HC Deb 28 July 1952 vol 504 cc1220-3

Order for Second Reading read.

9.33 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Lionel Heald)

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

This is a consolidation Bill, and I think it would be right that I should say a brief word about it because it is a Bill of considerable importance. It contains 133 Clauses and six Schedules, but it makes it possible to refer to one single Bill instead of having to refer to a very large number of pages in admirable volumes such as Stone's Justices Manuel, covering Acts which go back over a hundred years, but notably such well-known Acts as the Summary Jurisdiction Act, or the Indictable Offences Act, 1848.

I think it is right that a tribute should be paid to the great and, of course, entirely non-party effort which has led to this Bill. It is a considerable achievement, because when the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) first set out on this adventure early last year it was thought that it would not be possible to achieve the result without substantial changes in the law, which would involve a complicated Bill. But the work undertaken under the direction of the right hon. Gentleman, as so often in these matters, particularly with the assistance of Sir Granville Ram, led to the conclusion that it would be possible, after all, to do this job by means of consolidation.

I am sure that the House would not think it improper for me to mention that Sir Granville Ram, who very nearly literally wore himself out by his efforts in this and other directions, is now recovering his health. In November of last year, a Committee was, therefore, set up under the chairmanship of Lord Llewellin, which undertook this great task of consolidation, and I think that Lord Llewellin deserves the thanks of the House for the work which he did. It has resulted in a really useful achievement.

I would say one word of warning. If hon. Members should look at the Schedule where they will find a very large number of Acts referred to as being amended and in some cases repealed, I hope that they will not be disappointed to find that a number of them cannot be repealed. The reason for that is a simple one. This Bill deals only with magistrates' courts. In a large number of these Acts there are, of course, matters concerned with other courts, and therefore it is not possible to remove them altogether.

I think that it will be found that there has been a great degree of simplification, which will not only facilitate the work of those who have to administer the law, but simplify the law and make it more intelligible to the general public, which I think the House will agree is a laudable object.

9.36 p.m.

Sir Frank Soskice (Sheffield, Neepsend)

I think that the House always welcomes a consolidation Measure, and that this one in particular will be welcomed on both sides of the House. It is an extremely useful Bill. It does, as the Attorney-General has said, make it unnecessary to refer to the pages of a large volume which we frequently had the experience of carting about with us to the courts in the old days, and it takes its place as one of a number of very useful consolidation Measures which have been put on the Statute Book during the last few years. One need only mention the Income Tax Act and the Customs and Excise Bill with which the House has recently been concerned.

I do not think that many words of mine are really necessary to say how the Bill will be received by my hon. Friends on this side of the House. I should like to join with the Attorney-General in paying my tribute to those, particularly Sir Granville Ram and Lord Llewellin and the members of his Committee, who made it possible for this work to come to fruition. I need only say that we are very glad to see this Bill introduced, and I think my hon. and right hon. Friends will join me in congratulating the Attorney-General on introducing it.

9.38 p.m.

Mr. James MacColl (Widnes)

I do not want to detain the House for more than a minute, but I should like to add my expression of appreciation to the very valuable work which is done in this Bill. Of course, the trouble about any consolidation Bill is that when one reads through it there are all sorts of things which one would like to alter. That is certainly true in the case of this Bill.

Its general effect, I think, will be of enormous value and service to those who have to try to administer justice in the magistrates' courts. Up till now they have had the almost impossible task, as the Attorney-General said, of trying to administer procedual regulations in a great variety of Acts, dating from very different times, and it is surprising how the courts have been able to carry on owing to a considerable degree of uncertainty as to what is the procedual law. It is only on occasion when a case happens to reach a divisional court that some ruling may be given which at least has the virtue of being clear, although it does not always have the virtue of appearing particularly relevant or particularly helpful. That difficulty will now be overcome and magistrates will have the advantage of being able to turn to one Act and one set of rules to find out what procedure they are supposed to be carrying out.

We are constantly being told that justice should be manifest and free from doubt. It is equally important that the rules of order and procedure in the courts should be clearly understood by the lay magistrate. I want to quote a passage from the Minutes of the Joint Committee of the two Houses to indicate the tangled mess into which the law in these matters has been allowed to get. On page 23, Lord Schuster said: I have never been able to understand either of the sections? The answer given him by the expert is: I think they are pretty nearly unintelligible, but the difficulty of reconciling them can be stated shortly, I think, by saying that Section 5 of the Indictable Offences Act refers to functions under that Act, and Section 6 refers to functions of justices at large, whether under that Act or any other Act. Section 6 of the Summary Jurisdiction Act, 1848, refers to functions under the Summary Jurisdiction Acts, and there is another Act which also is relevant, the Municipal Corporations Act, which refers to the functions of justices at large … To which Lord Schuster made the very sensible comment: Which is quite unintelligible, anyhow? The answer to that was, "Yes."

That is the kind of situation in which people who give their services to the courts in an unpaid capacity as magistrates have been expected to steer their way, running the risk that at any time if by chance a case reached a divisional court they might find their actions severely commented upon.

One of the values of this consolidation Measure has been that a Departmental Committee consisting of people who practise in the courts, sit on the benches and have experience of High Court work as well have got together to try to work out the problems involved. I wonder if the Attorney-General can say whether the Committee will continue so that when from time to time difficult problems arise it will be available to consider them and decide whether or not the rules require amendment. The great value of such a Committee is that it can bring together people who know the high courts and people who know the low courts.

A certain unawareness of what life is like in magistrates' courts sometimes shows itself among those who sit in high courts. That is understandable and natural because in the nature of things their professional skill has led them into the higher reaches of the law rather than the more humdrum reaches of magistrates' courts. It is valuable to have a Committee of this kind which can bring the two sections together, pool ideas and information and keep up-to-date the Measure which we are now passing and also the rules under it. It would be a tragedy if, having performed this tremendous work which we so much appreciate, we again allowed the law by degrees to become out-of-date and obscure. I hope the Attorney-General will be able to say that some machinery will be kept in being for keeping the Act and the rules up-to-date.

The Attorney-General

I am afraid that it would not be the same Committee, but we will carefully consider the matter.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Kaberry.]

Committee Tomorrow.