HC Deb 11 May 1956 vol 552 cc1599-606
Mr. E. Fletcher

I beg to move, in page 6, to leave out lines 4 to 6.

I attach considerable importance to this Amendment. The law provides that the Law Society, acting through a Disciplinary Committee, can exercise jurisdiction over solicitors. I think the system works very well. As far as I know it has the full approval of the profession and I think everybody is very indebted to the members of the Disciplinary Committee, which spends a great deal of time and thought on the responsible work it has to discharge.

Hitherto the quorum for a meeting of the Disciplinary Committee has been three. The Committee would probably agree that that is not an unreasonable provision. If any conduct of a solicitor has been such that it calls for investigation, perhaps leading to censure or, perhaps, even greater penalties on the part of the members of his profession, who, after all, are the best persons qualified to judge these matters, it is not unreasonable that a decision of that importance should require a panel of three solicitors. Of course, they are always experienced gentlemen of long standing in the profession.

The Clause seeks to provide that in future the quorum shall be reduced to two. That in itself is an abbreviation because the Clause provides that unless any of the parties thereto objects, an application or complaint may be heard and determined by only two members of the committee— Therefore, it might be argued, if any person were dissatisfied with a quorum of two, he could insist upon his case being tried by a quorum of three, but in practice that is not what happens. I understand that it often happens that the less serious cases are tried in the absence of the person against whom an application or complaint has been made. One knows that it sometimes happens that such a person gives an explanation in writing and may not actually be present at the time.

One also knows that from time to time accidents occur arising from the hazards of transport or some other reason, which result in there being difficulty in constituting a quorum of three. If the Clause remains in its present form one result may be that there might be occasion when a solicitor against whom complaint has been made thinks fit to send in his statement and explanation in writing, expecting it to be considered by a committee of three. One member might be absent, however, when the committee met. Under the Clause as I read it, the other two would be able to give themselves jurisdiction to hear the complaint because they would be entitled to say that no one had objected.

1.30 p.m.

Sir L. Joynson-Hicks

Surely it would scarcely be a question of their giving themselves jurisdiction. They would be given jurisdiction by Parliament.

Mr. Fletcher

I meant that Parliament would give them jurisdiction—that they would have, and would be able to exercise, jurisdiction.

Looking at the matter now purely from the point of view of the aggrieved person who might think himself innocent, or who has a good explanation and might have sent in a statement expecting it to be considered by three persons—and who might be content to rely upon the dispassionate judgment of three persons—I must say that this proposal seems to me to be undesirable. Is it entirely right that the person should, without notice, find that there was a tribunal of two? I should have thought that prima facie that was not desirable, and that, other things being equal, it would have been much better to have preserved the quorum of three in such cases.

Sir L. Joynson-Hicks

This Amendment is, perhaps, of greater importance, if not of greater significance, to the profession than was the previous one moved by the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher). The history of the Disciplinary Committee and its variations in size is relevant when judging what should be the quorum of that Committee.

The Disciplinary Committee was set up under the 1932 Act, which is the principal Act so far as this Amendment is concerned. Incidentally, when I referred in my original remarks to the principal Act, I was in error; I should have been referring to the 1941 Act. In the principal Act—that is to say, the 1932 Act—Section 4 provides for the setting up of a Disciplinary Committee which shall consist of not less than three or more than seven people, members of the Council or past members.

That was subsequently amended by the Act of 1939, which increased the maximum number from seven to nine. At the same time it gave power to the Society to divide the Disciplinary Committee, and it was provided that each division should act …only while at least three members thereof are present. Each division shall appoint its own chairman. We therefore get down to what, in effect, was a Disciplinary Committee of three persons, and the question is whether or not there are circumstances in which it is justifiable to reduce that quorum still further to two.

It may help the Committee if I offer a word of explanation as to why that provision is sought. It is true to say that even if the power exists, a committee of this sort—which has been appointed by the profession for a semi-judicial purpose to consider professional errors and misconduct amongst its own members—is not likely to behave irresponsibly or without due regard to professional etiquette as well as to the professional observance of proper relationships between those of the profession who come before it and its own position vis-à-vis the Council. Therefore, in all ordinary cases, there is no doubt that the quoroum of three would be used.

In quite a number of cases, however, there is no doubt at all as to the error and the guilt of the party who is before the Disciplinary Committee. There are cases in which a conviction has been obtained against the person concerned, or cases in which he has written to the Disciplinary Committee to say that he is frightfully sorry but it was a matter of inadvertence and hopes that the Committee will take this, that and the other into consideration, and that he, himself, does not propose to come to London in order to argue the matter before the Committee.

It is in those cases that it has happened in the past that, for one reason or another, a 100 per cent. quorum has not been present, sometimes on account of the weather, sometimes on account of illness. Where the panel of the Disciplinary Committee consists of three persons and all three have to be present, it does appear to be a hardship, both on those who are waiting for their cases to be taken and on those, both solicitors and officials, who are present if, owing to some such accident as I have indicated, the Committee is unable to sit and the cases cannot be heard. This power has been inserted in the Bill, therefore, to enable such difficulties to be overcome in cases in which the person who is appearing before the Disciplinary Committee does not object.

The hon. Member has represented the difficulty of a man objecting, but I do not appreciate that difficulty at all. In the first place, if he is appearing before the Disciplinary Committee in person and is prepared to argue his case in person, he is not likely to have any difficulty in objecting if it is suggested that, owing to the absence of one member of the Committee, his case should be proceeded with before the other two. I do not really see any practical difficulty there.

As regards the other point, that of the absent solicitor who is considered, in effect, to have consented because he has not objected—well, the hon. Gentleman knows full well that we have an old adage, not only in the law but outside it, about ignorance of the law being no excuse. That applies particularly to members of the profession. If they are brought before the Disciplinary Committee and do not take the trouble to ascertain what are the provisions concerning their appearance before the Committee and to verify that, if necessary, their case will be considered by two members instead of by three, it really cannot be held that they are subjected to any hardship whatsoever if they do not object. I cannot see the force of that argument.

For those reasons I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not press his Amendment. It is something which I do not think can foreseeably produce any hardship whatsoever. On the other hand, it may be beneficial—as it would have been beneficial in various cases in the past, had the power been available—to the erring member of the profession, to those who give up their time voluntarily to sit on the Disciplinary Committee and to the officers who serve it, and will generally give some easement through the Committee not being always compelled to have a quorum of three.

Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)

I have been listening with respect and, I was going to say, almost with reverence to this discussion, but I am sorry to tell the hon. Member for Chichester (Sir L. Joynson-Hicks) that I find his reasons a trifle unconvincing. The Disciplinary Committee is a statutory committee that was set up 24 years ago with a minimum quorum of three. It always has had a minimum quorum of three, and now it is sought to reduce that quorum to two unless any one of the parties objects.

One has to remember, first, that the profession has, as its members would be the first to recognise, a very peculiar and important public responsibility, and it is for that reason that Parliament has in successive Solicitors Acts laid down in some detail matters which perhaps in other professions it would not have thought necessary.

This Disciplinary Committee has the most serious responsibility that can be imposed on any professional committee. It can in effect, subject to the provisions of the Solicitors Acts, break a man in his professional life. Equally, it has to deal with complaints from citizens, the clients of the profession, and, serious though any individual complaint may be, the Disciplinary Committee has the general responsibility of maintaining the name and standing of the profession in the public life of the country.

It is suggested that in certain circumstances it would be sufficient if two people exercised those duties. Perhaps I ought more accurately to say "exercised those duties in the first place." I recognise that there are certain controls and limitations. But I am certain that the hon. Member for Chichester would not for a moment disagree with me as to the seriousness, in many cases, at any rate, of the duties of this Committee and its extreme importance not only because of its functions but because of its general relation to the public.

I was puzzled by one or two observations of the hon. Member for Chichester. He seemed to suggest at one point that arrangements might be made beforehand for a committee of two to deal with certain pending cases. Of course, if that is done, any difficulties in the train service or any questions of illness, and so forth, will have exactly the same effect in the case of a committee of two as obtains at present with a committee of three. Therefore, there cannot be much in that suggestion. I think it is irrelevant, because if arrangements are made beforehand for two, exactly the same trouble may occur in the one case as in the other.

Sir L. Joynson-Hicks

I agree entirely. If I gave the impression that it was intended to use this provision in order to arrange for a quorum of two, I was quite in error. I did not intend to give any such impression. I agree that if that were the case, the difficulty in the event of an emergency would arise straightaway.

1.45 p.m.

Mr. Mitchison

If the intention is to provide for a quorum of three, the only object of this Clause appears to be to deal with cases where one of the gentlemen in question fails to turn up. But they have gone on like this for 24 years during which, on the whole, means of locomotion and the state of public health have become a little more generally available and a little better than they used to be.

I cannot see any urgent need for this provision. If it is found that the proceedings of the Committee are frequently held up because a quorum of three does not appear, they might perhaps follow the practice that is usual with juries and provide for a supplementary gentleman to appear at short notice.

Frankly, I feel that the profession in a matter of this sort is taking things a little too easily. There are the most serious objections to this proposal, I should have thought, in any case that really involved grave matters in so small a Committee. I do not know what is to happen if the two gentlemen disagree. There may be an answer—I dare say there is—but it is not satisfactory to the parties in the case to have a decision depend on some rule of procedure or question of seniority as between two members. For a Committee with such serious responsibilities as this to provide for a quorum of two simply because after 24 years it is now discovered that a quorum of three cannot always be there and something must be done about it, is insufficient.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider what has been put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) and, indeed, what I have said myself, and perhaps feel that it is not too much of a concession to the public interest in this case to maintain the existing quorum of three and not press this point.

Mr. E. Fletcher

I very much hope, in view of what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) has said, that the hon. Member will meet us on this point. We are anxious on both sides of the Committee to get through the Bill with the minimum of controversy. This seems to us to be a reasonable Amendment and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept it.

Mr. Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)

May I add one plea? I apologise for having come into the Chamber late, but I have been discussing this matter with one of my hon. Friends. Some of us know how important this matter is to some members of the profession, and it is essential that they should be given a chance of realising that their case has been dealt with in as ample and full a manner as possible. I am sure that it will be the desire also of solicitors that this opportunity should be given. I think that a quorum of two is very small. Three is not too many, but it is certainly much better than two.

Sir L. Joynson-Hicks

The hon. Gentleman puts me in a predicament in this matter, because I cannot accept all the arguments which have been put forward. There are considerable practical difficulties in the suggestion about having a spare in reserve to sit in the Disciplinary Committee should it be necessary. One cannot go into court, so to speak, to sit on the Disciplinary Committee or divisions of it unless one has studied at considerable length the great detail of the cases which are to come before one. There has to be at least 48 hours' warning, as I know from experience, to give people a chance to get to know the background of the business to be considered. The object of the Clause is to deal with the emergency of which there is no warning. That is the difficulty in accepting that proposal.

While I recognise the weight of the argument, I notice the curious thing that the problem presented here today was not presented in this or any other form during the debates in another place. Had there been real weight in the argument, I should have thought that the exceedingly learned noble lords who participated in the debates on the Bill in another place would at least have thought of the point. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I am not saying that is a good reason for our not accepting this Amendment, but the matter was not raised there, and I am considering what weight should be attached to it. I do not think, on the strength of such arguments as have been adduced, I can accept the Amendment, but I shall certainly not carry the matter to a Division.

Amendment agreed to.

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

Clauses 9 to 11 ordered to stand part of the Bill.