HL Deb 25 June 1901 vol 95 cc1345-50

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, as this is the first time a Bill on this subject has been introduced into Parliament, and as it deals with an anomalous state of things which has arisen within the Metropolitan police district, I ask must leave briefly to explain the circumstances which have led to its introduction. Under the Metropolitan Police Courts Act, 1839, which dealt with this question and regulated the conditions under which the police magistrates were to sit, it was provided that the justices should not, within the Metropolitan Police Court District, take any fees for any work done by their clerk, and there was considerable difference of opinion as to whether this did away with the jurisdiction of the justices within the metropolitan police area in all matters except those specially reserved for them. For some time the justices acted upon the supposition that their jurisdiction was taken away. But in 1871 they began to deal with cases under the Weights and Measures Act and the Education Act. In 1891 communications were addressed to the Home Office with regard to the matter, and the Home Secretary then pointed out that, in the opinion of the Law Officers of the Crown, if the justices exercised jurisdiction in matters other than those which were specially reserved for them, it would involve serious risks both to the justices and to the suitors. Upon that they ceased for a time to exercise jurisdiction, but they were not satisfied with the decision, and in 1894 a case (Dodson v. Williams) was taken to the Queen's Bench Division, where it was tried before Lord Coleridge and Mr. Justice Day. After a full hearing it was decided that the jurisdiction of the justices had not been taken away by the clause referred to in the Act of 1839. That decision may be taken as authoritatively settling the law. I understand that the law officers of the Crown have on more than one occasion since then been consulted as to whether there was any chance of setting that decision aside, and they expressed the opinion that there was no prospect of success if an attempt was made to do so.

After various communications, which I will not refer to further, between the Standing Joint Committee of London and the London County Council, and also between the School Board for London and the Home Office, Viscount Ridley, who was then Secretary of State for the Home Department, appointed a Committee in 1898 to inquire into the whole question of the jurisdiction of the justices within the metropolitan area. I had the honour of being appointed chairman of that Committee, and I had the very valuable assistance of Sir Harry Poland, whose long experience in criminal courts is well known; of Sir Franklin Lushington, who is now Chief Magistrate at Bow Street; and others. Every side of the case was very carefully considered by that Committee. We were able, except on one point, to come to a unanimous decision, and we made proposals upon which the Bill the Second Reading of which I am now moving is founded. Briefly, we found that there was a good deal of congestion in the courts of the metropolitan magistrates, and we made proposals for the purpose of dealing with that congestion. Those proposals did not require statutory powers, and they have been dealt with to some extent by the Secretary of State since the Report of that Committee was presented. Representation was made to us by the London School Board with regard to prosecutions under the Education Act for non-attendance at school. It was proved in evidence that the magistrates were unable to deal with all these cases, with the result that, in the opinion of those who gave evidence, attendance at school had suffered. With regard to the jurisdiction of the justices, we found that the justices were hearing within the police courts area a considerable number of cases under the Public Health (London) Act, the Sale of Food and Drugs Act, the Elementary Education Act, and other Acts, but they were hearing them without any power to pay their clerks for the work they did, and without being able to take fees. I do not think I could do better than quote a short paragraph from the Report of the Committee to show exactly what the state of things was at that time— The anomaly of two distinct sets of courts sitting in the same district with concurrent jurisdiction, and under different conditions with regard to fees to be levied, and the allocation of any penalties to be imposed, is one that cannot be defended.… Not being entitled to take fees, the court is precluded from paying the clerk a salary, and is obliged to make an agreement with him that he shall perform the duties in addition to his other work. I think your Lordships will agree that it is not desirable that that state of things should be allowed to continue, and that if the jurisdiction of the justices is to be continued within that area it should be continued under conditions which would not make it a competitive court acting in a different way with regard to the regulations which govern it from the court in which the police magistrate sits. After very careful consideration, the Committee came to the conclusion that it would not be desirable to take away jurisdiction from the justices altogether. They had sat, almost continually, for a great number of years, and we had evidence to show that the cases in which they had been acting had considerably relieved some of the police courts. So far as we learnt, they had given satisfaction, and it was the wish of a considerable number of suitors that they should be allowed to take a number of the cases with which they had been already dealing. It was therefore suggested that, if they continued to sit, it should be under strict limits and conditions, which would put an end to the existing anomalous state of things. This Bill provides that the Secretary of State should have power by Order in Council, on the application of any bench of magistrates, if he is satisfied that there is a fair chance of an adequate court sitting, to permit the exercise by them of jurisdiction in the cases specified in the schedule—namely, proceedings under the Elementary Education Act, under the Acts relating to the sale of bread, to weights and measures the Volunteer Act (1863), and amending Acts, and the Dog Licence Act (1867), as well as proceedings in relation to affiliation orders and proceedings under such bye-laws or classes of bye-laws as might be specified by the order. The Bill further provides that, in those districts where the justices are authorised to sit, the metropolitan magistrates shall cease to have jurisdiction in those particular cases; hat the justices should be allowed to take fees for the work done, such fees to be paid to the Receiver General, who is to provide out of them adequate compensation for the justices' clerks.

Those are the proposals contained in this Bill, and it will be seen that if the justices are allowed to act in these matters they are only continuing the jurisdiction which they have hitherto to some extent exercised, but there will be security that in no case will they sit unless the Secretary of State is satisfied that there will be an adequate attendance. Under the Bill the Secretary of State can also revoke the power given to the justices to sit. I hope the House will think that I have said enough to show that the solution which we have suggested is, on the whole, the best one that could be devised. At all events, I think this proposal will have these advantages—it will, in the first place, make the smallest possible change in the present practice; it will not interfere with the responsibility of the police magistrates for law and order, and for the administration of the criminal law, and it will be, I think, in conformity with the views and wishes of a large number of the justices themselves, and those who practice before them. Wherever difficult Cases of law are likely to arise we have specially advised that the jurisdiction should be left to the police magistrate. The only class of case on which there was any difference of opinion was that under the Elementary Education Act. The majority of the Committee felt that, as these cases required common sense in their jurisdiction rather than a knowledge of the law, it would be a considerable relief to many of the metropolitan police courts if the justices were allowed to take them. One of our body—Sir Franklin Lushington—differed from us in our decision. In his opinion, it would be desirable that police magistrates should continue to take these cases. The whole of the other members of the Committee, however, were of opinion that they might safely be handed over to the ordinary justices, and that is what is proposed in this Bill I beg to move the Second Reading.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Belper.)


My Lords, I merely rise to thank my noble friend for introducing this measure, to which I give my cordial support. It meets in a large measure the difficulty which has been experienced by the London School Board, and which led that body in 1896 to ask for the introduction of a Bill such as the one now before the House, and which I hope will be passed into law this session.

On question, agreed to, Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Friday next.

  2. c1350