§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ LORD DESBOROUGH
My Lords, it falls to my lot to move the Second Reading of a Bill which, if passed, will make a considerable alteration in the law of this country as it is at present in force, and which I think I can explain very briefly. The Bill owes its origin to a practice of adopting children, which is growing greatly among all ranks. For many years it has been a very common thing for poorer children to be adopted by their kinder neighbours where the parents have died or the children cannot be properly looked after in existing circumstances. The practice has certainly spread very much of late years in all sections of the community, and it has long been felt that it was necessary to regularise the practice and to give it some legal sanction. A large number of societies who 125 take a great interest in this matter and look after children have for long been asking for some law under which they can act legally. The practice is common in many European countries and in the United States of America and our great Dominions, where children can be adopted in accordance with the law.
The matter has been most carefully considered. Two Committees, appointed under different Governments, have inquired into it, one in 1920 under the Chairmanship of Sir Alfred Hopkinson and the other in 1924 under the Chairmanship of Mr. Justice Tomlin. The Government are very deeply indebted to both of those Committees for the extraordinary care with which they examined the systems prevailing in many countries and for the conclusions at which they arrived. Both Committees reported unanimously in favour of some system of legal adoption. The second of the Committees is, for the moment perhaps, the more important as it is certainly the later. It is important from the fact that under Mr. Justice Tomlin it practically drafted the Bill which I am asking your Lordships to read a second time.
This Bill was received on all sides and by all Parties with appreciation and very few Amendments were made in it during its passage through another place. There was, however, a good deal of dispute as to the exact process by which these orders for adoption should be obtained. Under the Bill three Courts are sanctioned for the purpose—the High Court, the County Court, and the Magistrates' Court. The first questions which naturally arise for consideration by these various Courts to whom application may be made are: Is adoption in the interest of the child? Is it in the interest of the parents or guardians of the child? And is the adopter, the person who wishes to adopt the child, a suitable person?
When these questions have been asked and answered, it is natural that there should be certain safeguards for the guidance of the Court, and such safeguards are to be found in the Bill. First of all, it will be necessary to obtain the consent of the parents or guardians, as the case may be. Then, the difference in age between the adopter and the adopted should be a suitable one. An unmarried man, except in very exceptional cases, is not to adopt a female child. The adopter 126 shall receive no payment for the adoption except with the sanction of the Court, and in all cases under the Bill a guardian ad litem will be appointed to represent the interest of the child. The Court will also be able to draw up the conditions of the adoption and an interim order can be made without making the order absolute, so as to give, as it were, a trial trip.
Turning to the question of rights, the rights in these cases of legal adoption will be transferred to the adopter who is really taking the place of the parent. An important point which was discussed a good deal in another place is the right of the child to succession in case of intestacy. That matter is not dealt with in the present Bill, which is merely designed to make adoption a legal process. It is likely that the Bill will have to be supplemented later on, but, as I say, the question of succession in case of intestacy is not dealt with.
Considerable discussion arose in another place on the question of the best tribunal—on which, perhaps, these two Committees rather differed—before which adoption cases should be heard, and although they were considered originally to be cases for the High Court, the County Court was added and it was thought convenient later on, because of the much smaller expense entailed upon the parties, that application could be made in cases of adoption to Magistrates' Courts throughout the country. From numerous points of view Magistrates' Courts offer many facilities for dealing with such cases. The magistrates are accustomed to holding juvenile courts. They are in touch with the locality. They are also in touch with a great many charitable bodies which look after the interests of children. They are in touch also with the police, who are kindly and have a very good knowledge in many cases both of adopter and adopted.
The Bill proposes that a record should be made of all children adopted under adoption orders. These records will be made by the Registrar-General and Regulations for his guidance are set out in the Bill, as your Lordships will see. These are often very delicate matters, and it may possibly happen that evilly disposed persons may bring up against an adopted child a record of its illegitimacy and so on. But under the 127 Bill the record of the adoption will be accepted instead of a birth certificate.
As I have said, the Bill is not merely the result of the Reports of the two Committees which did such good work in connection with the matter, but of no fewer than eight other Bills which have been introduced into Parliament, including a Bill introduced into your Lordships' House by the Duke of Atholl. I do not know that it is necessary for me to go into the Bill in any detail. I hope, at all events, that I have shown your Lordships sufficient reason for giving it a Second Reading. The details, of course, can be discussed later on. The Bill does not apply to Scotland, where the conditions are different in many cases from those prevailing here, and it would not, therefore, be very applicable. It does not apply to Northern Ireland, which, as your Lordships are aware, has a Parliament of its own which is capable of dealing with these and kindred matters. With these few words I hope I may have given to your Lordships some good reason for reading a Bill of some importance a second time. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2ª.—(Lord Desborough.)
§ THE EARL OF DENBIGH
My Lords, there is one matter to which I would like to call attention. It is a point that was raised in another place with regard to safeguarding the religion of any child that is adopted. An Amendment was moved in another place which had special reference to Catholic children, but it was negatived because it was considered too one-sided, and I quite agree with that view. If you have any clause which lays it down that any Catholic child must be placed with a Catholic adopter, you should also safeguard the child of any other denomination. You might prevent a Protestant child being placed with a Catholic adopter. That would be reasonable. I merely mention the fact now because I and those who agree with me attach a considerable amount of importance to this question, and although it was stated that the Court would no doubt have due regard to the religion of the parties, still we should like to see something laid down definitely with regard to it. Therefore I propose to move an Amendment in Committee and I hope it will have the sympathetic consideration of the Home Office.
§ LORD MUIR MACKENZIE
My Lords, I should like to say a few words upon this Bill. It is not really, in its inception at any rate, a Government Bill and, therefore, I do not feel under an obligation to oppose it. It really represents the fruit of the labours, pre-eminently, amongst other people, of Sir Alfred Hopkinson, whose name has been already mentioned by the noble Lord. I had the interest and privilege of co-operating with him in his efforts during many years and it is a great satisfaction to him, I am sure, and to others who are interested in it, to see the Bill now before your Lordships House, having passed the other House of Parliament with an amount of general agreement which is not often secured, and at the same time with very full consideration and debate. It is not a case which sometimes happens—a case, for example, such as was referred to a few days ago in your Lordships' House, in which it was said that the other House had occupied not more than five minutes upon a Bill. I do not think that is a good recommendation for a Bill. In this case there is no doubt that the other House did at every stage give the most complete consideration to the Bill.
I do not think I need say anything in regard to the substance of the Bill because it has been most clearly and adequately explained by the noble Lord. I can only say that I am very glad that a Bill of which I so strongly approve should be in his hands. When I speak or the Bill with such high commendation, and when I say that I most earnestly hope that it may be considered to be now safe and that it will pass this Session, I do not overlook the fact that there have arisen points, which were debated in the other House fully, upon which differences of opinion may very fairly he held. I will give one or two instances. There is the question as to which is the best Court to consider these cases. There is no question about the High Court; you must have a Court where the proceedings are not so long or so expensive because, as I think the noble Lord said, these questions of adoption affect the humbler classes of the community down, indeed, to the very humblest and it is most desirable that the valuable provisions of this Bill should be available for those classes. Therefore the cheapest good Court that you can get is the right Court to put into this Bill.
129 There are differences of opinion about that. The County Court has, in my Opinion, the highest claim. I have been associated with the administration of the County Court for a great many years. It is impossible to speak too highly of the way in which business is done in the County Courts and of the amount of experience that they have of dealing with cases amongst poor people—cases in which money is involved. If I had to choose between that Court and the Magistrates' Court I think, on the whole, I should be in favour of the County Court. On the other hand, there is no doubt a very strong feeling that the Magistrates' Court is in these days, when magistrates are certainly very carefully and successfully appointed, the court that may almost be called the poor man's court and poor people certainly do resort to that court when domestic differences have arisen. It is also to be remembered, with regard to the Magistrates' Court, that there is now a children's court attached to it and, where there is a children's court, one might naturally think that that was the court to which it was very desirable these cases should go.
What I gather has been done in the Bill, as we now have it, is that there is a sort of compromise, or at any rate that there is access, at the option of the applicant, to any one of those Courts of which I have spoken. I think that something of the same sort was settled in a Committee of your Lordships' House and afterwards adopted in the Guardianship of Infants Bill. The arguments which were used with regard to the Court there probably are very closely applicable to this case and I rather hope that no Amendment will be moved in this House to the clause as it now stands.
There is another point that I may mention on this occasion. It is in reference to what the noble Lord said about the non-application of this Bill to Scotland and Northern Ireland. There again, I think, the matter is open to differences of opinion. As I understand it—and I am rather sorry it is so—persons who are resident there (not the infants but the applicants) are not able, under this Bill, to make application, but, as in the other case. I think it is so very desirable that this Bill should pass that, sooner than move any Amendment, or see any Amend- 130 ment moved, I shall be very glad if the House could see its way to pass this Bill in its present form.
LORD BALFOUR OF BURLEIGH
My Lords, I desire to say only one word with regard to this Bill and that is to offer my humble but sincere congratulations to the Government on having adopted it. The noble Lord opposite is perfectly correct in saying that it did not start its career as a Government Bill, but the Government have definitely adopted it, with the result that we may hope to see it made law this Session. From my point of view this Bill has a very serious defect indeed and that is that it does not apply to Scotland, but, for the reasons given by the noble Lord opposite and as the Bill has already gone through another place, it is quite clearly better not to ask the Government to do anything with regard to Scotland in this Bill. But I may, perhaps, express the hope that it will soon be followed by another which will remove that very serious omission. I only wish to say that I shall have one very small Amendment to suggest when we reach the Committee stage, and I hope the noble Lord will give it his benevolent consideration.
§ On Question, Bill read 2ª, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.