HC Deb 14 February 1968 vol 758 cc1351-3


Sir Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable a person who, or whose spouse, is referred to in a will as a beneficiary to join at least two persons not so referred to in attesting the execution of that will without invalidating his benefit or the benefit of the spouse. I have introduced, or attempted to introduce, a number of Private Members' Bills and I have used the heading, "Believe it or believe it not" in some of those cases. I say with all deference to the House that my proposed Bill comes under that particular heading. This House and other places, unfortunately—and perhaps I should declare a personal interest—have an unhappy habit of not realising how important the legal profession is to the lay community. I am a solicitor. I hope that the House will realise this today as we are dealing with a position which arose in a case recently tried in the courts, when it was held that £8,000 which a testator intended to be given to two beneficiaries had to be diverted to someone else in consequence of the lack of knowledge of the law of the person who wanted that bequest to be carried into effect.

The layman frequently does not understand the law. Hon. Members can readily realise that, faced with the existing plethora of laws, it is very difficult for a layman, who perhaps need have recourse to a lawyer rarely during his lifetime, to know where he stands on any particular question involving a legal point. Many laymen believe that they know what the legal position is, but in fact they do not. It is precisely the same as is the position of a person who attempts to heal himself without knowing what he should do, but believing that he knows better than a doctor and understands what the remedy is. The matter I am dealing with now is a glaring illustration of an unjust position that has prevailed for 130 years.

Every hon. Member here is not only assumed to be, but is, I am sure, intelligent, but is there any hon. Member, other than a lawyer, who would have believed for one moment that a testator's wishes can be frustrated in that certain provisions he wishes to make in his will would not be effective if the people who are to benefit had been asked by him to witness the attestation of his will if he did so even with two other witnesses? This is exactly what happened in a case that came before the courts only a few days ago.

I beg the House, when it is dealing in future with matters involving intricacies of law, not to give the impression that we hon. and right hon. Members are the only responsible people and that the legal profession is one which should in some way be denigrated. On the contrary, the legal profession serves a very important purpose in the life of the community. If people realised this they would recognise that the case to which I have referred is a perfect illustration of how their wishes can be nullified because they did not know the law as they had not consulted a solicitor.

I quote from the Law Report in The Times of the judgment of the Court of Appeal in the case to which I have referred. The Court of Appeal held that A person who signs a will as an attesting witness may not take a benefit under it, even though it is clearly the intention of the testator that he or she should do so, and even though the will is also attested by two independent witnesses. The report says: Lord Justice Russell and Lord Justice Salmon expressed the opinion that section 15 of the Wills Act. 1837 "— which I do not propose to read; I do not suppose that anybody here, with the exception of the lawyers, would understand what it meant even if I did read it; I say that with due respect to the House— should be amended to permit a beneficiary to take under a will even though he or she has attested it as a witness provided that there are in addition two other independent witnesses. The will was a holograph will, similar to printed forms which perhaps hundreds of thousands of people buy and sign without knowing what they are doing, how it has to be attested, in whose presence it must be attested, or that the attesting witnesses must sign it in the presence of each other and of the testator. This was a will written on a sheet of paper. It is obvious that the testator and the witnesses had no idea of the effect of the will in the form in which it was executed and attested.

The report in The Times, dealing first with Lord Justice Willmer's judgment, said: It seemed to his Lordship that all of the pointers which had been relied on in argument for the plaintiffs and by the judge in reaching his conclusion "— that is, in the lower court— the fact that the two independent witnesses had added their addresses, whereas the plaintiffs had not done so; the description of Mrs. L… as' the other witness ', and the testator's remark that he wanted the plaintiffs to sign 'to make it stronger' —were at best equivocal… Lord Justice Russell, concurring, said that 'he would welcome a change of the law in regard to section 15 why it was necessary to interfere in cases where there were two credible witnesses, he could not imagine. Lord Justice Salmon concurred.

The position is so clear that I do not need to take up any more time in explaining to the House the need for my Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir Barnett Janner, Mr. Jack Dunnett, Sir George Sinclair, Mr. Gordon Oakes, Dame Joan Vickers, Mr. William Wilson, Mr. David Steel, Mr. Geoffrey Wilson, Sir Myer Galpern, Mr. Walter Clegg, Mr. David Ensor, and Mr. Emlyn Hooson.