HL Deb 16 May 1939 vol 112 cc1056-63

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.

4.38 p.m.


My Lords, this is a Bill designed to enable the Courts to function in case of the outbreak of war. It will come into force only on the making of an Order in Council on the ground of the outbreak or probability of war. Your Lordships will remember that in the last War everything in the Courts went on as far as possible in the same way as in time of peace, but the conditions have altered, and nobody can be quite sure, least of all the experts concerned in this matter, as to the state of things that will arise in the Metropolis if a great deal of bombing should take place. The reason for the Bill is a matter that will probably interest your Lordships more than the terms of the Bill, and if you will allow me, I would like to say something about it.

The building in the Strand, with the outside of which at least your Lordships are acquainted, contains a number of people who are constantly employed there for various purposes, not only in connection with the administration of justice in the various Courts. There are some thousand people there, of whom quite a considerable number are girls and women, most of whom live in the suburbs and have to come daily to and from the Courts. There are, for example, 140 people in the office of the Master in Lunacy, there are eighty odd people in the Official Solicitor's Department, there are a number of people in the Supreme Court Pay Office, there are 102 people in the Scrivenery Department, of whom over eighty are women, and there are a number of other persons who are constantly employed there. There are also thirty-eight people or thereabouts employed in doing the judicial work, judges, clerks in Judges' chambers, registrars' offices, the central office, and so on. These people are there on their daily business, but there are also a very large number of people who have to travel to and from the Courts in connection with the business there. There are the parties to actions, witnesses, jurymen, solicitors and their clerks, and last, but not least, the public who are interested in these matters.

There is, therefore, a concourse of people travelling to and from different parts of London to the Courts more or less daily. In the event of heavy bombing, it seems to those who are concerned with these matters, including myself, that it might be impossible properly to carry on the administration of justice in London in these possible, some may think probable, conditions. It is not only a question of the possibility of bombs falling upon a crowded Court. It certainly is not because of any question of the safety of those who are directly engaged in the administration of justice, because I am sure they would be quite willing to follow the maxim, "Fiat justitia, ruat coelum"; but it is the question of getting these very numerous people to and from the places where they live when means of locomotion may be exceedingly difficult. Your Lordships will agree that the wisest course is to prepare for all eventualities and to make provision, by Act of Parliament, for the administration of justice notwithstanding the extremest conditions of difficulty which may arise in the event of hostile action. That is what this Bill is designed to do.

Under the provisions of the Bill, power is given to the Lord Chancellor to suspend the sittings in London for a period upon the outbreak of war. Perhaps I might tell your Lordships that the person who it at present Lord Chancellor proposes to do the only thing that occurs to anybody, and that is to give a fortnight's holiday, so to speak, to the people engaged in the administration of justice in order that it may be possible to perceive what the actual conditions in London are going to be in time of war, and also, I should add, in order that the very difficult problem of getting to and from the Courts may to some extent settle down and become normal, or as normal as can be in the case of war. Some of your Lordships will perhaps remember that in the early days of war in 1914 it was very difficult to get about, and it did not get very much better for some time. As soon as one can see what is going to happen, the Lord Chancellor will desire to take certain steps which the Bill makes lawful, and in particular to take various measures which may be necessary to distribute the Courts of Law all over the country, as far as possible in places which may reasonably be supposed to be outside the worst danger zones, and adapt the procedure of the Courts to the altered conditions.

Your Lordships will appreciate that a Court cannot be shifted without a good deal of forethought. It is necessary that there should be means of access to books for, at any rate, some of the Courts because in some cases as many as fifty reports may have to be referred to—not very many, but there are some Courts which have to refer to books in practically every case. Then it is necessary to have a building which is fitted to some extent like a Court because in certain cases there are juries and the public. There must be rooms for the barristers and their clerks and for the Judges and so forth. Further than that, if a particular Court is moved to a particular town, it is necessary to have accommodation in the town for the Bar, solicitors, and their clerks and other persons. Therefore it may be necessary to make arrangements for dividing up, so to speak, the various Courts we now have in London and distributing them in different parts of the country. They cannot all go to one place because they cannot possibly be accommodated, and the necessity of finding a suitable building to serve as a Court necessarily involves that places where there are Assize Courts and other buildings of that kind should be places selected for the purpose.

I should make it plain, because it is a matter of great interest to the profession, that these Courts will not be Circuit Courts. They will be Courts in which the High Court is sitting as the result of division into local divisions. The Chancery Division and the Court of Appeal and some other Courts will probably all go to a particular town, as to which arrangements have been made. It will be necessary to provide a special place for criminal cases from the Central Criminal Court. There will have to be a Prize Court, which generally becomes busy when Britain with its naval forces is involved in a war, and I should hope that Court would be very busy. There will have to be a distribution of the King's Bench Division Courts, chiefly, as I have said, to Assize towns and places of that kind.

In addition to that, it will be necessary, I think, to move out of London as soon as may be the whole of the administrative departments of the Royal Courts of Justice, some of which I have already briefly mentioned—for example, the whole of the Department of the Master in Lunacy, almost the whole of the Official Solicitors' Department, part of the Taxing Office and almost the whole of the Principal Probate Registry. There may be other Departments now in the buildings of the Royal Courts of Justice which can be conveniently removed from London. It has been considered by a number of people very desirable when war becomes imminent that officials of various kinds, whose presence in London is by no means necessary, should be removed to safer places, and that for a number of reasons. Not only is it desirable to prevent any great congestion during removals from London, but also there is the point, which I have already mentioned, of the great difficulty of the humbler people getting to and from places in the conditions which may arise. Accordingly, under this Bill, there are means provided not only for conducting the administration of justice in a number of different parts of the country, but also for removing from London the administrative bodies and persons to whom I have just referred.

I do not think I need delay your Lordships long by going through the Bill, as your Lordships already have it before you. Clauses I to 5 and Clause 6 give power to the Lord Chancellor, with such concurrence as is mentioned in Clause 6, subsection (5), to make orders and rules of court with regard to the Supreme Court of Judicature, the inferior Courts, the Assizes, the Court of Criminal Appeal, and the Central Criminal Court. Here I may mention that for my part I was not anxious to undertake more responsibility in making these important orders than was necessary, and I have made provision in the Bill for the concurrence of two Judges, who will assist me in the matter; but there may be circumstances in which it would not be easy to get two Judges at a precise moment, and, accordingly, the Lord Chancellor is empowered to act on his own responsibility and afterwards to call the attention of those who are to assist him in the matter to what he has done and ask them for their approval. Clause 5 (2) gives an analogous power to the Home Secretary in respect of Quarter Sessions and courts of summary jurisdiction. Those Courts are under the Lord Chancellor only in a very remote way, and under Clause 6 the Lord Chancellor may delegate certain of his powers that may be urgently needed so that they can be exercised by other Judges if that should become necessary owing, for example, to an interruption of communications between one part of the country and another. Clause 6, subsection (8), gives to the Home Secretary an analogous power of delegation.

Clause 7, following the precedent of what was found desirable in the last War, reduces the number of jurors required to form a jury from twelve to seven. It will be understood that it is not at all easy to work our jury system in time of war, but it may be found possible to go on with it with that reduction which I have mentioned in the number of jurymen. That reduction of jurymen is not to take place in cases of murder and treason. Another point that I may mention is that the age limit of jurors will be raised from sixty years to sixty-five years. Then, following the example of what was done in the last War, Clause 8 restricts the right to trial by jury in civil proceedings. That was found satisfactory during the last War. Clause 9 modifies the law with regard to the remanding of accused persons by extending the period of remand to twenty-one days. Clause 10 modifies the statutory obligation to fill judicial vacancies, and that for the reason that experience showed during the last War that some of the business of the Courts is very greatly reduced while other business is greater, as, for instance, in applications to Prize Court, applications under the Defence of the Realm Act, and criminal cases connected with sabotage. In certain of those respects the Courts are busier during war than they are in times of peace.

Clause 11 provides for the making of the Order in Council necessary for bringing the Act into operation, on the ground, as I have stated, of the outbreak or probability of war. The Bill has been the subject of careful consideration, and I have had the assistance in framing it of the Lord Chief Justice, the Master of the Rolls and other distinguished judges and lawyers. I think it is well that people should realise that when the Bill becomes an Act, as I hope it will, and the powers which are given to the Lord Chancellor are exercised in the way I have suggested, it is probable that it will involve a great deal of inconvenience, and that it will not be too easy, even with good will, to carry on the administration of justice with the ease with which it is carried on at the present time. I have no doubt it will be found in practice that the Bill is not perfect—no Bill in the world of this kind can be perfect—and also that things have been omitted or have not been foreseen; yet I present the Bill to your Lordships as one that will enable the important matter of the administration of justice to be carried on with reasonable efficiency, and it is with that conviction that I move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Lord Chancellor.)

5 p.m.


My Lords, this is so much a matter for specialists and for those learned in the law that a layman cannot possibly know what is required. I just desire on behalf of my noble friends to say that we shall offer no opposition to the Second Reading.


My Lords, it is lamentable that we live in a world in which measures of this kind have to be passed. Still, that is the case, and I think no one will dispute that the Government are showing a wise forethought in providing beforehand for the possibilities which this Bill envisages. I have little doubt that your Lordships will be prepared to give it a favourable reception. No doubt, if war should occur, the volume of litigation would be largely reduced in the presence of still greater evils, and persons who otherwise would be inclined to go to law would not do so. Therefore the work of the Courts would be much less than at ordinary times. Nevertheless, the course of justice must go on and provision must be made for the procedure to be adapted to the circumstances.

I would draw attention only to Clauses 7 and 8, which relate to juries, which the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack has described to us. They provide that juries may consist of only seven jurors instead of twelve and that the age of service may be raised. As to the age being raised from 60 to 65, I dare say that many members of your Lordships' House will share with me the view that that is the age at which one's judgment is at its ripest. With regard to the other proposal, it is a considerable change, and one to be treated seriously, that the number of members of juries should be reduced to seven instead of twelve, except in connection with trials for treason, murder and other cases in which it is thought that the gravity of the matters at issue is sufficient to require the larger jury. That was done in the last War and it may have to be done again, but the point I want to make is that these clauses apparently are to come into operation automatically as soon as the Act is brought into force.

With regard to all the other matters—the places at which the Courts shall sit and various other questions to which the noble and learned Lord has referred—an order is required from the Lord Chancellor which will be made in accordance with the facts of the situation. But with regard to this matter of juries, it is taken as a matter of course that if war is imminent, or is thought to be imminent, and it is necessary to bring this Act into force at all, the provisions with regard to juries should operate at once and automatically. At least, that is how I understand the matter, because if your Lordships look at Clause 7 you will see it provides that: Notwithstanding anything in any enactment … it shall not be necessary for the jury to consist of more than seven persons. I presume that that implies that there shall be seven persons and no more. It may be a small verbal point, but I think it might be considered. If it is thought necessary that this measure should be put into operation at all, instantly the number of jurors is reduced, and not only that, but the whole principle of trial by jury is to be eliminated from civil proceedings except where the Judge holds that it is necessary for a trial to be held with a jury.

I would invite the attention of the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack to this particular point, and I would ask whether it might not be possible to adopt the same procedure in regard to these clauses as in regard to the rest of the Bill—namely, that the Lord Chancellor, in view of all the circumstances of the case, may bring these clauses into operation. I can well understand that contingencies might arise in which, war not having broken out, but being regarded as imminent, the Act might have to be brought into operation by the Government of the day, and yet the circumstances might not be such as to make it essential that all the provisions of the Act should be brought into operation. If the Lord Chancellor thought it wise to move out the Courts or some of them, still the circumstances might not be so grave that the jury system in civil cases must be abolished straight away. I hope that this point may be considered by the noble and learned Lord and his colleagues. With regard to the Bill as a whole I feel sure that noble Lords on these Benches will give it a cordial welcome.


My Lords, may I say that the point to which the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, has called attention will be carefully considered? It may be possible to insert something to meet his objection.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.