HC Deb 21 March 1962 vol 656 cc443-54

Amendment made: In page 18, line 33, column 3, after "In", insert "Part I of".—[Mr. Fletcher-Cooke.]

5.58 p.m.

The Attorney-General

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

I think that the House will agree that this is both an important Bill and a good one. It is based on the recommendations of what we call the Streatfeild Committee, which was appointed by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor. Hon. Members will not expect me, at this stage, to go any further into the provisions of the Bill, or say anything more about its detail, for it was not only fully considered on Second Reading but received a very thorough and careful investigation in Committee.

Although altered in some respects during its passage in Committee and on Report, it really is, in substance, very similar to what it was when introduced. Its main effect will be, we hope, to reduce the time during which a prisoner will be in custody awaiting trial, to reduce the time between committal in the magistrates' court and trial at assizes and quarter sessions and it may be to the convenience of all practitioners to know that it is the intention of the Lord Chief Justice and the President of the Probate and Divorce and Admiralty Division to publish the dates of assizes for each calendar year in the early summer of the preceding year. It is hoped that quarter sessions and recorders will follow this example, for it would be very convenient to all concerned to have long notice of the dates of sittings.

During the Committee stage and again today we have had interesting discussions and debates on subjects which are not included in the Bill. One of those subjects which was discussed in Committee was the important question of the publicity of committal proceedings which was raised by the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman). I think that it would be out of order for me to say anything now on that interesting subject, for I can find nothing in the Bill which touches it to enable me to do so and keep in order. I can only hope that the observations of my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General on this subject in Committee will not escape attention.

Throughout the debate on Second Reading and, I am assured, throughout the discussions in Committee—which I was, unfortunately, unable to attend—discussion has been not only amiable, but constructive, and I should like to take this opportunity of expressing my thanks and appreciation not only to the members of the Streatfeild Committee for the hard work which they have done and which has been so productive, but also to all those who served on the Committee and who have taken part in our debates and joined in seeking to make this as good a Bill as it could be made. It does not look so very momentous and it may not hit the headlines in the daily Press, but I think that it will mark a notable advance in the administration of justice. I express my thanks to all those who have facilitated its passage.

6.2 p.m.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)

I am genuinely sorry to intrude a dubious or contentious note into what up to now has seemed a very happy little ceremony. But this is the only opportunity I have been able to take of raising matters which I have had in mind, because I did not have the good fortune to be a member of the Committee and did not wish to be, because I was engaged on other duties on a Royal Commission which would have considerably clashed with those of attending the Committee.

However, there is a good deal in the Bill which Professor Parkinson might look at with some anxiety and wonder whether hon. Members had all the facts before them. Without wishing to frustrate some of the useful Amendments to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has properly referred, I hope that I may phrase some kind of opposition largely on questions of doubt. No one has a greater respect for our judicial procedure than I, or for those who in the higher capacity administer the law. I am not for a moment suggesting that we should ask Mr. Bedeau to look at the Law Courts, or ask my old friend the former Member for Reading, Mr. Mikardo, to undertake a time and motion study of them.

But the House should question some of the propositions which are put to us, often with no evidence. Time after time Bills come to the House proposing the appointment of more judges. We are told that we need more county court judges, more High Court judges, more commissioners of divorce, and so on. Indeed, as recently as 1960 we passed an Act to increase the number of High Court judges. I do not recall, during the years I have been in the House, a single occasion when a Law Officer of the Crown of either party has told the House that the Government have found that there are jobs to be abolished and jobs in which nothing is now being done. Once a recorder, always a recorder. Once a town has a recorder, so the appointment goes on, and bit by bit the numbers increase.

It was reported only this week that a divorce case bad occupied 29 days of the time of a High Court judge. I have never myself heard the act of fornication referred to as one of undue length, or even of any very great complexity. Yet it seems that in this case the single question raised in a 29 days' trial was whether a lady had committed adultery with a named gentleman more than once. Everyone knows why the case took 29 days—because it concerned very rich people. A very great deal of public money was consumed in this way and we are entitled to question the figures.

If it is assumed that a judge sits for five days a week and for 40 weeks a year, which is a rough estimate, he sits for a total of 200 days a year. It is a very exacting task. Those of us who have to sit here listening to the speeches from lawyers on either side of the House can appreciate how difficult it must be to continue to do that and to maintain one's reason for 200 days every year. But it is done. Now, we are told, the output of the divorces of rich persons may be reduced to 6.9 a year for one High Court judge—if a judge sits for an average of 200 days and each case lasts 29 days.

At that rate, we should need several thousand more judges. Fortunately, ox unfortunately, even in this property-owning democracy not everyone is rich enough to be able to brief counsel for 29 days. Even the expenditure on petrol required for the three Rolls-Royces which were used every day for the three parties must have been considerable.

Mr. Graham Page

The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) has referred to rich litigants, but he will appreciate that legal aid cases could last just as long as that divorce.

Mr. Weitzman

I know of more than one case taking 21 days.

Mr. Hale

In theory, they could, but if they did in fact we would have to do something about it. If there is a legal aid case which has lasted 29 days, I would be glad to hear about it.

Any case may raise a point of great legal importance and might last for a long time. For instance, I dare say that there would be fairly contentious litigation over a patent for perpetual motion and it might take some time. But in a divorce case the only question which really matters is the custody of the children, and that is left to be decided in chambers.

No one asks whether we need this sort of court, or whether it need function. I recall that before the war I had some words with the magistrates of the town of Burton-on-Trent. In, possibly, a moment of temporary indignation I announced that I would not allow them to try the next case in which I appeared, but that I would exercise my right on behalf of my client to have it tried at quarter sessions. I had no idea what would result from that unpremeditated action.

There had not been a quarter sessions in Burton-on-Trent for years. Although there was a recorder, he was a very respectable don at Oxford and he had not the slightest intention of sitting at Burton Quarter Sessions. However, there had to be a quarter sessions, so he appointed a deputy recorder to sit for the sessions. As this was in the days of the grand jury, a grant jury had to be convened with all the panoply and paraphernalia of javelin men, and so on, all assembled at Burton-on-Trent. The deputy recorder informed the mayor that it was the custom to give a luncheon, so a lunch was laid on and invitations were sent out.

The night before, I interviewed my client again and I decided to plead guilty. The result was that, this being the only case at the sessions, the sessions lasted five minutes and the mayor bitterly complained that he had had a lunch prepared for people most of whom were not going to stay. Some temporary unpopularity resulted for myself. I believe that there is still a recorder at Burton-on-Trent, although I do not know whether he is very active. It may be that conditions in Burton-on-Trent have altered and that there has been a desirable increase in crime, so that there is something for someone to do.

The reason that our judges are grossly overworked is not so much because of 29-day divorce cases as because the House of Commons continues to pass ridiculous legislation, much of it without proper consideration, at two o'clock in the morning—perhaps we should cut that down a little and say about 11.30.

I think that it would be appropriate if I gave one example of how the process works, starting with the dog and finishing with the judicial sausages. I was attracted by a recent decision of the Lord Chief Justice of England, a very learned decision which everyone should read with profit. It was a case concerning Victor Value Limited and mock salmon cutlets. That started with the fish cakes Order, 1950, for which I obviously share a measure of responsibility, because I was either here or not here. I do not recall a prolonged debate on that occasion, but we all know what must have happened and realise that such an Order would not have been produced without very considerable study and preparation.

No doubt, some years before a lady had written to say that there was sawdust in her fishcakes, and there would be a Departmental inquiry into the nutritive value of sawdust, with an adverse conclusion. Then would come the proposals for the measure, the deputations from the trawler owners, and the note to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries to remember the former mayor of Great Grimsby, a lifelong member of the Conservative Association who had paid his subscription from 1945 to 1951. There would be photographs in "he agricultural Press of potatoes rotting in the fields and notices saying that fishcakes should have their appropriate percentage of potatoes as well as fish. We did not say anything about potatoes. We merely said that the fishcakes should contain 35 per cent. fish.

The Order was passed, and I am sure that that night 300 or 400 of us went home feeling assured that henceforth fishcakes would be free from dubiety and criticism and that Chose addicted to this somewhat peculiar form of nutriment would be duly gratified. Then in 1955 the House passed the Food and Drugs Act.

All went well until a few weeks ago when an inspector of some sort, presumably a food inspector or testing officer, found mock salmon cutlets being exhibited by Victor Value Ltd., provided by some other alliterative firm, Piper Products Poole Ltd., which had manufactured the mock salmon cutlets. The sum of 4s. 3d. was expended on the purchase of six of them. They were duly examined and a report was furnished to the effect that they contained only 30 per cent. fish. In the result, the justices refused to convict and the case went to the Divisional Court of the Queen's Bench Division, presided over by the Lord Chief Justice who sat with Mr. Justice Ashworth and one other High Court judge. Fascinating arguments ensued. Previously, it had been decided that mock cream need not contain cream. [Laughter.] This is reasonable. Mock cream implies some absence of cream. I am not for a moment trying to be facetious. This is our responsibility. The job of members of the judiciary is to try cases which are brought before them, and they have no option but to apply all their ability to the task.

As I have said, it was decided that mock cream need not contain cream. It might be argued that mock salmon cutlets need not contain salmon. But it is going rather far to say that mock salmon outlets need not contain fish.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir William Anstruther-Gray)

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not go into greater detail than is necessary on this the Third Reading of the Bill.

Mr. Hale

The last thing that I wish to do is to introduce any spirit of facetiousness about the performance of judicial duties. I am trying to limit myself purely to time. I know that in other matters I am tempted to be a little irreverend. When confronted with imposing façades, whether it be of the Parthenon or of Miss Jayne Mansfield, I look at them with dubiety and almost incredulity.

Their Lordships decided that mock salmon cutlets came within the circum-ambience of fishcakes and, therefore, should contain 35 per cent. fish, and the case was remitted back to the magistrates with a direction to convict.

On the same day, one of the problems which Parliament has left untouched for 102 years arose. It concerned the case of the unfortunate lady who sought nullification of her marriage on the ground of non-consummation. The marriage was celebrated at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the husband being domiciled in Scotland. He acquired a new domicile in the Middle East, leaving her virtually on the steps of the church or registry office, or whatever it was.

This case occupied the attention of seven of their Lordships in their Lordships' House for some considerable time. It was an important case, and a rather terrible case. There had been a decision in 1860 to the effect that, if a person was married in England, then in the case of a void marriage and probably of a voidable one the question could be tested in England. Their Lordships decided against that by five to one and in a sense reversed a decision which had been acted on since 1860. They certainly laid down some new law. The unhappy lot of the lady seeking dissolution of marriage is that she can start the whole case again in Scotland, and may lose again on the defence that her husband is now domiciled in the Middle East.

I know that it is easy to criticise and intensely difficult to put these things right. But surely the time has come when we should abolish the domiciliary distinction as between Scotland and England and provide a concurrent jurisdiction. However, I should, no doubt, be getting near the bounds of order if I were to pursue that matter further.

I do not believe in legislation. I sincerely believe that if we repealed 90 per cent. of the Acts on the Statute Book the world would be a better place. I do not believe in litigation. I do not believe in unnecessary prosecutions. I do not really worry whether a lady finds a bit of sawdust in her fishcakes. If she buys bad fishcakes from one shop, she can try another shop. There is a lot of grandfatherly and grandmotherly legislation. I know that the Attorney-General exercises many and diverse duties. I imagine his office is one of the most exacting in the Government. Some of his duties are judicial, some as an advocate, some quasi-judicial and some advisory. I have no complaint about the way he exercises his duties. But, with all due respect to him, surely the time has come when we should look at the criminal law of this country and even at the procedure of the courts.

I would not want to alter things which work well unless there is a valid and effective reason for so doing. But this hotch-potch of mixed courts, divisional courts, various appellate courts, with an appeal lying from one court in this direction and from the same court in another direction, with rehearings before one court and no possibility of a rehearing before another court, presents a very diverse and not easily understood picture.

Having said that, I am prepared, with reluctance, to permit the Bill to pass. However, I hope that I remain here long enough to participate in a debate on some of the issues which are involved and which are of importance.

6.18 p.m.

Mr. Weitzman

There may be a great deal of unnecessary legislation, but the fact is that we have Acts of Parliament on the Statute Book and the law must be administered. It is far better that we should have a number of judges who may not be doing anything rather than that a person should have to wait a long time to come to trial. I congratulate the Government on acting with such expedition in implementing the Streatfeild Committee's recommendations.

I am grateful to the Attorney-General for what he said about committal proceedings. I hope that the Government will act with like expedition in honouring the undertaking which they gave in Committee to make a comprehensive study of the value and nature of committal proceedings and take action as soon as they can on that matter.

6.20 p.m.

Mr. James MacColl (Widnes)

I should like to detain the House for a moment to express my support for the Bill and my appreciation of it. I arrived in the House just at the moment when the Question was being put on the constitution of the appeal panel in cases arising from juvenile courts. I think that the Bill has been improved by that introduction, because it is desirable that in cases of appeals from juvenile courts there should be women and men on the appeal panel. I am glad that the Government have been able to meet that point because I realise that there could quite easily have been some good reason for their not doing so. I think that this has made it a much better Bill.

This is a good example of the working of a very efficient Committee, producing a good Report, followed by quick action by the Government and careful review in the Committee upstairs which has made the Bill in some detail rather better.

The Attorney-General paid tribute to the Streatfeild Committee and the work that it had done. I should like to support him in that view. I think that the Streatfeild Committee was a remarkable Committee. Although the terms of reference were not exactly thrilling and exciting, it managed to do what many Committees fail to do. It produced a very realistic, warm and human document which will, I think, in many ways produce a revolution in the sentencing policy in the higher courts. This is particularly so in Part B of the Report. Provided that it is carried out administratively with the same vigour with which this Bill is carrying out the legislative parts of the recommendations, I think that we can look forward to very considerable improvements in the way in which the courts are dealing with the problems before them in the disposal of cases and particularly in sentencing.

I should like to make this further point. It is, perhaps, a happy coincidence that the Bill should be going through the House at this time, because it happens that Baroness Wootton is sitting for the last time in a juvenile court and this Report is shot through with her very deep insight into these problems, and her vigorous and commanding personality. She combines her very great academic position with deep practical understanding of her work as a magistrate, and I think that her membership of this Committee has played a very big part in the production of the Report on which this Bill is based. Therefore, I am glad to commend the Bill for Third Reading.

6.23 p.m.

Mr. Fletcher

I do not think that it is necessary for me to say more than a few words on the concluding stage of this important and valuable Bill. I spoke at some length on Second Reading when we expressed our thanks and congratulations to the Attorney-General for the expedition with which the Bill was introduced after the Streatfeild Committee had reported. I agree with what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl). In some ways I think that it is a model piece of legislation based upon an admirable, very workable, sensible Report of an Inter-Departmental Committee. I think that everyone associated with carrying these reforms through so expeditiously is entitled to a measure of thanks and congratulations.

I believe that the proposals in the Bill will make a very valuable contribution to expedition in bringing accused persons to trial. I think that reforms were long overdue and that it was a blot on our administration of criminal justice that so many accused persons remained in prison awaiting trial for so long. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) has pointed out, there is a great deal that is cumbersome and anomalous because of the historical clauses in our criminal system. It is most welcome that steps have been taken which will enable the assize system and the system of quarter sessions to be modernised to deal with criminal cases far more expeditiously.

Discussion has taken place in Second Reading and in Committee with regard to matters which are outside the scope of the Bill as we now find it, and which it would be difficult within the bounds of order to make detailed comment on during Third Reading. We have, however, in the course of our proceedings had some valuable debates, and although we have not always been able to carry the Government with us, we hope that some of the suggestions which have been made will bear fruit.

We welcome, and I acknowledge, what the Attorney-General said about the Tucker Committee's Report. We look forward to the time, which we hope will not be long distant, when there will be a thorough-going overhaul of the present system of committal proceedings. By this Bill we are giving the Lord Chancellor power to appoint five new judges, and I was glad to read today an announcement by the Lord Chancellor that at last a start is to be made in reconstructing the Royal Courts of Justice and providing additional accommodation there.

This is one of the points to which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester North-East (Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas) drew attention on Second Reading. I am glad to find that it has already borne fruit. It is no use appointing additional judges and expecting the work of justice, whether civil justice or criminal justice, to be carried on with the same degree of dignity or efficiency unless additional accommodation is provided in the Strand for new courts and for the new judges.

We have had discussion about the valuable work being done throughout the country by lay magistrates, and I should like to pay my tribute to them. I was disturbed by one of the Clauses which remains in the Bill which will enable the chairmen of quarter sessions to try certain cases without lay justices being present, and I hope that it will not be necessary to resort to that provision to any extent. I hope that if there is any risk of lay justices not being available to sit with the chairmen of quarter sessions the Government will come to the conclusion that the real remedy would be to appoint more lay justices. I know that opinions differ about that.

There has been a good deal of criticism in recent years about the limited field from which the law magistracy is recruited. This is a matter which, I think, deserves the early attention of the Government, particularly when, as now, we are imposing more important duties on magistrates and giving power to magistrates' courts to deal with classes of offenders over which previously they had no jurisdiction. I think that it is a necessary corollary to the Bill that attention should be given to the criticisms which have been made in recent years about the number of lay justices available to do the work expected of them and in regard to the field of activity from which they are selected.

I echo the sentiments expressed by a number of hon. Members by drawing attention to the desire of all of us that swift and effective administrative action should be taken to implement the recommendations in Part II of the Streatfeild Report, because, just as it is important to expedite the way in which accused persons are brought to trial, so it is no less important, and may be more important, to improve the technique, and to obtain the information necessary for an improved technique, involved in sentencing criminals and ensuring that the most appropriate form of sentence is inflicted in each case. It is recognised that this requires a great deal more care and attention from all courts than it has received in the past.

This duty, in turn, will throw a great burden on the probation officers throughout the country who, as a result of the provisions of the Bill and of the Streafeild Report, will have considerable additional duties of great responsibility placed upon them. I doubt whether, either in numbers or in capacity, the probation officer service as at present staffed is qualified to deal with the duties which the Government and the public will expect of it. I hope that steps will be taken to recognise the enhanced status which probation officers are given throughout the recommendations of the Streatfeild Committee and that they will be given full numerical and other support to enable them to discharge their duties.

With those words, I join my hon. Friends in cordially commending the Bill to the House for Third Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, with Amendments.