word or two to clear up one point. It is the case, as my hon. Friend has said, that an assistant recorder has no existence in fact and in law unless a second court has been appointed by the recorder. That disposes of that. If, in fact, therefore, there was no assistant recorder, one of the points I wish to raise is what was the position of the individual referred to in the Press as the "acting assistant recorder," because that title has no validity whatever. One of the questions which I wish to put, in quite a friendly manner, to the learned Solicitor-General is: What was the standing of this individual, because, in my submission, he ought not to have existed?

As regards the lord mayor, I appreciate the difficulty of criticising his actions in his judicial capacity, which would, in fact, require a substantive Motion. I am not desiring to question what he did in the court, but would only ask the question whether he ought not to have reported the facts and the reasons for what he did to his own authority, the city council. That will make some of my further remarks a little repetitive, but I wish to ensure that, so far, I am still in order and to give art indication of the lines on which, I hope in a non-controversial way. I intend to proceed.

The acting assistant recorder, whose position I wish to question, according to the Press, addressed the jury on the adjournment and advised them as to their duty as regards the part-heard case, and gave them and the other parties concerned notice to attend the resumed sessions two days later. Under the Act, in such circumstances, the lord mayor is authorised to open and adjourn the court, so that the question arises as to what was of the actual standing or legal position of this so-called acting assistant recorder.

I now take up the point made by the Solicitor-General regarding Section 168 of the Act. The only reference in that Act to an assistant recorder—there is nothing at all about an acting assistant recorder—is in Section 168, as the Solicitor-General says, and this Section is wholly devoted to the formation of a second court. and states that the barrister appointed to preside over the second court shall be called the assistant recorder. No second court had been formed.

I do not think that, in regard to any of the facts in this case, there is any difference of opinion between the Solicitor-General and myself. No second court having been formed, I submit that in this instance there could be no such officer or official of the court as an assistant recorder. I therefore wish to ask the learned Solicitor-General what was the legal and actual position of the so-called acting assistant recorder, a title which, apparently, had no validity at all, and under what authority was he acting in addressing quarter sessions at some length.

On the day following the adjournment of the quarter sessions, the statutory meeting of the Hull City Council was held, and an alderman asked the lord mayor to inform the council for what reasons the two adjournments of quarter sessions were made. The question was ruled out of order by the lord mayor, on advice. It referred, of course, to two adjournments—the previous postponement and the adjournment for two days. I wish to ask the Solicitor-General whether or not the lord mayor should have stated the bare facts of what lie had done, and the reasons for it, and, if not, under what authority was this information refused on a matter of important public concern to the citizens of Hull and their elected representatives on the city council.

I make no criticism of the recorder in either of his capacities; in fact, I have not mentioned him, nor do I intend to do so. I am certain that he did his duty, after considering his own position and the claims of public duty. I should therefore like to ask the Solicitor-General, for the information of the citizens of Hull who are concerned—that is, complainants, defendants, counsel, jurors and jurors-in-waiting—

Mr. Hale

And witnesses.

Commander Pursey

And witnesses—whether he will tell us the reasons for, first the postponement of the Hull Quarter Sessions for three weeks, secondly the adjournment of the sessions for a further two days, and thirdly whether he can give any information about the number of cases affected. He will, I am sure, appreciate the importance to my constituents, and to the many others concerned in the other three constituencies in Hull, and in every city in the realm, of the speedy administration of the law.

The Press has reported that the reason for the three weeks' postponement was the General Election, and for the two days' adjournment the business of this House. It is obviously desirable that an opportunity should be given to a Law Officer of the Crown to make an authoritative statement on what were the facts of the case. If the latter conjuncture is correct, may I ask what happened on the night of Tuesday, 30th October? Was a Conservative Party panic message sent out to its members? If so, have we now reached the position in which the administration of justice in Hull is dependent upon a Conservative three-line whip?

I have raised this matter of quarter sessions in general, not because of the past but because of the future, in order to give a Law Officer of the Crown an opportunity of giving guidance to hon. Members on both sides of the House, and, what is more important, to our constituents, as to the likely grounds upon which a quarter sessions may be postponed or adjourned in the future. I further ask the Solicitor-General to consider what steps can be taken under the existing law to prevent a similar occurrence elsewhere in the country, and to ensure that, where it becomes necessary for a mayor to adjourn a quarter sessions, he shall do so in the proper manner and report the facts and the reasons to the local council and any other authority necessary at the earliest possible opportunity.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. and gallant Gentleman must not, of course, suggest that in this case—of which I do not know the facts—the mayor acted improperly, and I ask him to withdraw any suggestion to that effect.

Commander Pursey

Mr. Speaker, I willingly withdraw any suggestion I ought not to make.

4.18 p.m.

The Solicitor-General (Mr. R. E. Manningham-Buller)

I am grateful to the hon. and gallant Member for Hull, East (Commander Pursey), for giving me notice of some of the many questions to which he desires answers this afternoon. I am interested to note the attention he is now paying to the administration of justice, particularly in the City of Hull. His speech really raises three questions, and I shall do my utmost to give him a full reply. I am not sure that within the time at my disposal it will be possible for me to reply to the vast numbers of questions he asked, but his speech seemed to raise three main points.

The hon. and gallant Member asked, first, why there was a postponement of the quarter sessions for the City of Hull from 8th October to 29th October; secondly, why there was the adjournment on Wednesday, 31st October, of the quarter sessions which commenced on 29th October to 10.30 a.m. on Friday, 2nd November; and thirdly he raised the question of the functions and responsibilities of the Lord Mayor in adjourning those quarter sessions. Those are the three questions to which I will endeavour to give the hon. and gallant Gentleman, I hope, a satisfactory reply.

One thing that must be clearly recognised is that under the Municipal Corporations Act it is entirely a matter for the recorder to determine on what date in each particular quarter he will hold his quarter sessions. In this case the learned recorder originally decided to fix his quarter sessions for 8th October, but then the Prime Minister made his broadcast announcement that there would be an Election. and as a result of that the learned recorder. who was a candidate for Parliament, postponed the opening of his quarter sessions until Monday, 29th October.

I should like to make it clear that there was no expense incurred by or inconvenience caused to witnesses, solicitors or others, by that action. It did mean—and I say this quite frankly—that 17 prisoners remained in custody for a further three weeks awaiting trial, but it is, of course, common knowledge that in considering what is the appropriate sentence to pass. the period spent in custody before trial—

Mr. Hale

Does not that rather assume that they will be convicted?

The Solicitor-General

Please do not interrupt.

Mr. Hale

Surely, we should not assume that people in custody awaiting trial will necessarily be convicted?

The Solicitor-General

I am fully aware of that point, and if the hon. Gentleman will only listen he will hear me deal with it. It did mean that 17 prisoners spent three weeks in custody awaiting trial. But it is common knowledge that in considering what sentence is appropriate the period spent in custody preceding trial is invariably taken into account. If the hon. Gentleman had been able to contain himself he would have heard me say what I am about to say that of those 17 prisoners only one was subsequently acquitted—

Mr. Hale


The Solicitor-General

I must ask the hon. Gentleman to contain himself. That one was immediately re-arrested and is in custody awaiting proceedings before another court on another charge. These are the facts with regard to that adjournment.

Mr. Bing

Will the three weeks he remained in custody be taken into account in the unlikely event, or unfortunate event, of his being convicted on some other charge somewhere else?

The Solicitor-General

The hon. and learned Gentleman knows perfectly well that that will be one of the matters for the court which tries him, to consider in the event of his conviction.

Mr. Ivor Owen Thomas

What would have been the position if any of the prisoners had been acquitted after having been in custody for this period awaiting trial? Would there have been any retribution or compensation, and how would it have been made?

The Solicitor-General

I apprehend that the position would have been exactly the same as it is in every other case. I want to make it quite clear that although there was a postponement of the sessions from 8th to 29th October —

Mr. Thomas

On that further point, is it not an admission—

The Solicitor-General

I am not giving way to the hon. Member for this reason. A number of questions have been put to me by the hon. and gallant Member for Hull, East, and, as the time I have available is very short, I want to give him information in answer to the questions he put to me.

I desire to make it quite clear that it is for the recorder to fix the date of his quarter sessions, and the Act provides that he must hold them once in each quarter. If he had known what the late Prime Minister was going to announce in his broadcast, he could have fixed his quarter sessions for 29th October originally, or for any later date within that quarter, and there would not, in fact, have been any ground for complaint, because the Act provides that he must hold them once in each quarter, or more frequently, if he thinks fit or is so directed by the Secretary of State. That is the position with regard to the first postponement.

With regard to the second point raised —the adjournment from 31st October to Friday—2nd November—here again I say that it is clearly within the power of any recorder to adjourn his session from time to time. I do not think anyone will dispute that. It would be out of order for me now to say anything in this debate on the manner in which that power which the recorder possesses was or was not exercised, because if I sought to express any opinion upon that I would undoubtedly reflect one way or the other upon the conduct of a judicial officer.

In this particular case the quarter sessions were adjourned on 31st October, not by the recorder but by the Lord Mayor of Hull. That action by the Lord Mayor of Hull was clearly taken under Section 167 (1) of the Municipal Corporations Act, and the section to which the hon. and gallant Member has referred makes it quite clear that it is the duty of the mayor, in the absence of a recorder and deputy recorder, to open the court and adjourn the holding thereof. I understand that when that duty was exercised by the Lord Mayor of Hull steps were taken to convey the personal apologies of the learned recorder to all those who were inconvenienced by the adjournment.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman raised a question of which he did not give me any notice. I make no complaint about that, but it is one which he inadvertently, I am sure, failed to give me notice about. It was with regard to the position of the assistant recorder. An assistant recorder can only sit when a recorder is sitting save for finishing off a part of a case, for passing sentence or for things of that sort. He could not, in fact, have gone on in this instance and tried further cases in the recorder's absence. I am not responsible for the description applied to the assistant recorder in the Press. I do not know if they called him an acting assistant recorder, but I have no reason to suppose that he was not properly appointed and that before the quarter sessions were adjourned there were not two courts sitting.

I come to the third question which I want to deal with; that is to whom is the Lord Mayor responsible for his act of adjourning the sessions? Can his conduct be called in question in council, and is he under an obligation to explain to the council the reasons for his action?

I think it is clear from Section 167 (2) that the Lord Mayor, in adjourning the sessions, is acting in the character of a judge of the court, and it would be a wrong thing if the idea were to gain currency that those who are responsible for the administration of justice in quarter sessions were in any way answerable to local authorities or to individual members of the council for their actions in a judicial capacity. That, I think, was the fallacy behind the hon. Gentleman's argument. The Lord Mayor, in acting as he did, was discharging the duty placed upon him by the statute, and he is not responsible to the local council for his judicial actions. Local government functions and judicial functions must be kept distinct. If they are not, then suggestions of political influence might perhaps arise.

There are recorders on both sides of this House, and in the present state of the House it may well be that difficulties will arise for recorders in discharging their onerous duties. That, I think, will be generally recognised, but I feel confident that recorders, no matter on which side of the House they sit, will do their very best to avoid giving inconvenience to witnesses, jurors or to others. On this occasion this adjournment did take place, and the recorder expressed his apologies for any inconvenience to witnesses and others.

Mr. Hale

And the costs?

The Solicitor-General

No doubt the learned recorder will take every possible step to see that this does not happen again

The Question having been proposed at Four o'Clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put. pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half-past Four o'Clock