HC Deb 16 December 1970 vol 808 cc1522-32

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Fortescue.]

12.15 a.m.

Mr. Charles Loughlin (Gloucestershire, West)

The case I wish to raise concerns one of my constituents, Mr. Albert Brookes. Mr. Brookes entered public life in the Forest of Dean in 1925, became a magistrate in 1941 and was vice-chairman of the bench from 1953 to 1966, on which date he became chairman of the Coleford magistrates. Therefore, he acted as a magistrate in that area for 29 years. He was due to retire in December this year because of the age limit, but he was sacked from the Commission by the Lord Chancellor in October of this year, some two and a half months before he was due to retire.

If one was faced merely with a recital of those facts, one would feel that this was a man who had committed some heinous crime or who had suddenly began to embark on a life of immorality. But no such charge of any kind is made against Mr. Brookes. I consider that he was a victim of a nasty, mean, vindictive piece of political spite and that there are two persons primarily involved.

One is the clerk to the magistrates' court at Coleford, and the other—much as I regret to say this—is the Lord Chancellor himself. During the time I have been dealing with this case, I have never failed to recognise that Mr. Brookes has an impairment of his hearing. I have conceded from the beginning that Mr. Brookes has had this impairment over many years. Such a condition is bound to deteriorate, but there was no suggestion that the defect from which Mr. Brookes suffered was an impediment to the exercise of his duties, until about September, 1969.

Mr. Brookes was then approached by one of his fellow magistrates, a Mrs. Battle, who suggested that he ought not to stand for re-election as chairman of the bench. He did not accept this advice. He then received a letter from the clerk of the court from which it appears that the clerk had had a discussion with Mrs. Battle. It is my view that the initiative came from the clerk, even before Mrs. Battle talked to Mr. Brookes. He had had a word with Mrs. Battle and he again advised Mr. Brookes not to retire, not to come off the Bench because the letter made it clear that, provided Mr. Brookes did not stand for election as chairman, there would be no reason why he should not continue to sit.

If his hearing was so defective that it constituted an impediment to Mr. Brookes in his hearing of cases he was no more entitled to sit as a magistrate than as chairman of the bench. But that was not the suggestion. I have the letter—and no doubt the Solicitor-General has a copy—in which it is suggested that Mr. Brookes should not stand for re-election but should continue as a magistrate.

Mr. Brookes did not take the advice of the clerk of the court. After a short time the election for chairman of the bench took place, and Mr. Brookes was elected by his fellow-magistrates—who are as good judges as anybody else of his fitness to do his job, and his physical capacity to do so.

It is rather significant that in the letter Mr. Russell Jessop—the clerk of the court—sent to Mr. Brookes suggesting that he might decide not to stand for re-election as chairman it was also drawn to Mr. Brookes's attention that he had become my political agent, and that his position was therefore out of accord with the wishes of the Lord Chancellor in respect of legal agents and magistrates. Mr. Brookes had not become my political agent; he had become honorary secretary of the West Gloucestershire Divisional Labour Party and was quite entitled to pursue that position and remain a magistrate; indeed, when Mr. Brookes, in a subsequent level of correspondence, told the clerk to the court that he was wrong in relation to the parliamentary situation, and said that he would have a chat with me and draw my attention to the matter, Mr. Brookes received what I consider to be an impertinent and impudent letter from the clerk. He suggested that Mr. Brookes had no right to discuss anything at all with a person such as myself. In fact, Mr. Brookes had said that he was going to discuss some other matters with me and would draw my attention to that part of the letter.

Mr. Brookes at that time was asked by the divisional Labour Party to discuss with me the question of wage earners on the Coleford bench—of which there was, and still is, a paucity—as a result of a resolution passed by the divisional Labour Party. I subsequently discussed that matter with the then Lord Chancellor. I am afraid that the clerk to the court is slightly biased about Labour people and Labour magistrates.

Mr. Brookes heard nothing further from September or October, 1969, until 20th July, 1970, when he received a letter from the Lord Chancellor's Office drawing his attention to his deafness and asking him to stand down. Mr. Brookes came to see me and I advised him to write to the Lord Chancellor's Office pointing out that I should be writing to the Lord Chancellor—which I did. I asked Mr. Brookes to tell the Lord Chancellor that I was dealing with the matter and to ask whether it could be left in abeyance at that time.

I wrote to the Lord Chancellor asking to discuss the matter with him, because I felt that if the sole problem was Mr. Brooke's deafness, the advice which the clerk to the court ought to have given to Mr. Brookes was to go to somebody for an examination and possibly a deaf aid.

As I say, I wrote to the Lord Chancellor asking whether he would see me to discuss the position, but there was a delay in those discussions. The delay was not my fault. The discussions did not take place for some weeks because the Lord Chancellor wrote to me saying that as he was going away on holiday I should write to him again in September.

I went to see the Lord Chancellor about this case on Wednesday, 23rd September. I have met many Ministers in the course of the years I have been in this House. As a member of the last Administration I met many hon. Members from both sides of this House. But I never remember an experience like the one when I went to see the Lord Chancellor. There is a saying that one can cut the atmosphere with a knife. From the moment that I went into that room to see the Lord Chancellor I felt that there was an icy atmosphere which was certainly not conducive to any real discussion of the problem.

I persisted with the discussion. I had to reiterate and reiterate my case. To cut a long story short, I proposed to the Lord Chancellor that Mr. Brookes should provide, either direct or through myself, a certificate that his hearing was perfect within normal tolerances by reason of having acquired a hearing aid and that, until that time, Mr. Brookes should not sit on the bench.

I do not think that anyone could fault such a suggestion, particularly when the man concerned has spent the whole of his adult life in the service of the community in which he lives and has been a member of the bench for 29 years.

Mr. Brookes was never told who charged him with having badly impaired hearing. Indeed, the Lord Chancellor had no medical evidence, and he rejected the only opportunity of obtaining medical evidence of any kind.

The Lord Chancellor said that he would reflect on the matter. But within hours I received in my room in this House a copy of a letter which I suspect had been written before I saw the Lord Chancellor. There was no reflection. I was convinced—I told the Lord Chancellor so in a subsequent letter—that he had made up his mind before I saw him and was not going to budge from the decision which he had taken. I think that the Lord Chancellor was absolutely determined, although he is in charge of the judiciary, not to give fair play, nor justice, to this man. If he had wanted to give him justice, he could at least have given him the opportunity of providing medical evidence pointing one way or the other. If the impediment was that he could not hear, then, provided that he had a hearing aid which brought his hearing up to a reasonable tolerance, and provided, also, that he did not sit until he had that hearing aid, there was no possible objection to his sitting on the bench.

There is one other aspect of the case about which I am acutely disturbed. As a result of my meeting with the Lord Chancellor, he offered Mr. Brookes one of two alternatives. He could either go on to the supplemental list, or he could remain a magistrate until the end of the year provided he did not perform any magisterial duties.

There was correspondence between Mr. Brookes and the Lord Chancellor, and the Lord Chancellor agreed to allow Mr. Brookes to consult me as to what attitude he should take in this matter, provided that Mr. Brookes did not sit as a magistrate in the meantime, which he was prepared to do. On 5th October, before we were able to finalise the position, Mr. Brookes received a telephone call from the clerk's department asking him to go into court on 7th October to take some depositions, which would mean that Mr. Brookes would not sit in a judicial capacity. Mr. Brookes attended the court for the sole purpose of taking depositions, but after his arrival there the clerk switched another case into his court and he was foolish enough to adjudicate on it.

I say that he was foolish enough to do that, because the case was heard on 7th October, and by 2 o'clock on 8th October the Lord Chancellor's office was ringing Mr. Brookes' home to try to get hold of him. I know that clerks report the presence of magistrates in court, but they do not so do on the day that they are sitting so that the Lord Chancellor can get the information the next day, and, unless there is some tangible evidence to disprove it, I am convinced that Mr. Brookes was enveigled into court to take depositions and then there was deliberately placed before him an additional case so that he had to hear it, which was against the Lord Chancellor's wishes, and by this means they got him off the bench.

I should like an inquiry to be held into the circumstances leading up to the attendance of Mr. Brookes at court on 7th October, and how it was that the Lord Chancellor's office knew on 8th October that he had sat the previous day. If justice can be obtained by raising matters in the House, the Solicitor-General should ask the Lord Chancellor to allow Mr. Brookes to be put back on the Commission so that he can retire honourably and gracefully and not be humiliated in this way.

12.35 a.m.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

It is obviously a matter of regret that a magistrate who has given such long service should have left the Commission in the circumstances that we are discussing, from whatever point of view one looks at it. But, because of the way in which the hon. Gentleman has put the case on behalf of Mr. Brookes, it is most important that the facts should be made known so that it is plain that, in the regrettable circumstances, my right hon. and noble Friend was left with no alternative.

The tragedy arises possibly from the way in which the hon. Gentleman and perhaps others have chosen to see this sad story as a matter of, as the hon. Gentleman put it, … nasty, mean, vindictive political spite. This gentleman, who has given distinguished service, appears to have been swept up in some kind of conspiracy theory of politics which the hon. Gentleman still advances. This is remote from the truth. It is because the case has been put in that way that it is difficult to make any kind of sympathetic response—

Mr. Loughlin

I did not put it in that way until the action was taken.

The Solicitor-General

The hon. Gentleman has taken 20 of the 30 minutes available for this debate. I must insist that what the hon. Gentleman says is remote from the truth.

It is true that Mr. Brookes was chairman, and that he was due to retire to the supplemental list on 1st January next year. But there are other matters relevant to the Lord Chancellor's action. The first is the very clear warning and enunciation in paragraph 136 of the Report of the last Royal Commission on Justices of the Peace, which reads: The other physical infirmity to which we must refer is deafness. It has been made plain to us that there is too often justification for the complaint that some justices remain on the bench although they suffer from this infirmity to an extent which prevents them from fully hearing or correctly appreciating the evidence of witnesses and the submissions of advocates. The effect on the administration of justice and the prestige of the bench is deplorable. It is notorious that those who are afflicted with this infirmity are apt to shrink from confessing it even to themselves. It makes plain that there should be no hesitation about reporting such matters to the Lord Chancellor.

That is the background to the duty and responsibility of my right hon. and noble Friend and his predecessor to make sure that standards are upheld and to ensure proper respect for the service given by the people whom he has to consider.

The matters advanced by the hon. Gentleman, the conversation with Mrs. Battle in September, 1969, and the letter written by the clerk to the justices at or about the same time, were unknown to my right hon. and noble Friend or to his predecessor or to anyone in his Department. They might suggest to an impartial observer that one or other or both of these people were getting concerned about the progressive development of Mr. Brookes's impaired hearing. But they had nothing to do with this decision.

The case first came to the notice of the Department in May of this year, during the time of the previous Administration, from a responsible and confidential source. It had nothing to do with those whom the hon. Gentleman has identified. As is customary, it was referred to the advisory committee for the county, which made its own confidential inquiries through more than one independent source. It became apparent, unfortunately, that the criticism of Mr. Brookes's hearing capacity was well founded and that he suffered from impaired hearing to an extent detrimental to the performance of his duties.

Again in accordance with custom, on 20th July of this year he was sent a very courteous letter from the Department of my right hon. and noble Friend suggesting, as is usual in such cases, that he might like to consider a transfer to the supplemental list for the last four months of his service, since this incapacity was said to exist.

The hon. Gentleman requested an interview with the Lord Chancellor at the end of July. He accepted that that should take place after the holiday of my right hon. and noble Friend. After that, my right hon. and noble Friend wrote to the hon. Gentleman saying that, in view of what had been said, Mr. Brookes would be well advised not to sit in the meanwhile. That was noted by the hon. Gentleman at the time. That was at the beginning of August. That was acknowledged by Mr. Brookes. In the middle of August he wrote again to one of those in my right hon. Friend's Department and the reply came back on 18th August, setting out again what Mr. Brookes had been told through the hon. Gentleman—that if there was any question of his hearing being less than perfect he would be well advised not to sit for the time being—

Mr. Loughlin

For the sake of accuracy—

The Solicitor-General

The hon. Gentleman only allowed me 10 minutes—

Mr. Loughlin

The accuracy is that it was agreed that the matter should be left in abeyance until I met the Lord Chancellor.

The Solicitor-General

There was no matter of agreement of that kind. Mr. Brookes wrote: My I take it that your letter should be kept in abeyance? That was on 13th August, and on 18th August, the matter was again made clear, that he would be well advised not to sit for the time being. An interview took place on 23rd September and, as the hon. Gentleman said, it was only then, for the first time, that my right hon. and noble Friend learned of any connection politically between Mr. Brookes and the hon. Gentleman.

It was made plain at that interview—I cannot deal with it in more detail in view of the shortness of time allowed me—that, notwithstanding the short period to go, because of Mr. Brookes's disability, the Lord Chancellor was not prepared to let him sit for the remainder of the year, that he was prepared to let him be transferred to the Supplemental List, and in a letter couched in the most courteous terms on 23rd September—

Mr. Loughlin

That is not true.

The Solicitor-General

The hon. Gentleman has allowed me 10 of the 30 minutes in which to reply to his points on what would be an important matter—

Mr. Loughlin

But this is the point—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

Order. The hon. Gentleman must contain himself.

The Solicitor-General

My right hon. Friend himself wrote to Mr. Brookes on 23rd September saying that he had carefully considered the matter after discussion with the hon. Gentleman: I must say how sorry I am to learn that, after your lengthy service to the bench, you have been seriously handicapped in your hearing, and I quite understand what a wrench it must be for you to tear yourself away from the Chairmanship, particularly as, in any event, you would have to be placed on the Supplemental List from the Chairmanship very shortly. Nevertheles, I am afraid that I must tell you that it would not be consistent with my duties as Lord Chancellor to permit you to continue to sit in your present state of health. My right hon. and noble Friend went on to give the two alternatives—either transfer to the Supplemental List or remaining on the full list for the remainder of the year so long as he did not sit, and added: The object of this is to make it plain that you have well earned the thanks of the County of Gloucester and of this Department for your services, but I cannot permit you to sit further in court and would be grateful to you if you would let me know by return which of the two options you would prefer me to take. That was a fair and courteous presentation of the options.

Mr. Brookes asked whether it could wait until he discussed it with the hon. Gentleman. He received a reply that it could, but that in the meanwhile he would be well advised not to sit, and on 1st October another letter was sent to Mr. Brookes reminding him of the proposition that he should not sit and of the extent to which my right hon. and hon. Friend had to be satisfied of his capacity if he was to continue doing so. So for at least a fourth time it was made clear that he should not sit in the meantime.

Nevertheless, sadly, Mr. Brookes did sit on 29th September and 7th October. There was no question of the clerk of the court, whom the hon. Gentleman sought to criticise, knowing any of the background of this at all, certainly no suggestion of any trap having been laid. The one person who knew that he had been advised many times against sitting on and had been given the option of either not sitting till the end of the year or going on the Supplemental List was Mr. Brookes himself. It is a matter of the utmost regret that he continued to sit, as he did, but this matter has nothing to do with political plotting or inveigling of anyone. The magistrate in question, unhappily, did not respond with the wisdom which perhaps one would have expected to the repeated advice he received.

My right hon. and noble Friend was left with no alternative, in view of the continued situation but to take the step he did on 8th October and to remove Mr. Brookes from the Commission. I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the service that Mr. Brookes has done over a number of years on this bench, but the conclusion of that career arises, I repeat, not through political plotting of any kind—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to Standing Order.

Adjourned at a quarter to One o'clock.