HL Deb 23 July 1936 vol 102 cc217-23

THE EARL OF LISTOWEL rose to ask His Majesty's Government what action they intend to take to implement the recommendations regarding matrimonial jurisdiction contained in Part I of the Report of the Departmental Committee on Social Services in Courts of Summary Jurisdiction after the full consideration promised in this House on April 29; and to move for Papers.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I would apologise for raising this matter of the matrimonial jurisdiction of magistrates as I have done on various occasions during the last three years with what some people may say is the obstinate pertinacity of a club bore, were it not that I have become convinced by speeches made in your Lordships' House that there is a very considerable volume of sympathy here with the question I have raised, and a very serious desire that the Government may take appropriate action to achieve the necessary reforms. With your Lordships' permission I will, very briefly indeed, describe the sequence of events that has led up to this Question in my name this afternoon. In October, 1934, the Government appointed a Departmental Committee of Home Office officials, magistrates and other experts to inquire exhaustively into social services in the police courts. That Committee sat for a year and a half. It heard all the necessary and available evidence and it drafted a unanimous Report. That Report was published in March of this year. I should like to remind your Lordships that the recommendations in that Report affect two special aspects of the work done in police courts. They deal very fully with the method of treatment accorded to matrimonial cases, and with the organisation and reorganisation of the probation service.

The latter of these two problems is undoubtedly controversial. I have much sympathy with the proposals as to the improvement and increased efficiency of the probation service contained in that Report, but there are legitimate objections from many different quarters. The position in regard to the recommendations about the treatment of matrimonial cases is entirely different. Those recommendations are really non-controversial, and one might say there is a virtual unanimity of favourable opinion both inside and outside your Lordships' House wherever they have been considered. These reforms cannot, however, be achieved without legislation, and that is why it has been necessary to urge upon His Majesty's Government the necessity for legislative action. They are not drastic or sweeping in themselves, and they would, I think, obtain for these sad cases of domestic hardship and domestic difficulty among the poorer sections of the community that fair and friendly treatment which every member of your Lordships' House would desire to see accorded.

With that in mind I raised this issue in your Lordships' House on April 29 last. I had hoped to extract from the Government some definite statement as to what action they propose to take. The noble Earl who answered said that it had been impossible for the Government to make up their mind because the Report had only been published a month, and they had not had time to give the fullest consideration to its proposals. That seemed a very fair answer, even if some of us, who were particularly and perhaps vividly aware of the urgency of the situation, regretted that action could not be taken earlier. But since that date almost three months have elapsed and I therefore think it is not unreasonable to expect that the Government, having given full consideration to the proposals contained in the Report, should be able to say whether or not they will be able to implement these proposals by legislative action. That is the object that I have in mind in raising this matter again. I beg to move.


My Lords, I think your Lordships will recall that when this subject was last debated I indicated in no uncertain manner that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary was in full sympathy with the general trend of the Report of the Departmental Committee on the social services in courts of summary jurisdiction and also with the objects which that Committee wished to secure. My right honourable friend is conscious of the great social importance attaching to the methods of dealing with matrimonial disputes in summary courts and is anxious to do all that is possible to secure improvements in the methods of conducting this part of the work. The main recommendations of the Committee can, I think, be classified under three heads. First, there are those which can only be carried out by legislation; secondly, there are those which may suitably be given statutory form for the purpose of securing universal adoption, but which can, nevertheless, be carried out by the justices of the peace, if they are willing to do so, without legislation; and, thirdly, there are those recommendations which are dependent solely upon administrative action and would not form part of any legislation that may be proposed.

As regards those proposals which can only be effected by means of legislation, I regret to inform the noble Earl that it is not at present possible for me to make any statement on behalf of His Majesty's Government. Your Lordships will be well aware of the crowded state of the legislative programme, and the condition of that programme has made it impossible to take up these questions in a Government Bill. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary is most anxious that action shall not be deferred because of the difficulty at the present moment of carrying legislation. It is certainly possible to make considerable advances in the direction indicated by the Committee without waiting for a Bill. Therefore, pending the question of legislation, the Home Secretary has decided, with a view to avoiding delay and to securing at once improvements in the direction advocated by the Committee, that he will issue a circular letter to all courts of summary jurisdiction in England and Wales urging upon such courts the advantages of adopting those recommendations of the Committee which can be adopted without waiting for legislation.

He proposes in this circular to bring to the notice of the courts a number of the Committee's recommendations, including their recommendation for the improvement of the methods of conciliation and the desirability of holding special sessions for matrimonial cases, and also of limiting the composition of the bench so as to produce the right sort of atmosphere in dealing with matrimonial cases. My right honourable friend believes and hopes that there will be little if any disagreement with the recommendations of the Committee on these points, and he trusts there will be general readiness on the part of justices throughout the country to give their most sympathetic attention to the consideration of the proposals which he intends to bring before their notice. Although I feel confident that the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, will not be entirely satisfied with the Government reply, I hope he will at least rest assured that the Government through their circular letter are endeavouring to implement those recommendations of the Committee that the justices themselves can put into operation if they feel so inclined. I would like personally, as a member of the Committee, to express to the noble Earl my own appreciation of the interest he has shown in the Report that we published and his enthusiasm for seeing certain of these recommendations implemented at the earliest date.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Earl opposite very much for the manner in which he gave his answer to my Question and to express that sympathy that one always feels for those who are quite evidently trying to do their best in a matter of very considerable public importance. I am exceedingly glad to hear from him that the Home Office will issue a circular to courts of summary jurisdiction which will recommend such administrative action as can be taken without legislation. That at any rate is a definite step in the right direction. But the noble Earl will not be surprised to hear me say that it does not take us nearly close enough to our objective. Those of us who are extremely anxious about the present situation are perfectly convinced that sooner or later legislation must be faced. The reason the noble Earl gave for the inaction of the Government was the crowded state of the legislative programme during the last few months of the present Session. That is a very plausible reason, and I think everyone will agree that the last few months of the Session are a period when many Bills of first-rate importance have to be hurried through. But this reason will not be applicable at the beginning of the next Session, and I sincerely hope that the noble Earl, who has himself done so much to expedite these reforms, will be able to assure us that one of the first concerns of the Government at the beginning of the next Session will be to see that a Bill on the lines suggested in this Report is introduced. In view of the very courteous and on the whole satisfactory answer of the noble Earl, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.


My Lords, as one interested in this matter I may perhaps be allowed to say a word or two before the Motion is withdrawn. We are really very grateful to the noble Earl opposite for what he has done and, in my opinion, for the very rapid way in which it has been done. I advocated that something in the nature of a circular should be issued, and in fact I had the pleasure of talking to the noble Earl about it. Without taking any credit to myself, I am extremely glad to see that that view has been adopted. I agree that at this period of the Session it would be unreasonable to press for legislation. I say again that I am very grateful for all that the Government have done in this matter.


My Lords, the few words which I venture to submit to your Lordships' House on this Motion are only justified by the observation of the noble Earl who spoke for the Government when he emphasised the difficulty of framing legislation owing to the crowded state of the legislative programme. That is only a partial explanation. That congested state is not likely to be relieved within the purview of the near future. There is, however, a deeper reason which makes it extremely difficult for the Government to legislate upon any matter having reference to matrimonial questions. This fact has its repercussions in making at times administration very difficult, because to administer in the absence of, or in face of contradiction in, legislation and aberrations here and there from the Common Law is a burden which should not be put upon administrators and permanent officials and those who draft Bills. The fundamental reason for this difficulty calls for a remedy applicable to all the Dominions as well as to England and this is an opinion held by many who have the interests of the Empire as a whole at heart.

Your Lordships have had before you legislative chaos disclosed by the case of the Peerage of Lord Sinha, in India. In these times, when any one can fly to India in a few days and when London becomes more and more the centre of the world and particularly the heart of the Empire, laws as to matrimonial relations cannot easily be improved or co-ordinated so long as the Common Law which British subjects carry with them into other parts of the Empire differs from the Common Law as it is said to exist in England today. The time has come for His Majesty's Government to consider whether the existing legislation in all its aspects concerning marriage, in whatever shape or form administered, and the possibility of making such legislation a standard for the Empire, had not better be tackled boldly by setting up a Committee to deal with the fundamental codification of the marriage laws, not only as to England, but also in so far as the law of England as the centre of the Empire affects the rest. It is assumed and presumed that the Common Law of England and of Ireland or Scotland is that which all British subjects carry with them overseas. The Common Law of England as it was declared in the reign of Henry VIII is the law that British subjects are supposed to carry with them to-day, but since the Foreign and Consular Marriages Acts have been extended throughout the limits of the Empire, it is more likely that the Common Law has gone back to what it was before Henry VIII. In conclusion I beg leave to express thanks for the opportunity to point out that in the interests of British subjects overseas the time has come for a Committee—which perhaps would take years to report—to be set up to deal with this matter in a comprehensive manner which would make reforms here more easy in future.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.