§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ LORD DARLING
My Lords, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill I think I should tell your Lordships at once that I am not myself the author of it, although, of course, I would not move it if I did not absolutely approve of it and take full responsibility for it. But, as a matter of fact, the Bill is a Bill decided upon and drawn exactly as it stands by the Council of the Incorporated Law Society. The Incorporated Law Society, as your Lordships no doubt are aware, exists for admitting on to the roll persons who satisfy them that they are fit to be solicitors, and they exercise 683 disciplinary powers with regard to those who have been admitted on the roll powers analogous to those which are possessed and exercised by the Inns of Court in regard to barristers.
For a long time, if a complaint was made about a solicitor and it was desired to punish him by suspending him from practice or by striking him off the roll, it was necessary that the Law Society should hold an inquiry. They examined witnesses and then they made a report which came before the Judges of the King's Bench. Upon that report being considered by the Judges of the King's Bench they ordered the punishment of the solicitor to the extent that appeared to them to be necessary. They might strike him off the roll or they might suspend him from practice for a certain time. Such was the law until the year 1919, when there was passed a Statute, the Solicitors Act, which gave to the Law Society themselves the power not only to hold an inquiry and find a solicitor guilty or not guilty of the charges made against him but also to inflict the punishment. Since that time they have been able by their own decree to suspend a solicitor from practice or to strike him off the roll so that he cannot practise at all.
When that measure was recommended to your Lordships' House it was introduced by Lord Buckmaster, and the Lord Chancellor of that day, Lord Birkenhead, made a speech from which I should like to quote, for I think it would be well not to use words of my own. It will be found in the OFFICIAL REPORT for May 6, 1919. Lord Birkenhead said:—I have never been able to understand why the very sagacious, experienced and responsible gentlemen who are at the head of the solicitors' branch of the profession should be denied the power of dealing in the first instance with the complaints of professional misconduct which are brought against members of their own body; and, indeed. I know of no profession which could furnish from amongst its leaders a number of gentlemen more gifted in the necessary judicial qualities to take such decisions than the profession of solicitors.Upon that the Bill was passed to which I have alluded and now, as I have said, the Law Society can punish the solicitor as well as find whether he is guilty of professional misconduct or not.
It has since been found, however, that there are still evils to be cured and any 684 of those who, like myself, have sat on the King's Bench know that there are very treat evils and that the public are exposed to grave dangers on the part of the solicitors who have been struck off the roll. Those who have been struck off are in many cases nothing less than a danger to the public and especially to the poor and uninstructed. A person consults a solicitor and that solicitor may have the property, even the life and the honour, of his client absolutely in his own hands. It is accordingly necessary that a person having such power should be himself above suspicion and it has been found that some of these men, solicitors who have sometimes committed real crimes for which they have been sent to prison, and sometimes gross professional misconduct and who have been struck off the roll—and no one is struck off except for very grave professional misconduct—will go to another solicitor, generally a needy, disreputable person, who is still on the roll, and will profess to be clerk to that solicitor. It not infrequently happens that the solicitor himself never goes near what is nominally his office. The whole thing is left in the hands of a man who has already forfeited his position as one who has been declared a danger to the public and has been struck off the roll, and in this way that man practically remains on the roll because he does the things that he did when he was on the roll, though, of course, he does them in the name of the person whose clerk he nominally is.
Accordingly the Law Society have drawn this Bill, to which I ask your Lordships to give a Second Reading. It provides that—No solicitor shall in connection with his practice as a solicitor …. employ or remunerate any person who …. is struck off the roll of solicitorsunless he does so with the written permission of the Law Society. The Bill does not incapacitate the man who has been struck off, but it enables the Law Society to know where he has gone and what he is doing, and also to consider who it may be whose clerk he desires to become. If any solicitor acts in contravention of this section he will be liable if this Bill becomes law to be brought before the Law Society and proceeded against according to the gravity of his 685 offence. An appeal is given to anyone dissatisfied with any order made by the Law Society to the Master of the Rolls, who is the officer to whom is confided the duty of dealing with an appeal from solicitors who have any complaint to make against the Law Society.
There are two parties to this offence. A solicitor, as I have said, may be dealt with by the Law Society, but a person who, being himself a person struck off the roll, goes and applies for work which will enable him to get into practice in that way may be proceeded against and fined a sum of £10 for each offence. In that case there is an appeal in the ordinary way open to the person so offending. I do not think it necessary to say more than I have said to explain this matter to your Lordships' House. You will see, I think, that it is not a great but a very necessary extension of the powers that have been very lately confided to the solicitors for the purifying of their own profession for the general good. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2ª.—(Lord Darling.)
§ LORD HANWORTH
My Lords, perhaps you will allow me to say a few words in support of the Second Reading of this Bill. As the noble Lord who moved it has explained to your Lordships, its purpose really is to make effective the protection of the public that is entrusted to the Law Society in their disciplinary action. Since 1919, when the powers of dealing with what may be called defaulting solicitors were entrusted to the disciplinary committee of the Law Society, experience has shown, I think, that the system has worked well. At the same time it has been seen that a door is still open whereby solicitors may defeat the main purpose of the discipline which the Law Society are entrusted to execute, and that a solicitor who is unworthy of maintaining his position as a solicitor, a person against whom the public ought to be protected, is, in effect, able by a device or stratagem to carry on his business. He uses the name of another solicitor and is able to flourish in his practice in such a way that he cannot be dislodged by the influence of the Law Society. This Bill is designed to give the Law 686 Society power, by requiring their permission to be given, to see that only in proper cases is a solicitor against whom they have made an order able to continue his practice.
The master of the Rolls is the persona designata in a number of Acts in which appeals from the Law Society and their action are permitted and allowed. I have had, therefore, a particular opportunity of knowing what is the conduct of the committee of the Law Society and I should like to take this opportunity of saying that I entirely agree with the words of the noble Earl, Lord Birkenhead, when he accepted the Bill in 1919, and that from my own experience I can testify that, the committee exercise their great powers worthily, carefully, satisfactorily and, I will add, mercifully. That is proved by the fact that, although there are a number of matters on which an appeal lies to the Master of the Rolls, the number of those, appeals is comparatively and, indeed, actually very few. Apart, therefore, from my own judgment, which I am able to exercise from actual experience, I am able to say that your Lordships may safely entrust this further power to the Society. I believe that it is merely giving to them a necessary power complementary of the powers which they already possess, and that the exercise of that power is needed in the interests of the public. I think there is no disciplinary body in any incorporated society or association who can be more worthily entrusted with the power which this Bill seeks to give them.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR (VISCOUNT CAVE)
My Lords, I will only say in one sentence that I think this is, in principle, a good Bill. Of course I cannot say that time will be found for its passage in another place this Session, but I see no reason whatever why your Lordships should not give it a Second Reading.
§ On Question, Bill read 2ª, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.