HC Deb 18 December 1963 vol 686 cc1387-90

10.46 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir John Hobson)

I beg to move, That the District Probate Registries Order, 1963, a draft of which was laid before this House on 5th December, be approved. The object of the Order is to enable the District Probate Registries at Exeter and Bodmin to be run by one registrar instead of, as at present, by two.

The reason for making the change is that there is not sufficient work at Bodmin to require the full-time attendance of a registrar, and the President of the Probate Division, with the Lord Chancellor and the Treasury, is satisfied that an equally efficient service to the public in Cornwall and Devon would be provided by the attendance of the registrar at Exeter on four days of the week and at Bodmin on one day.

The history of the matter is that until 1938 Bristol and Exeter together constituted one group with a sub-registry at Bodmin and that after 1938 until today separate probate registrars operated at Bristol and Exeter and Bodmin.

While it is true that the amount of business done in probate registries has been increasing steadily since 1938, the fact nevertheless remains that the amount of actual attendances either by members of the public or by solicitors and other members of the legal profession at any individual probate registry is very small indeed, and does not, in the view of those who know about these matters, justify the continuation of a full-time registrar at Bodmin.

In 1962 there were 3,742 applications at Bodmin, of which 3,481 were dealt with wholly by correspondence. There were only 183 personal applications by the general public, which do not, of course, require the attendance of the registrar in person, and there were only 78 applications made wholly or partly by the personal attendance of a solicitor—in other words, the equivalent of one and a half attendances a week. At Exeter there was a total of 5,647 grants issued in 1962, and of these only 383 were personal applications from the general public, and 1,022 were wholly or partly by the personal attendance of a solicitor. In these circumstances, it is considered that the public will continue to get as satisfactory a service if there is a single registrar for both Exeter and Bodmin and if he is in attendance at Exeter for four days a week and at Bodmin for one day a week.

It is proposed that the fusion of the two posts should take place on 30th July next when the present registrar at Exeter retires, and it is estimated that a total saving to public funds of approximately £1,500 a year will be achieved.

10.50 p.m.

Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)

The odd thing about this Order is that it was not made before. Apparently, the present position is that the number of transactions at Bodmin is increasing. The Government in their wisdom choose the moment when the transactions are increasing to shut down the registry and get the work done by a registrar coming from outside Cornwall. I do not quite follow this. If it is right to close this registry now, then it was right to close it some considerable time ago. One wonders why it was not done then.

If it is to be done now, what assurance do the Government have that with the continued increase a separate registry at Bodmin might not soon be wanted again? I forbear from going too much into the figures, although I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will find a remarkable disparity between the number of solicitors' cases in Exeter and that in Bodmin. It may depend on some personal and local circumstance with which I am not acquainted and with which he may not be acquainted, but on the main question that we have to consider I should like to know why now and not before. Although the death of a district registry does not attract so much attention as that of Trelawney, some number of Cornishmen, probably not 20,000 but rather fewer, would like to know the reason why.

The Attorney-General

It is not the position that the probate registry at Bodmin is being closed. All that is happening is that it is being run as a sub-station from Exeter. It will still be in its present existing physical presence with its staff, but there will not be an individual commanding officer for each. All that is happening is that a single registrar is taking command of both registries instead of having two commanding officers at Bodmin and Exeter.

Mr. Mitchison

Surely that answer is rather by the card. The right hon and learned Gentleman knows perfectly well what I mean. In future, the business is to be dealt with not by someone who deals continuously with the Bodmin business, but by someone who comes from Exeter for one day in the week to deal with it. It does not matter whether we call that shutting down a registry or not. What is being done is perfectly clear and the Attorney-General understands it perfectly well. Presumably, it is being done for some reason of economy. I do not know of any other reason. If that is the case, why with business now increasing was this not done some time ago, and what security have we that the increase in the business will not lead the Government in a short time to do the very opposite of what they are now doing?

The Attorney-General

It is not the Government, but the President of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division who is responsible for the organisation. The Government put through the Orders if they approve them, but the President of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division, on review, no doubt on assuming his office, has decided that this reform can be made. If it transpires—no doubt he will keep these matters under review—that further attendance is required, no doubt he will take appropriate steps. There are more attendances in Exeter than Bodmin—I know the area a little—because there are far more solicitors in practice in Exeter. The majority of solicitors in Cornwall are not concentrated in Bodmin and they therefore do their probate business with the registry by correspondence.

Mr. Mitchison

When an Order requires the concurrence of two Lords Commissioners of the Treasury, it is remarkable to say that it depends entirely on the judge who makes it. Of course the Government are involved.

Question put and agreed to.


That the District Probate Registries Order, 1963, a draft of which was laid before this House on 5th December, be approved.