HL Deb 25 July 1934 vol 93 cc1055-63

THE EARL OF LISTOWEL rose to ask His Majesty's Government what steps they have taken to implement the Lord Chancellor's statement in this House that "The Home Secretary is prepared to have examined the question whether particular days and hours can be assigned for the hearing of husband and wife cases, and the question whether it is possible to extend and develop the present methods adopted at many courts of subjecting applications for separation orders to a preliminary informal investigation "; and to move for Papers.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, there is a great deal of business down on the Order Paper, and I am extremely glad to be able to say that I shall detain the House for only a moment. To explain the exact nature of the Question, I would ask your permission to recapitulate a little past history. There is complete agreement amongst all those acquainted with the business of police courts that the treatment they accord to matrimonial cases is at the present moment extremely unsatisfactory. As a result of that general consensus of opinion, two months ago I introduced a measure which I hoped would do something to improve the situation. The noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack, answering on that occasion on behalf of the Government, was good enough to say that the Home Office would seriously consider at least two of the suggestions which were raised in the course of the debate on my measure. My Question to-day is simply to ask His Majesty's Government what steps have been taken, in accordance with the noble and learned Viscount's remarks on that occasion, in the first place to enquire into the possibility of arranging that matrimonial cases should be heard separately from the ordinary criminal cases that come before the magistrates, and in the second place to enquire whether it was, or was not, possible to subject all matrimonial cases to "a preliminary informal investigation," to use the words of the noble and learned Viscount, before they come before the court.

In the course of his speech the noble and learned Viscount met the suggestions of those who are thoroughly dissatisfied with present conditions generally and in a manner that went far to accord with their wishes, but at the same time there are two points which he did not mention and which I should like to stress for a moment. These are two question of procedure in the police court, which in our opinion would do much to remedy the present situation. The first is that some serious consideration should be given to the question of whether or not some restriction might be imposed, at the discretion of the magistrates, on those reporters who are present, in the manner at present adopted in the Divorce Court. The second question is whether the Home Office could not consider, concurrently with other matters which will come before it for consideration, whether the general public could not be excluded from the hearing of these cases, in which matters of a very personal and private nature must necessarily come up. This, of course, is a procedure adopted at present in the children's courts.

I have an appeal to make to the noble and learned Viscount who is answering on behalf of the Government, and I should like to associate myself in this appeal with three of the speakers who took part in the debate last May. They were the noble Marquess, Lord Reading, an ex-Lord Chief Justice of this country, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, whose authority on questions of divorce is, of course, unchallenged, all of whom begged the Government to accord to any Committee that it might be proposed to set up the widest terms of reference. I do appeal very definitely to the Government that any Committee that is established should be allowed to consider the two questions to which I have just referred, as well as those for which we already have an absolutely substantial guarantee. In case His Majesty's Government are not able to meet this proposal, I should like to ask the noble and learned Viscount whether he has thought of other methods of inquiry, or whether he intends to introduce any legislation in this. House or elsewhere to deal with the matter. All those who are in any way concerned with the treatment of matrimonial cases in our police courts are convinced that these are matters which deserve very serious consideration, and that, if some reform on lines which are no departure from our existing legal system could be adopted, they would alleviate a great deal of the completely unnecessary hardship and suffering which are incurred owing to our present method of procedure. I beg to move.


My Lords, the Government are indebted to the noble Earl for putting this Question on the Paper. He has taken a very great interest in the subject, and it is not too much to say that, thanks to his efforts, public attention has been drawn to reforms, some of which at any rate, in the opinion of those qualified to judge, are long overdue. The Government fully recognise the importance of enabling courts of summary jurisdiction to make proper arrangements for a preliminary and informal investigation of applications for separation orders by husband and wife with a view to bringing about reconciliation in all cases where this is practicable and desirable. Careful examination has been given to the question of the best method of inquiry into the subject with a view to getting practical steps taken as early as possible to improve the existing position, which cannot be said to be entirely satisfactory.

As I stated on May 15, in replying to the noble Lord's Bill on the Motion for Second Reading, the conciliation work in courts may be undertaken, and is undertaken in many courts, by probation officers, and it is generally recognised that, where there is a probation officer with the time and ability to deal with conciliation problems, he is usually the most suitable person to undertake this duty. But your Lordships will readily recognise that the system of establishing probation officers is not one which is wholly free from difficulty. It may well be in a busy Metropolitan court that the services of one probation officer are hardly sufficient to deal with all the cases which it may be desired to set before him. On the other hand, in a remote country court there may be only one or two or three cases in the course of a month, and therefore there is not enough work in the country courts, unless you have a difficult system of grouping the services of a probation officer for several areas. An inquiry therefore into the arrangements that ought to be made in conciliation work must take account of the position of probation officers. Many probation officers are fully occupied with their probation duties, and no progress in those cases would be made by simply loading new duties on to officers who already have as much work as they can carry out effectively.

Moreover, conciliation work and probation work do not comprise the whole of the cases which fall upon such officers. In addition to probation work proper and to conciliation work, there are other services of a social character which are becoming increasingly important if courts of summary jurisdiction are to function to the best advantage. Frequently inquiries are desirable into the circumstances of an offender before a court decides whether he should be dealt with by probation or by some other method. Often, again, it is desirable that when a young offender has been fined and given time to pay he should be placed under supervision until the fine is paid, in accordance with the provision of Section 1 of the Criminal Administration Act, 1914. Very little use has hitherto been made of this provision, but where the method of supervision is employed the probation officer is usually the person to whom the duty is given. A suggestion has also been made in the Report which has just been published—I think it was published on Monday or yesterday—of the Departmental Committee on imprisonment in default of payment of fines and of other sums of money, that it would frequently be advantageous to the court to have the services of a social investigator to enquire into the circumstances of persons who fail to pay sums of money, in cases where the information before the court is insufficient to enable them to determine how far the default is due to poverty rather than to wilful refusal or culpable neglect. The Committee point out that in many of the cases where men are summoned for arrears under maintenance or affiliation orders, information as to the defaulter's earnings is frequently vague, scanty, and conflicting, and the court has no power to supplement by its own inquiries such information as may be given to the parties.

There is the further question whether, in view of the very extensive use which is now made of the Probation Act, adequate arrangements are made at all courts for the supervision of offenders who are placed on probation. The last inquiry into the probation system was made as far back as 1902 by a Departmental Committee on the training, appointment and payment of probation officers. As a result of the recommendations of this Committee, various steps were taken which led to improvements in the probation service, but the steps hitherto taken have only been partially effective. The success of probation as a system of dealing with offenders depends largely on the qualifications of the persons appointed as probation officers and on the time and attention they can give to individual cases. Questions concerning the appropriate remuneration of probation officers, regarding the training of suitable persons, and the appointment of a sufficient number of officers to enable the work to be carried out at all courts in a thorough and efficient manner deserve careful attention and review.

With regard to the two questions which the noble Lord has been good enough to address to me specifically, the first was as to reports of proceedings. I agree with him that it is most important that that question should receive the most careful consideration. I must say that generally the Press may be trusted to exercise a very proper discretion as to what to report. But no doubt there are cases from time to time that find their way into the newspapers which are unfortunate, and which perhaps, had there been a little more time for consideration, the Press would not have published. Then the noble Earl raised the question of the exclusion of the public. That is also a matter that wants very careful consideration. Our English system, which has worked extremely well for many generations, believes in publicity. Publicity, it has often been said, is the soul of justice. Therefore, although there may be some cases where the court has power, and ought to have power, to clear the court, these cases must be very carefully determined before any general enactment is made regarding the clearing of the court for all cases.

In view of these considerations my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has come to the conclusion that if progress is to be made the problem of conciliation in matrimonial cases must be considered in relation to the other social services connected with the administration of justice by courts of summary jurisdiction, and that an inquiry ought to be directed to the general question of providing the courts with adequate means of carrying out the whole of these social services. He accordingly proposes to appoint a Departmental Committee with the following terms of reference: To enquire into the social services connected with the administration of justice in courts of summary jurisdiction, including the supervision of persons released on probation and in suitable cases of persons ordered to pay fines; the application of conciliation methods to matrimonial disputes; and the making of social investigations on behalf of the court for this and other work falling or likely to fall upon probation officers; and to report on the above questions and as to what changes are required in the existing organisation of probation services and otherwise. My right honourable friend also proposes that this Committee should be asked as part of their inquiry to consider what arrangements should be made for hearing matrimonial cases separately from ordinary charges in the police courts. As I said at the beginning, so I shall conclude by saying, I am indebted to my noble friend for asking the Question. I hope I have partially satisfied his ambition, though I am afraid I shall never be able wholly to satisfy his ambition. I would only add that there are no Papers to be laid, and I hope the noble Earl will be satisfied with the terms of reference.


My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has raised a very important question and, if I may respectfully say so, has raised it with great appreciation and much moderation. He raised it in May. Here we are on the verge of August, and we are where we were, except that there is going to be an inquiry of a fairly limited scope. It would be more satisfactory, I think, if the inquiry could be entered upon and brought to a practical close, say, before Parliament reassembles. These questions really are questions of policy. Large numbers of people know all about them. The Home Office and other Departments have officers who are well informed with regard to the matter, and I believe that a very few sittings of a little body of competent persons would put the questions which the noble Earl has brought to the attention of the House in the way of being settled in the public interest.

The present state of things is very unsatisfactory. It is not an advantageous thing that, if a man and his wife fall out or a woman and her husband fall out, there is then the possibility of the lower class of journalists, if the people are well enough known, exploiting their differences and increasing them. There ought to be some means of dealing with that matter. I am not myself perhaps so sanguine as the noble Earl may be, be- cause a long time ago I introduced a very little Bill in this House and your Lordships passed it, dealing with the publication of evidence in cases of petitions for nullity of marriage—a perfectly simple matter about which there was no division of opinion. If that Bill passes into law in the course of the next three or four months those who favour it will be glad that it should be so, but it is not necessary even in these crowded times that there should be that amount of delay. With regard to the question of publicity, there are of course safeguards against publicity now. There used to be power in a Judge, if a witness was embarrassed, to clear the court. There is power at the present time to exclude persons in certain classes of cases under the Criminal Law. What is needed is attention to the matter, and I sincerely hope that the noble Earl will press on with his proposals so that some legislation in a concrete form, if legislation is necessary, may come before Parliament and be brought into effect.


My Lords, I wish in the first place to thank the noble and learned Viscount for his very accommodating answer to the Question which I have asked this afternoon, and to say that we are very grateful to the Government for conceding so much. We are grateful that they are willing to appoint a Departmental Committee and that the Committee will be able to enquire into at least the two important matters which the noble and learned Viscount mentioned in his speech. I should like to associate myself with the noble and learned Lord who has just spoken in requesting the Government to appoint this Committee as soon as may be, in order that its recommendations may have their attention at the earliest possible opportunity.

At the same time I must confess—I think in common with the noble Lord who has just spoken and with those people whom I mentioned as taking part in the debate in May—disappointment that the Government have not been able to do anything at all in the matter either of considering the restriction of publicity or of excluding the public during the hearing of these cases. All I wish to say on that point at the moment is that we still hope very anxiously that the Government may reconsider this question and possibly will be willing to appoint a committee of inquiry or even to legislate themselves in a matter of such importance. It is obviously much more difficult for private members of either House of Parliament to produce legislative proposals which are likely to succeed, and for that reason, if for no other, we are most anxious that the Government may reconsider their present rather frigid attitude towards the somewhat more advanced, but I think extremely reasonable, proposals I have made. In view of the answer given by the noble and learned Viscount, I ask leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.