HC Deb 23 June 1961 vol 642 cc1857-64

As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

12.11 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

This Bill was presented by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Hobson) who offers his apologies to the House for his inability to be here this morning. I think the House would wish to congratulate him on having presented a Bill so useful and brief as this, and on his conduct of the Bill through the Committee stage.

As the Bill reached its Second Reading without a debate, I do not think it would be amiss if I were to explain briefly its contents. The House will have noticed that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington was supported in his presentation of the Bill by members of both branches of the legal profession, barristers and solicitors and indeed, by representatives of all parties on both sides of the House. Perhaps I ought to declare my own interest, as well as the interest of all those who supported the Bill, as being a member of the legal profession.

The purpose of the Bill is explained in its Long Title. It makes provision with respect to the qualification for office of barristers who have been solicitors…. There are, as the House will know, a number of judicial offices and quasi-judicial offices which require in the person appointed to them so many years standing as a barrister. The legal training of a barrister is not so very different these days from the legal training of a solicitor, and in fact some of our most eminent judges were once solicitors. In many ways it is a great advantage in appointment to high office to have been in both branches of the profession. The Bar Council and the Law Society conferred on this subject before any legislation was proposed and were in entire agreement that this was advantageous not only to both professions but to the public in general.

This is not in any way a fusion of the professions, a subject which will always remain controversial. It is merely a recognition of a certain equal standing in the respective branches of the profession, and it provides that where the appointment to judicial or quasi-judicial office requires the appointee to be a barrister of a number of years standing, some of those years in the solicitors' profession will count in his qualification.

12.15 p.m.

Mr. Dudley Williams (Exeter)

We have heard from time to time a number of criticisms of Members of Parliament for acting for various organisations outside the House. Let me say that I do not think that it applies in any way to the hon. and learned Members who represent the legal profession in the House, but I should draw attention to the fact that the legal profession is represented to a far greater numerical degree than any other body in the country, with the possible exception of the trade unions.

Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)

Not the Scottish legal profession.

Mr. Williams

I do not want to get involved in the question of Scotland. I do not know whether this Bill applies to Scotland or only to England and Wales. I think it covers Scotland as well.

Mr. Graham Page

May I assist my hon. Friend? There are certain appointments both in Scotland and in Northern Ireland for which an English barrister may qualify. To that extent the Bill applies to Scotland and Northern Ireland, but it does not apply to those who qualify at the Scottish Bar or to Scottish solicitors.

Mr. Williams

I think that is a great advantage to Scotland.

I am a little disturbed by what lies behind this Bill. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) is speaking for my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Hobson) who I understand cannot be here today. I should have thought that if there is now a qualification requiring a certain amount of experience as a barrister before a man can be appointed to high office, there would be a case for saying that this practice should continue. If, in fact, practice as a solicitor is practically the same thing as being a barrister I cannot see why we cannot have more comprehensive legislation in order to fuse together these two branches of the legal profession.

Whenever I have been in contact with the legal profession, which I am glad to say is not very often, I have always found it extremely expensive if I have had to approach bath branches of the profession, if I have had to go to a solicitor and then subsequently have sought counsel's opinion. I should have thought that, if this sort of legislation was contemplated it would have been much nicer—

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is not only outside the rules of order on Third Reading; it is also outside the scope of the Bill altogether. I must ask the House to remember that we cannot on Third Reading have wide debates like those we have on Second Reading.

Mr. Williams

I was afraid you would take that view, Mr. Speaker, and I accept your rebuke in the spirit in which it was given.

My feeling is that it is undesirable that this Bill in its present form should be given a Second Reading. It is not desirable because, in my view, the change in our procedure which it proposes cannot be justified, since there are differences of approach by the two branches of the legal profession. I shall not give my support to the Bill unless I hear something more convincing from my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General when he gives the Government point of view.

Holding the views that I do, I hope that the House will refuse to give this Bill a Third Reading, and then perhaps we shall find hon. and learned Members seeking to introduce a more comprehensive Measure in due course.

12.18 p.m.

Mr. John E. Talbot (Brierley Hill)

I do not pretend that I am in a position to give an official answer to the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Dudley Williams) but I can give him an answer which I hope will satisfy him.

It is quite true that in the early stages of legal training the basic knowledge which students must assimilate is very similar, but once a man obtains his qualifications the different ramifications and the intensive specialisation which modern legal problems require lead to the possibility that a man may start in either the solicitors' or the barristers' branch of the legal profession and then find that his qualifications and abilities are more suited to the other.

For example, a solicitor who, after a year or two's qualification, finds that he has become a promising or perhaps a brilliant advocate, would rightly feel that his talents were best suited to the Bar, where the risks are greater but the opportunities and financial possibilities are far more dazzling and satisfying to the man with a brilliant intellect than those which can be afforded in the junior branch of the profession. On the other hand, those who qualify as barristers may feel, as they proceed in life, that they would like to relax into quiet respectability, such as I enjoy, in the junior branch of the profession. This fluidity of exchange of personnel between the barristers' and solicitors' branches of the legal profession is something which we ought to recognise as a good thing, and be prepared to encourage.

It is right that for high judicial office there should be a qualification of a considerable number of years' experience in legal practice, but the point which the Bill seeks to make is that that experience can just as adequately be obtained in the service of the law in the solicitors' branch of the profession as it can at the Bar. For that reason, I hope that the House will support the Bill, which has the backing of the Council of the Law Society and. I believe, the Inns of Court.

Mr. Dudley Williams

Can my hon. Friend explain exactly the point he makes about the solicitor who finds that he is a good advocate? Surely he can be a good advocate only in a lower court, and can deal only with fairly small offences, or civil cases. How can he become a specialist in Income Tax matters or in company law? I do not see how he can do it.

Mr. Talbot

In these days the lower courts deal with some important matters. Jurisdiction in county courts in these days extend to cases involving £400 in company law actions and £500 in equity cases, besides which they often have jurisdiction in bankruptcy, which poses difficult points of law. Solicitors have audience in matters concerning town planning, which is a very specialised branch of the law, where much money often depends on the result of the case. I disagree with my hon. Friend in his contention that the opportunities for advocacy in the solicitors' branch of the profession are not adequate in which to gain experience as a young man before deciding that one's talents would be better employed at the Bar.

I understand my hon. Friend's concern for the well-being of the public, which is what we are here for, rather than for our own professional interests, but I can assure him that at least in my experience the passing of men from one branch to the other is for the good of the profession. A man should not be penalised in his later career when he finds that he has started in a branch of the profession which is less advantageous to him. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

12.24 p.m.

Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)

I rise simply because of the explanation given by the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) as to the effect of the Bill upon Scotland. As I understand him, certain legal positions in Scotland are open to English barristers. I assume that those positions would customarily be open to the Scottish legal profession—the advocates, who correspond to the English barristers. The Bill would seem to give the English barrister a certain advantage over the Scottish advocate, because its provisions are not applicable to Scottish advocates.

Mr. Graham Page

The hon. Member is quite correct in saying that the Bill applies only to the English Bar and not to the Scottish advocates or to Scottish solicitors. As for the English barrister accepting an appointment in Scotland, that is not quite the position to which I was referring. There are certain appointments and commissions which may operate in Scotland and which an English barrister may hold, but they are not really Scottish appointments.

Mr. Willis

I am grateful to the hon. Member for explaining the matter. I am not a lawyer, and am not very well versed in these matters. If the Bill covers appointments made in Scotland for which English barristers are eligible it would seem to place the English barrister at a certain advantage over the Scottish advocate. I should very much deplore that. It is not the general thing for Scottish advocates to serve any time as solicitors. They usually go straight to the Bar. In view of what the hon. Member has said, it would be useful to have an explanation of the position of Scottish advocates under the Bill, and to be told whether the English barrister is in fact given an advantage in relation to any appointments that might be made. I hope that an explanation can he given by the Solicitor-General.

12.26 p.m.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Clapham)

I warmly support the Bill. I should like to refer to what the hon. Member for Edinburgh. East (Mr. Willis) has just said. The reason Scottish advocates and members of the Irish Bar are not included in the Bill may be that their inclusion would have made it much more difficult to get the Bill through the House. As my hon. Friend has said, the Bill does affect members of the English Bar who apply for appointments which may be given in Scotland. If my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. John Hobson) had tried to include the whole of the Scottish Bar, the writers to the signet, and the Irish Bar, it would have been difficult to have got the Bill through, as a Private Members' Bill.

Mr. Willis

It was precisely because that is what I understood that I ventured to intervene. I am not certain about the extent to which English barristers now have acertain advantage as compared with Scottish advocates. The hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) did not make the difference clear to me.

Dr. Glyn

The only advantage would be that given to English barristers applying for the very small category of jobs available in Scotland. I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General will be able to clear the matter up, but it seems a very small advantage to me. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East said, the practice of a writer of the signet becoming an advocate is not widespread, so the application of the Bill would not be so great in any case.

It is sometimes said that Private Members' Bills of this nature need a much fuller discussion before being passed. This is one of the exceptions. It is a highly technical Bill, and I am sure that we can safely pass it. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Dudley Williams) on this point. It is a simple Bill, which raises a very small matter of principle. If the qualification of being a solicitor is allowed to count, I feel that it will enhance the value of the barrister, because a little experience in a different field is an advantage. The Bill has received the approval, not only of the Law Society, but of the Inns of Court. I recommend it most warmly to the House and trust that it will be given an unopposed Third Reading.

12.30 p.m.

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)

I feel that the answer to the point raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) is quite clearly set out in what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Hobson) said to the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes) in Standing Committee on 7th June. The hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North said: May I ask three questions? Has the Bar of Scotland been consulted about this? Has the Bar of Northern Ireland been consulted about it? What is the position under this Bill of a person who is a member of both the Bar of England and the Bar of Northern Ireland? My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington replied: The answer to the hon. and learned Gentleman's first two questions is 'No'. They have not been consulted because this arose out of a discussion between the English Law Society and the English Bar Council. If similar arrange- ments are desired by the Faculty of Advocates of Scotland and the Scottish Law Society, no doubt they can be discussed among themselves."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee C, 7th June, 1961; c. 5–6.] Like the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East, I am not a lawyer and I should not have intervened if it were not for the fact that, sitting here as a layman, my mind was forcibly cast back to 20th October, 1959, when another lawyer was specifically changing his mode of professional life. In column 14 of HANSARD for that day, the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the former Member for the Cities of London and Westminster, speaking about one of your predecessors in the Chair, Mr. Speaker, said that a certain Serjeant Fleming was said to be too lawyer-like and uncouth for the Chair…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th October, 1959; Vol. 612, c. 14.] How one sees that times change! It is perfectly reasonable for a lawyer to take any branch of the profession which he may see fit to take. Therefore, as a layman, I am sure that the laymen among us should support the Bill most strongly if it will help members of the legal profession to change their habits if they wish.

12.33 p.m.

Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)

The Bill seems a most useful and just Measure. I note not only that it has the support of the solicitors and the governing authorities of the Bar, but that the back of the Bill shows that it has the support of Members of all parties, all of them experienced in the law, some in one part of the profession, others in another part. In those circumstances, I cannot do other than support it, noting, as I do, if I may adapt his own language, the criticisms of the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Dudley Williams) in the spirit in which they were uttered.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time and passed.