HL Deb 27 March 1876 vol 228 cc609-13

rose to ask the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, Whether he is prepared to introduce a Bill to carry out the recommendations for the amendment of the Marriage Law contained in the Report of the Marriage Law Commission presented to the House in 1868? The subject was one of very great importance, and it was hardly possible to over-estimate the importance of the recommendations of the Royal Commission. Before the issue of that Commission a celebrated case occurred which was tried in the Courts of Ireland and Scotland, and ultimately came up to their Lordships' House, and in which there was a great conflict of opinion with regard to certain peculiarities of the Scotch law, and also as to the law relating to mixed marriages in Ireland. The difficulties and perplexities of the state of the law which that case disclosed led to a very general desire that an endeavour should be made if possible to bring the Marriage Law in different parts of the United Kingdom into closer conformity. The Royal Commission was accordingly issued in 1865; the scope of its inquiry was very wide, extending into the state and operation of the various laws affecting marriage now in force in different parts of the United Kingdom, and also into the laws affecting the marriage of Her Majesty's European subjects in India and in foreign countries. The Commission included five Members, one of whom had been Lord Chancellor, and four who afterwards occupied the Woolsack—and it must be admitted that it was impossible to appoint a body of men more capable of conducting such an investigation than those who sat on that Commission. Their inquiry ranged over a considerable period—partly owing to the difficulty of bringing together many of the Commissioners who had judicial and other professional duties to perform in various parts of the Kingdom. But at length their most interesting and valuable Report was prepared by his noble and learned Friend, opposite (Lord Selborne) and presented in 1868. The Report recommended several most important alterations in the Marriage Law, the effect of which could not be better expressed than in the following words of the Report itself:— Should our recommendations in their general substance become law the great object of uniformity will have been accomplished, the law will be simplified and consolidated, the highest practicable security for the facility, certainty, and safety of marriage will have been attained without any infringement of religious liberty, or antagonism between the authority of the State and the influence of religion, and at the same time there will be no sensible interference with the previously accustomed course of regular marriage as hitherto solemnized in England, in Scotland, or in Ireland. Eight years had since passed away, but not one step had yet been taken to give effect to these recommendations. A matter of that great importance could only be undertaken by the authority of the Government, and therefore he had urged successive occupants of the Woolsack to deal with it; but he had always been told that other questions of more pressing importance claimed attention. It might be asked why he had not taken up the subject himself?—but his answer was that he had left office before the Report of the Commissioners was laidon the Table. It was a matter of great regret and almost of reproach that the labours of such a Commission should have been entirely thrown away, or have at all events remained so long unfruitful; and, therefore, he wished to ask whether his noble and learned Friend on the Woolsack would bring in a Bill on the subject?


said, he agreed with almost all that had fallen from his noble and learned Friend (Lord Chelmsford), and was not surprised, considering the importance of the question, that he had now, as on former occasions, called attention to it. He had himself always felt, and still felt, that it was a very great and very grave reproach to this country that, with regard to the constitution of the most important relation of life the laws of the three parts of the United Kingdom were essentially different; and not only so, but that in some parts of that United Kingdom the laws on that subject should be of a character such as to expose the constitution of that relation to the greatest doubt, uncertainty, and peril. His noble and learned Friend had referred to one great example of the absurdity and peculiarity of the law on this subject which preceded the appointment of the Commission. His noble and learned Friend might also have referred to a much more recent case which came before their Lordships in their judicial capacity in the course of last Session, and which was a most striking and singular instance of the cloud of doubt and ambiguity that could be thrown around the question of an allegation of marriage in the Northern part of the Kingdom. His noble and learned Friend was undoubtedly right in saying that this subject was not only a very important, but also a very large one. In every word his noble and learned Friend had said as to the value of the Report of the Commission, the interesting character of the Report and the expediency of the recommendations which it made, he (the Lord Chancellor) concurred. At the same time it was impossible for any of their Lordships to disguise from themselves that when an effort was made to propose a measure of legislation on this subject, that measure must necessarily be one which must occupy a considerable time, and, he was sorry to say, would create a considerable amount of opposition. It was proved before the Commission that there were in Scotland strong opponents of any change in the law; and in Ireland any question affecting the marriage law would necessarily engender religious controversies. He did not say that he should shrink from introducing a measure on the subject—in fact, in the course of last Session he entertained a very sanguine hope that he might have been able in the present Session to ask their Lordships' consent to a change in the Marriage Law, and he took steps for the preparation of a Bill on the subject in the course of last Autumn. But he found that, as far as he was concerned, the list of measures which it was absolutely necessary to propose to Parliament during the present Session amounted to a number which took away any reasonable hope of being able to add to them a measure for the amendment of the Marriage Law. Their Lordships had had already before them three of the measures which he called necessary measures this Session—one with reference to the Appellate Jurisdiction, another on the subject of Patents, and a third—a very large and very important measure—for the alteration of the Judicature of Ireland. But there were at least three other measures which were ready for introduction, or almost so, and were only awaiting the prospect of their being passed—he would not say in that House, for it might be easy enough to pass them there, but in the other House of Parliament. He hoped the Session would not pass over without Parliament being able to consider a Bill upon the subject of the Bankruptcy Law. He hoped to be able to introduce the Bill after Easter. Next to that was a measure which was urgently called for, more particularly in consequence of the changes caused by the Judicature Act—he meant a measure on the subject of juries. The Judicature Act had greatly increased the work of juries. There was another measure which was very much demanded in consequence of the changes recently made in the law—he meant a measure for consolidating and amending the crowd of statutes on the subject of Evidence. Those were three measures which, if he could see the least prospect of their being passed in the other House of Parliament, he should at once ask their Lordships to entertain in this House. But he was not sanguine enough to hope that the six measures which he had mentioned could be disposed of in one Session; and in these circumstances it would be idle and turn legislation into a mockery to lay on their Lordships' Table a Bill upon that great subject, the amendment of the Marriage Law. That was the explanation he had to give to his noble and learned Friend, and he gave it with the most anxious desire that the first moment he could see his way to such a measure being entertained by Parliament, a Bill should be introduced to give effect to the main recommendation of Commission.

House adjourned at a quarter past seven o'clock to-morrow a quarter before Five o'clock.