HL Deb 26 March 1935 vol 96 cc332-43

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I hope your Lordships will allow me to preface my exposition of the detailed provisons of this exceedingly simple measure of legal reform by one or two. observations of a more general nature. I am encouraged in several ways to introduce this Bill for a Second Reading in your Lordships' House. Your Lordships have already shown yourselves distinctly favourable to the general principle of legal reform, and this is amply demonstrated by the cordial reception you have given to the measure which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Merrivale, brought before you to alter our present crude and, I think it is no exaggeration to say, barbarous methods of dealing with matrimonial cases in our police courts. Again, the principles embodied in this particular Bill have behind them a very considerable volume of public opinion which has expressed itself both in Parliament and outside for quite a period of time.

I should like to mention one or two organisations which have shown themselves to be anxious that a measure of this kind should reach the Statute Book. There is, for instance, the National Council of Women which, with its affiliated branches and societies, includes a membership of about 2,000,000 persons. This organisation sent a deputation to the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor, in the summer of 1933, and it received an assurance that the matter would have serious consideration. The Bill is also supported by a number of branches of the Women Citizens Association. And to show your Lordships that this is not merely a whim on the part of the female element in the population, I should like to point out that 'a Bill drafted on these lines was introduced in another place about eighteen months ago, and it was owing to the lack of facilities for Private Members' legislation that it was unable to pass to a Second Reading.

Another general recommendation of this Bill, if I may suggest it, is that it is clearly a non-Party measure. It receives support from all who are anxious to improve our present legal system quite apart from the particular Party affiliations that they may have; and interesting evidence on this point is that when a similar measure was introduced in another place, out of the nine members whose names appeared on the back of the Bill, as is the custom there, seven were supporters of the National Government, one was a Liberal, and one was an Independent. I therefore venture to appeal to your Lordships to consider the provisions of this simple three-clause Bill entirely on their intrinsic merits and without any reference to the policy or the programme of any political Party.

May I very briefly and as clearly as possible enunciate the particular aims and purposes which this measure is calculated to promote? They are. I think, very clearly summarised in the Memorandum which is attached to the Bill. The first aim is to increase the numbers of those who are eligible for jury service, and the second is to exempt from such service those who would suffer intolerable hardship and undue suffering owing to the particular obligations which this responsibility imposes upon them. If I may draw your Lordships' attention to Clause 1, which aims, as I said, at increasing the number of those who may be included on the jurors' panel, I should like to point out that, of course, the majority of those affected will be women, I think their case is partly one of right and partly one of expediency. It is accepted at the moment that those responsibilities and privileges which citizenship confers on both sexes should be shared equally in so far as physical and material differences do not make this equality of status impracticable. It is therefore to some extent a question of right that women on exactly the same footing as men in the community in this particular respect should be able to fulfil the same functions. It is also a question of expediency. I maintain that our jury service would be able to deal with the cases in our Courts which come before juries far more efficiently if the scope of the law affecting juries were expanded in this way.

May I just outline the present legal position? As the law now stands those women are qualified to serve—and of course this applies equally to men—who pay more than a certain sum annually in rates or—and this is equally valid as qualification—who receive more than a certain income from real property. That is the general qualification for all jurors. This particular property qualification means in effect, as applied to the female element in the population, that it is, practically speaking, elderly spinsters or widows who become eligible for jury service. This is simply the consequence of the fact that it is not the general mule for women to own real property or to be householders unless they have inherited such possessions from a deceased parent or husband. There are, I think, many practical diadvantages resulting from this state of affairs. The first is that women are in fact debarred from sitting on juries during the prime of life—that is to say, at a period when their faculties would he best adapted to giving a considered judgment on the cases brought before them. It means, besides, that the existing law is often inoperative because it is impossible to procure the full quota of women who should sit on a particular jury in a particular court.

May I remind your Lordships of Rule 3 of the principles affecting women jurors as laid down by the Rule Committee in 1920? It reads as follows: The number of women appearing on any panel of jurors shall be in the same proportion, or as near as may be, to the number of men appearing thereon as the total number of women is to the total number of men in the jurors' book or other list of jurors from which the panel is drawn. This proportion of women to men is very often unobserved simply because it is impossible to procure a sufficient number of women. This applies, naturally, to rural areas. Another serious handicap arising from the present condition of the law affecting jurors is that the effort to apply it, to keep to the spirit and the letter of the law, means that certain women are very often called to serve over and over again, so that they experience a great deal of hardship and are placed in an obviously inequitable position as compared with other women who serve on juries. Another difficulty due to the scarcity of women jurors is that it is impossible to pick and choose among those who are available in order that only individuals who are best suited to listen to cases and to judge in an impartial and dispassionate way, should be those who take a place on the jury. It is impossible for any choice of this kind to occur so long as the number of women is so lamentably small. That is why I may again draw your Lordships' attention to Clause 1. We include words that read: "every person and the wife or husband of such person" as is at present qualified. Subsection (2) simply applies the principle to London. The change would naturally affect the husbands of women who are at present qualified as well as women. The great majority of those concerned would be of the female sex.

The second aim is embodied in Clause 2. There is, I think, a very general feeling that unnecessary and unwarranted hardship is caused by a refusal to exempt from jury service those who have legitimate grounds for putting forward such a claim. According to the present law such people can be granted exemption if they can show a good reason for non-attendance, but there is, so far as I know, no clear distinct definition of what this phrase "good reason" exactly means. We should naturally find its interpretation most easily by examining what actually happens. In practice permission not to serve has usually been granted only on grounds of ill health, and it appears to those who are in favour of this measure that ill health should be clearly laid down as a sufficient reason, and that two other grounds of exemption should be added thereto. The two other grounds, as your Lordships will observe, are business or household reasons, and these are a plain and simple addition to the present disqualification of physical unfitness and ill health.

These business or domestic grounds naturally only refer to what every one admits to be really hard cases. For instance, there is the one-man business—the tradesman who has to run his shop entirely by himself and who is unable to find a substitute while he is away. The person engaged in a one-man business is clearly enduring infinitely greater hardship than the ordinary citizen who serves on a jury. This would apply, if the measure were to reach the Statute Book, to a married woman who is alone in charge of young children. It would clearly be impossible for her, without very grave anxiety and without running certain risks, to leave her family entirely alone. Therefore, in view of the need that has been felt for some time that a measure should be introduced to deal with unwarranted sacrifices on the part of existing jurors, and in view of a similar need that has been felt for increasing the number of those qualified to serve on juries, I very much hope that your Lordships will give a favourable verdict on what is a small measure of legal reform such as, I think, appeals ordinarily to your Lordships' House. I therefore beg to move the Second Reading of this Bill.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. —(The Earl of Listowel.)


My Lords, in such comments as I have to make on this Bill it will be unnecessary for me to say anything on the general question of the desirability of securing the assistance of women on juries. The principle that women should share with men the duty of jury service was settled by the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, 1919, and I suppose few, if any, people will even dare to question the decision which was then taken. I gather from what the noble Earl has said that the promoters of the Bill think that the machinery by which juries are called into existence under the existing law is unsatisfactory, because the number of women summoned to serve on juries is small compared with the number of men. The composition of any particular jury depends on two factors of which your Lordships no doubt are fully aware, first, on the proportion of men and women in the group of people from whom the jury is selected by ballot; and, secondly, on the accident of the ballot, which may in any particular instance result in the drawing of a comparatively large or a comparatively small number of women.

On the average, however, if a comparatively large number of the names which go into the ballot box are the names of women, the number of women chosen by the ballot to serve will be comparatively high; and the proposal in the Bill is to make a very large increase in the number of women summoned to serve, so that if the number of women should form, say, 50 per cent. of the persons whose names go into the ballot box the chances are that on the average juries would contain as many women as men. Some juries would no doubt consist mainly of women; others might consist mainly of men; but in the aggregate jury service would be divided equally between men and women. What the precise proportions would be of men and women respectively summoned for jury service under the provisions of the Bill cannot be estimated with accuracy, but so far as can be seen the effect of the Bill would be to make the number of women rather greater than the number of men. The Bill enlarges the number of persons who will be liable to be summoned by providing that in addition to the men and women who have the property qualification required by the existing law, there shall be added to the list of persons available for jury service the wives of all men who are qualified and the husbands el all women who are qualified. The effect would be, first, to increase very greatly, perhaps almost to double, the number of persons available for jury service, and, secondly, to make the number of available women larger than the number of available men. This last effect follows from the provisions in the existing law exempting numerous classes of people, most of whom are men, from jury service by virtue of their profession or occupation.

For example, members of both Houses of Parliament, Judges, ministers of religion, the legal and medical professions, members of His Majesty's Forces, the Police, Customs, Post Office and Inland Revenue officers, as well as other classes of persons, are all exempt. Few of the persons exempted in virtue of these professions are at present married women; the great majority of them are men. Under the provisions of the Bill, doctors and barristers, for example, will remain exempt but their wives will be liable for jury service, except in the comparatively rare cases where the wife happens to be practising one of the exempted professions. The result will be not to make the number of each class available for jury service equal, as the noble Earl suggested, but to make the number of married women available greater than the number of married men available. It is true that in a certain number of cases a married man who is at present not available for jury service because his wife is the ratepayer would become available under the provision of the Bill: but the effect of this provision as regards men will be comparatively small.

The difficulties which will often be experienced by married women with families in serving on juries, especially when a jury is required to sit for several days, are obvious, and the promoters of the Bill have recognised this by a provision which is no doubt intended to enlarge the power of the Courts to grant exemption in any cases where special hardship would be caused on account of household considerations. Even on the assumption that a large number of married women will ask for and obtain exemption, the position will remain that the Bill will cause a very extensive change in the respective proportions of men and women composing the groups of people from whom juries are drawn by ballot: and that, as a result juries may sometimes be composed mainly of women, and that most juries, at any rate, will contain as many women as men. Admitting to the full the value of the services of women jurors does it follow that there are any grounds for attempting to bring about at the present time so drastic a change in the composition of juries as the Bill contemplates? Have the promoters any evidence that amongst the persons whose cases are tried in the Courts, particularly those who are engaged in civil litigation, there is any general complaint that there are too few women on juries or that steps are desirable to increase the proportion of women to the extent contemplated by the Bill.

The Government have no information that there is any demand, or any case, for so large a change as is proposed in the Bill; and even if it were shown that there is a case for making some increase in the number of women available for jury service, the remedy would, I submit, have to be found by some method other than that proposed in the noble Earl's Bill. Under the scheme of the Bill the list of persons liable to jury summons will contain large numbers of married women living in small households whose domestic and family responsibilities will make it impossible for them to comply. All these women will have to obtain individual exemptions either by written application or by personal application after the summons has been issued and received. I am sure that your Lordships will agree that the inconvenience and trouble thus caused to large numbers of married women will be great. The administrative difficulties caused to the Courts and their officers may be still greater. The provision in Clause 2 of the Bill, which is apparently intended to widen the power of the Courts to grant exemptions, will have to apply both to men and to women. Numerous applications for exemption; would therefore be made; each applicant would have to show "special hardship"; and the Courts would have to consider in each case whether special grounds for exemption had been shown. Apart from the difficulty of deciding what circumstances constitute "special hardship on account of business or household considerations," the trouble and expense involved, first, in issuing large numbers of summonses, and, secondly, in considering large numbers of applications for exemption would, I believe, be serious.

Moreover, as a matter of principle, if there is to be an extension of the number of women available for jury service, is it defensible to attain this object by making marriage to a person who possesses the property qualification the criterion and thus throwing on the wives of these householders a large and disproportionate share of the burden or privilege of jury service? If it were shown that in practice insufficient provision is made under the existing law for securing the services of women on juries, the question how best to enlarge the number of women liable to jury service would no doubt require very careful consideration, but I submit to your Lordships that in any case there are no sufficient grounds for the large changes proposed in this Bill, which would cause great inconvenience to many married women and most serious administrative difficulties to those who are responsible for summoning juries and granting exemptions.


My Lords, I need hardly say that this Bill is not an official Bill of the Labour Party. It is an individual Bill and as far as I am personally concerned there are one or two aspects of it which I do not altogether like. The noble Earl in his reply indicated that there were certain disadvantages accruing from jury service at the present moment which, if they were represented to the Government as seriously existing, would be sympathetically considered by the Government. One of those hardships that I should like to mention is the expense incurred by jurors. This Bill mentions hardships, and there is no doubt that people serving on juries nowadays suffer from considerable loss through the heavy expense they incur in attending. There was a letter in The Times yesterday on the payment of jurors, pointing out that special jurors might get one guinea a day but that common jurors in London got only is and in the country only 8d.: that County Court jurors received Is. and jurors at the Mayor's Court 2d. In olden days, of course, jurors were drawn from wealthier classes. To-day jury service is much more widely spread, and therefore, if the Government are considering the hardships of jurors, I hope very much they will take into account the expenses of jurors.


My Lords, T cannot help feeling that the noble Earl who replied on behalf of the Government was certainly aware that there are grievances, and grievances that should be examined, even though he does not consider that the measure which I had hoped would meet the case was actually suitable. The arguments that he used against this particular Bill were, I thought, extraordinarily contradictory. So far as the service of women on juries is concerned, he started by saying that he and everyone else accepted the principle of equality of responsibility and duties of citizenship as between the two sexes, a principle that was applied in the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, which added women to the number of those entitled to serve on a jury panel. Once that principle has been accepted, surely we must accept the logical consequences, and one logical consequence undoubtedly and inescapably, is that property qualifications which are sufficient to entitle a man to sit on a jury should also be sufficient to entitle a woman to fulfil the same function in society.

The noble Earl argued on the same point that juries would be swamped by the female sex. Those who are responsible for promoting this Bill are of course just as anxious as he is to prevent any preponderance of women on juries. I would suggest that, if that is what is really concerning the noble Earl, it would be very easy indeed to meet the difficulty by introducing some Amendment which would effect an equality between the number of men and the number of women who are called on to serve upon a jury.

So far as the second clause of this measure is concerned, the only obstacle which the noble Lord outlined was one which might be called technical. He said —without Challenging the contention that unwarranted hardship and unmerited sacrifice are incurred at the present moment by those who have to serve on juries—that applications to the sheriff or to whoever was responsible for deciding whether an individual should sit on a jury would pour in in such numbers that the expense to the State would be greatly increased. Surely that cannot be regarded as an impediment in the way of a social reform, once it is granted that the social reform is necessary. This purely technical difficulty is one which should be considered by those who are responsible for the administration of the law. The same difficulty, if I may suggest it, invariably arises when any of our social services are extended in any direction.

I am bound to say that the answer of the Government, which did not challenge the basic contentions of this measure that there are grievances which ought to be heard and which ought to be investigated, was not in the least satisfactory. I had hoped that the noble Earl would at least have considered that a Committee of Inquiry might be appointed, even if it was impossible for him to accept the Bill. What one is bound to call, in view of the extent of the opinion in favour of reform on these general lines, his negative and unconstructive attitude, is very deplorable indeed. Although I am naturally not prepared to press a measure which does not pretend to emanate from any particular political Party, I feel bound to deplore the unconstructive attitude which the Government have adopted, and I should like to express a hope that, in view of their acceptance of the fact that grievances and inequalities exist, they may be able at some future date to give their very serious consideration to the whole matter.


My Lords, in view of the reply of the Government pointing out the many difficulties in the proposal, may I very respectfully make a suggestion to the noble Earl who brought in the Bill? There is no chance of his Bill passing into law this Session. There are many points of view: some entirely opposed to the extension, some entirely in its favour, others holding that the principle is good and the machinery bad. What does cry out for remedy, however, is the payment of jurors, a question which has been brought forward by the noble Lord, Lord Marley. I do not often agree with the noble Lord, but in this matter I find myself in complete agreement. It is much better to deal with an existing evil in some practical manner. It is no doubt a serious burden on many men and women who have to serve on juries that they not only have to serve, which is onerous, but that they actually lose every day a considerable amount of money which they would otherwise receive. I put this to the noble Earl: that he and his friends—and I, in my humble way, will be glad to co-operate—should concentrate in the first instance on getting existing jurors better paid and then, when they have clone that, go on to see whether an extension is necessary. It is generally better to do something practical, and I do not think that the noble Earl and his friends can do anything practical on the lines of this Bill this Session or in the present Parliament.

On Question, Motion for the Second Reading negatived.