HL Deb 27 March 1947 vol 146 cc882-912

4.8 p.m.

THE MARQUESS OF READING rose to call attention to those recommendations contained in the Final Report of the Committee on Procedure in Matrimonial Causes (Cmd. 7024) which are concerned with machinery to be made available for attempting reconciliation between the parties. and to ask. His Majesty's Government what action they propose to take in regard to them; and to move for Papers. The noble Marquess said: My Lords, the "three-decker" which once had a great vogue has, of later years, fallen out of popularity in the publishing world as being too leisurely and cumbersome for the more stream-lined appetites of to-day. But I think that the Denning Committee have been wise in reviving the practice. They have now issued a third volume containing the results of their diligent and valuable work, and in a gratifyingly short space of time. 1 confess that when this Committee were first appointed I felt—though I think I refrained from actually saying so—that it might result only in further delay in the examination of a very urgent question. I was wrong in that view. They have spent the minimum of time on their task and they have spent it admirably well. If I may use a somewhat tepid-sounding adjective, which I mean in its most laudatory content, I would say that they have been an eminently sensible committee. They have concentrated upon the immediately practicable, in preference to the pursuit of visionary hares over the uplands of Utopia. It may be that their example might be advantageously followed in wider circles.

When we debated the Second interim Report of this Committee, the noble and learned Viscount who sits on the Woolsack gave us the figure of 50,000 as the estimate of the divorce cases for the current year—a figure so appalling, both as a symptom of a social evil and as a sum of human unhappiness, that even the most sceptical of your Lordships, and of people outside the House as well, must have been convinced that some steps must be taken to prevent such a state of affairs from becoming a. normal feature of the life of the country. For reasons too obvious to enumerate, the war years have played their part in bringing about these conditions, and they have no doubt been supplemented in the post-war years by overcrowding, by difficulties of resettlement and readjustment, by sheer mental and physical tiredness, and by a general feeling of malaise. But I think it is not irrelevant to this subject to say, and I say so quite unreservedly, that for my part I hope that either the Government will withdraw their effort to re-enlist married women in industry, or else that these efforts will fail. I know that it is really necessary to obtain an increase in the production of goods, but I believe that it is 'equally necessary to obtain an increase in the production of happy marriages and healthy children. If you either compel or cajole married women, now that their husbands have returned and their homes are set up again, to go back into the factories, you will require greatly to enlarge the sphere of your reconciliation machinery, and even then it is unlikely to succeed.

This state of affairs, which we all deplore, was not born with the war years, nor is it likely altogether to die with them. It is no doubt also due in part to a steady if gradual deterioration in moral standards which has gone on for a number of years, and which I cannot pause to analyse. It is sometimes said that many of the Victorians were great hypocrites, but at least the mere fact that some of them were driven to hypocrisy does show that there was a strict standard of morals in existence which those who did not wish to observe at least felt themselves obliged outwardly to adopt. The same state of affairs hardly seems to obtain to-day, whatever we might wish to be the actual position. It may be that, over and above these various factors which I have enumerated, there is at work a more fundamental, a more complex, and a more subtle influence. There are some who take the view that, while the institution of marriage has changed in character in the last few generations, human nature from the biological point of view has not kept pace with that change. Marriage used to be a patriarchy and it is now a partnership. From the social point of view that change is unassailably good; but for countless generations, owing to the difference in their make-up, men have been accustomed to assert their predominance and women to exploit their submissiveness, and a far greater period of time and a far more delicate adjustment is necessary to eradicate these biological differences than merely to revolutionize a social concept.

If there be any force in that view, then all the greater is the need for reconciliation machinery and all the wider is the field for its operation. I think that those of your Lordships who have studied this Report will be in agreement with the two main themes set out in it: first, that the element of compulsion must be excluded from any kind of reconciliation machinery which is set up; and second, and also one of great importance, that the time at which the machinery is put into operation must be the earliest possible moment, and not after either husband or wife has turned to the law for redress. That every effort should be pursued up to the last possible moment is plainly right, but that that effort should only be initiated at the last possible moment is just as plainly wrong. As for compulsion, clearly that very soon deteriorates into a mere formality, if possible to be evaded, if not to be endured. Those who will have to think out and put into practice such schemes as may be decided upon have, in this case, the immense advantage that there does already exist, thanks to the voluntary labours which have been devoted to the subject, a framework of voluntary assistance upon which the authorities may build, a framework which has been constructed over a period of years with wisdom, foresight, and success.

No doubt, during those years this effort, being voluntary, has been as much hampered as other voluntary efforts by lack of that very essential matter, the provision of funds. But if a State grant is now to be accorded to any of these societies, it would be an irreparable mistake to endeavour straight away to institute an immediate and widespread service. To start is very necessary, but it must be a good start, and you cannot get a good start until you have available for the purpose the right type and the right number of persons to carry out the important and delicate work which will be required of them. Such persons are riot found every day, nor trained over night. For your marriage counsellors you will want professional people who, whatever their existing attainments may be, will probably require further instruction in the specific work lying before them in this field. Take, for example, psychologists, whose participation in this general work is of essential importance. It so happens, I believe, that they are predominantly situated in London, and unless you are in a position to start such provincial centres as you may set up with good psychologists you had better postpone the service until you are in a position to inaugurate it upon a proper basis.

If I take exception to two recommendations of the Denning Report, it will only emphasize my general agreement with the rest. I venture to think that the name which is officially given to this service is of considerable importance. The title ought to be descriptive of its functions, attractive, concise and, at the same time, free of any suggestion of the patronizing or the merely charitable. The Marriage Guidance Council, one of the voluntary societies in this field—perhaps the leading one—has found, over the period of its existence, first, that its clients are drawn from every walk of life and level of society; and secondly, that a large number of its clients are led to bring their troubles to it by references to its work in the Press. I take these two facts as at least some evidence that the name of the Marriage Guidance Council possesses the magnetic properties which are required of a name for this purpose, and I would strongly urge upon the Government that if, or when, they set up this service, they should discard the suggested title of "Marriage Welfare Service," and substitute "Marriage Guidance Service." It may seem a small point, but, after all, to a large number of people this is a new institution, and therefore initially suspect, and the best auspices under which it can be started are necessary if it is to obtain the results that we all desire.

The second point to which I venture to take exception is this. It is suggested, on page 15 of the Report, that the court welfare officers should: rave access to all petitions which are filed in the Divorce Division. That seems to me to he getting very close to the fringe of compulsion. If you throw open every petition that is filed to an official of the Court to investigate, and if people feel that their petitions are being investigated by somebody who is not part of the normal machinery of the Court, it may cause some resentment in their minds and thereby may create sonic hostile reaction to the working of the system itself.

We look forward with measured optimism to hearing from the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack at a later stage of the debate this afternoon, what steps His Majesty's Government propose to take to implement the recommendations. of this Report; and not only what steps they propose to take, but when they propose to take them. If I may say so, time is of immense importance, not only so that further opportunities of endeavouring to stem this surging tide of broken marriages shall not be wasted, but also in order that the Government may came to the assistance, at the first possible moment, of these voluntary societies. May I take, as an example, the voluntary hospitals? When the National Health Service was in the offing their sources of income drawn from voluntary sources rapidly commenced to dry up. In all probability, there will be a similar effect upon voluntary societies in this field from the publication of the Denning Report. with its recommendation that they should receive a grant from public funds.

It would be a tragedy if there should be a hiatus between the closing down of the work of the voluntary societies because of lack of funds, and the setting up of the State-aided machinery, with all the dissipation of the staff of the voluntary societies and the disappointment on the part of those who might have been helped by the voluntary societies if that break in continuity took place. Dr. Johnson is reported, through the usual channels, to have said on one occasion that marriages in general would be as happy, and often more so, if they were all made by the Lord Chancellor. Whether or not we accept that thesis, at least we shall all hope that the noble and learned Viscount and his colleagues will tell us to-day that they propose to make some real effort, not to make, hut to try to save from being unmade, some of the marriages that at present founder for lack of timely counsel or a guiding hand. I beg to move for Papers.

4.25 p.m.


My Lords, in its Interim Reports the Denning Committee were concerned with endeavouring to make proposals which would remove causes of delay in the procedure of divorce cases, and when we debated these earlier Reports I said that, right and necessary though it was that a law, even a bad law, should not he impeded by mere procedural delays, yet in the proposals of the Denning Committee up to that point there was nothing in any way constructive. They were, in fact, only accelerating a process which is inherently distinctive, by its own nature, of national and family stability. Here, in the Final Report, the Denning Committee come, as I know they always wished to come, to constructive proposals, so far as they could make them within their terms of reference.

Let us first realize the magnitude of the task which faces us, of which this matter of reconciliation is only a small, though an important, part. The Denning Committee accept and endorse this principle, that the preservation of the marriage tie as "a personal union, for better or for worse, of one man with one woman, exclusive of all others on either side, as long as they both shall is of the highest importance in the interests of society. I will not repeat what I said of the principle in our last debate, but I did then say, and I repeat, that each single divorce, however understandable, however tragic, does, in fact, create an area of poison and a centre of infection in the national life and, where there are children, has a result completely disastrous upon them. But to get that principle once more generally and effectively established means a drastic reversal of the tide of general opinion as it is now flowing, and the figures of divorce cases, which all your Lordships know, show how strongly it is flowing in that direction. Only ninety years ago there were no divorces in this country at all, except in the rare case of a divorce by Act of Parliament. It was in 1857 that the first step was taken, and within a year of it Lord Campbell noted that he had invented a Frankenstein monster.

For a considerable time the Christian tradition held, in the main; the tide was still flowing in that direction, and the number of divorces was only a trickle. For the last thirty years that trickle, as your Lordships know, has become a flood—in 1911, 1,000 divorce cases; in 1946, 40,000 or 50,000 divorce cases—and divorce now widely accepted as a usual, a natural and a rightful thing, with no stigma attached to it at all, with the result that every marriage in the country is exposed to the undermining process of this tidal wave. To reverse the tide is an immense task. The Church at this moment stands almost alone in facing it. Now, with the clear support of the Denning Committee, it can call to its aid every citizen who cares for our national character and stability to re-establish the institution of marriage in our midst. The Denning Committee say, most truly, that "the institution of marriage itself needs to be anchored by effective public opinion, sound moral teaching and careful administration of the law as to divorce." To that I would add: "by a return to a sense of religious and moral truth as binding upon man." The task is to convince general opinion—which means the ordinary level-headed citizen—that marriage is an obligation with binding duties and sanctions; that adultery and fornication are in fact deadly sins—sins against the individual, against the family and against the nation, as well as sins against God; that divorce is always the final record of a human disaster, and that even great domestic hardship can be borne, and is to be borne, for a greater good and by Divine grace.

I am thankful for the paragraph that appears in the Denning Report at the top of page 17. In our last debate I referred to civil marriages and asked for what is there precisely recommended. It was not then my desire in any way to criticize registrars, and if I gave that impression to any noble Lords (as I believe I did) I would here repeat that, in my opinion, in very difficult circumstances they, for the most part, do the best that can be done, and do it with great care and consideration. I said in that debate that the State must make a clear choice. Either it must make it patent to all those who are civilly married, in the process of marrying them, that the State means and that they should intend by the act a lifelong marriage, or, alternatively, the State should, quite frankly, abandon what has always been the principle of English law and English custom, and admit that marriage has no binding obligation.

There are, I believe, some people who would prefer the latter alternative: that it should be accepted that civil marriages, as distinct from religious marriages, should carry no binding sanction. In that case the divorce courts would have no more to do than to register a change of inclination whenever it happened between the parties. I am thankful to say that the Denning Committee openly and definitely ask for the other alternative, and I cannot better the words in which they do so. For my part, I hope immediate steps will be taken to secure that in the civil marriage ceremony itself, and in the notices of application for civil marriage, the principle which I have already quoted is made perfectly clear. The law is, and no doubt will remain, that, for grave cause destroying the fundamentals of married life itself, a marriage may be dissolved. The Denning Committee have done nothing to diminish the sense of gravity attaching to a divorce; indeed, I think they have in their procedural proposals done much to remove the pettiness which has collected around the whole process of divorce proceedings and thereby increased the essential gravity of the work done.

Now come these highly important recommendations regarding reconciliation. The Report says, most truly, that the trouble begins, and remedies must begin, a long way further back, in wise preparation of people in adolescence and onwards for a true sex life finding a fulfilment in a true marriage. Much is already being done in many different directions to give just that necessary instruction, advice and preparation for marriage. It is being done by the Churches; it is being done in many schools; it is being done in much youth work; and it is being done, with the help and encouragement of the Ministry of Education, by many voluntary agencies. I sincerely hope that grave attention will be given to it in His Majesty's Forces, for into those Forces are now coming, under conscription, all the young manhood of the nation. They ate being trained under the educational service for citizenship, and it is vital that part of their training for citizenship should be a proper training for marriage itself. I had the opportunity not long ago of taking a group of persons to talk with the Secretary of State for War on this very subject, and I know that he is himself extremely sympathetic. I earnestly hope that practical results will come, for, if not, it is indeed a tragedy; for what is done at present by way of sex preparation in the Services, has been, I am bound to say, while sometimes a little helpful, often little more than an indirect encouragement to an immoral life.

All this preparatory work is of the greatest value and need; ever more attention. It is a part of the process of turning the tide. How much can be done by this machinery for reconciliation nobody can yet tell. It is unfair, as the Report says, to draw any conclusions from what has been done by the Army welfare service, although what they have done is very striking indeed. But even if at first this new machinery produces only a comparatively few reconciliations, that in itself is worth everything from the point of view of the persons in the families concerned; and, even more, I think, it is an obligation upon the State (which it would thus discharge) to show by its action that it is highly concerned with the problem of reconciliation and with the safeguarding of the institution of marriage. The Denning Committee rightly puts the whole emphasis, as the noble Marquess has done, upon voluntary action.

In such a difficult and intimate matter, compulsion defeats the end in view. The Report makes two recommendations. On the first, the establishment of welfare officers attached to the Divorce Court, I would only say a word. I think these are the only new State officials contemplated by the Report, and they are an extension of the already existing and most admirable probation officer service. They are there, in the main, to assist all, giving help where help is asked for. That is a recommendation which I hope the Government may find it possible to adopt, and put into operation immediately.

The second recommendation is much more fundamental. It is for the setting up of a marriage welfare service (with the noble Marquess, I should most certainly prefer marriage guidance service), but the Report says it is not to be a State service. It is not recommended that the State should aim at setting up a new service running through the country; on the contrary, what the State is recommended to do is to give its sponsorship to existing services and societies, to encourage them, and, in suitable cases, to help to finance them. For myself, I hope that this service will never be a State service. I think that of its very essence it is bound for ever to be a voluntary service, provided by voluntary agencies sponsored and financially aided by the State, so that it may grow equal to the immense demands which will be made upon it. I do not know whether it is regarded as surprising that the State should be asked thus to give grants-in-aid to voluntary societies, but there are precedents for it.

The Denning Committee's Report itself quotes certain precedents—grants to the National Council of Social Service for citizens' advice bureaux, to S.S.A.F.A., and so on. There are other precedents of grants-in-aid from public monies for much youth work done outside the State machinery by voluntary organizations, and to existing moral welfare work. I am quite sure that the State will do it more cheaply by subsidizing voluntary societies than by setting up its own immensely complicated machinery—as it always is: but the real point is that the work can be done only by voluntary societies. It is essentially personal and pastoral; it is essentially spiritual and it delves deeply into personal lives. It is a field in which, above all, religion must be given full freedom to act by its own impetus and to deliver its own help. Not only are there those who will look for religious help and be glad to find it, but there are many who will not know they need it until it is brought to them in this context So I hope there will be no difficulty in the State being prepared to accept this recommendation and to make grants-in-aid to those voluntary agencies which are properly qualified, which can give a good account of themselves and render their annual reports, and which can then retain their whole freedom of action.

The Church of England has such agencies, as has the Church of Rome, and there must always be room for them. For myself, I hope that the field will be very largely covered by the Marriage Guidance Council and the similar bodies which have already sprung from it in (I think) over 100 towns and cities in this country.

The Denning Report pays a warm tribute to the work of the Marriage Guidance Council, and I hope your Lordships will bear with me while I say a word or two about it. In 1943, I had some hand in its reconstruction and reformation. I was one of its Presidents, the other being the noble Lord, Lord Horder, and my successor as Bishop of London is still one of its Presidents. There is this point to be noted. From its inception the Marriage Guidance Council has been meant to bring together into this work two streams—namely, those who approach it from a directly Christian and religious point of view and those who approach it primarily from the medical, psychological and sociological point of view. It aims to hold them together in co-operation, friendship and understanding. Its general principles are so framed as to be satisfactory to both these streams, and to be such that the Christian can accept them and work with them. In the working of the Council, the spiritual approach has always been primary. It does not concern itself with divorce; it does not exist to promote divorce, but merely to give instruction and to bring about reconciliation. In all its work it carefully respects conscience and Church loyalties. It refers those who need specialist help to councillors, clergy and doctors, and the like. It has done a pioneer work of very great value, not only in handling here in London the thousands of cases to which the noble Marquess has referred, but also in providing lectures and stimulating courses of instruction, some under Government control and others of its own.

Of course, everything depends upon the persons there employed, but it is a nucleus and if the State will enable it to go on it will cover the ground in its own time, never advancing until it has the personnel ready to tackle this immensely delicate matter with wisdom, understanding, and right principle. So I welcome and endorse these proposals most warmly. Even though it be only a part of this gigantic task of restoring marriage to its proper position, it is an important part. We may well believe it will have some success to start with, and it certainly will help, along with all other things, to turn the tide. I remember that in our last debate I said that since the Government were so rapid in adopting the other recommendations I hoped that when it came to reconciliation they would be no less rapid. I mean that most seriously, for—as the noble Marquess says—good though it may be to see that the cases are dealt with adequately, we are here dealing with something which is really constructive, in the best sense of the word, and the need for which is vital to the well-being of the country.

4.48 p.m.


My Lords, I feel that we owe a debt of real gratitude to the noble Marquess Lord Reading for raising this question as he has done to-day, because there cannot be any single question connected with the future of our society which is more fundamental than that the wisest steps should be taken, and the wisest instruments used, for the purpose of preserving the institution of marriage in its full sanctity. That, I suppose, no serious person would dispute. I am sure we have all been very deeply impressed by what has just been said by the most reverend Primate.

I want to intervene for a few moments, not only because questions relating to this matter—questions of machinery perhaps—were very much my concern in the days of the war, when I was Lord Chancellor and when I had some part in helping to improve and make more effective the organization which was set up for the benefit of men who were serving abroad, and who were in a position of quite exceptional difficulty because apart from perhaps an occasional short period of leave, in many cases they were separated from their wife and their home for three years or more. Some of them are still separated to-day. When one considered the temptations which assail human nature, both male and female, in a situation of that sort, it was very necessary that we should do everything we could to help a man who received sad news about the failure of the woman, who should have been his life partner, to maintain that loyalty and affection which is really the basis of the married state.

I agree with the most reverend Primate that we must not draw too optimistic an inference from the great success of that service during the war. The circumstances were very special. In every unit there was set up an officer who represented what I think was called the Legal Aid Bureau. The men know that he was there available to help them. In many cases he was able to advise them not to jump to conclusions too hastily, and to show that at least on the man's side there was still fidelity and a hope for a happy future. In other cases he was able to refer them. to an institution which was set up by the Law Society, the great body of solicitors to whom indeed we owe a very special degree of thanks for a fine voluntary service which helped, so far as it could, to straighten out the men's difficulties and, in some cases, to secure them what was their right. I do not think the circumstances we are: facing to-day are closely analogous to that, and I rise not for the purpose of adding to the general reflections which have been so well expressed, but rather to invite the noble and learned Viscount, the Lord Chancellor, in his reply which we are so eagerly awaiting, to deal, if he can, with some of the practical administrative problems, which, if I may venture to say so, must be an important consideration in Parliament before we content ourselves with general approval of the recommendations. Some of the administrative questions involved arc quite serious. If I may presume to say so to the most reverend Primate, I was not quite sure when he spoke whether he is preserving a clear distinction between what can be done in the way of advice and counsel to people who are going to be married, and what can be done in respect of the people who are married, who are unhappy, and who fall out and perhaps find themselves in a situation in which the law may grant one or other relief from the marriage contract.

Indeed, I lam not entirely sure that in the Denning Report itself—admirable as it is—that distinction is quite clearly made. Of course, the work which the Denning Committee were doing was work on procedure in matrimonial causes, so I should not suppose that they were going outside their terms of reference and discussing what it was possible to do in respect of young people who were soberly and, with due reflection, entering into the state of matrimony. The most reverend Primate described in an admirable way the work that is being done by such bodies as the Marriage Guidance Council, and I know there are a number of such bodies who do excellent work. I should imagine that a large part of their work, just as is the case with a large part of the pastoral work which is done by clergymen and ministers, is really concerned with considering what are the matters upon which these young people should reflect before marriage. Undoubtedly no work could possibly be of greater moral service to the community. But I ask myself—and I wish to speak entirely frankly, because I fundamentally agree with all the general propositions—is it intended to take under the wing of the State to that extent the good work which is done so far as it takes the form of advice to young people who are thinking of getting married? The noble and learned Viscount, the Lord Chancellor, may be able to give an indication in his reply. The first of the detailed conclusions of the Denning Committee on Page 13 is this: It should be recognized as a function of the State to give every encouragement and, where appropriate, financial assistance to marriage guidance as a form of Social Service. I merely ask these things in order that we may get definitely to a point. Does "marriage guidance" there include advice before people are married?


May I just explain what was in my mind? The work which a Marriage Guidance Society does must be continuous and cover every kind of thing from adolescence to reconciliation and divorce. You cannot separate them and have a special agency dealing with reconciliation. But when it comes to subsidizing, any properly run society can perfectly well distinguish between its marriage cases where it is dealing with reconciliation, and the rest of its work; and it could be subsidized in that part of the work which concerns reconciliation.


I am greatly obliged to the most reverend Primate. I really was not quite clear from what he had said in his main speech whether that distinction was insisted upon. I did not recall it, and it seems to me a little important that we should at least realize that that question does arise on this Report. I am speaking with a great admiration of the Report, and with a very large measure of sympathy for it, but here in Parliament it is not enough to use expressions of sympathy, unless we see what is really involved as a matter of, governmental or parliamentary action. I would certainly accept what has just been said, that this service, so far as it is regarded as a great social and spiritual service, can hardly begin only on and after the day of the wedding. One knows that sometimes wise admonitions are addressed at the altar to a young couple, sometimes in an undertone and sometimes more loudly, but I quite understand that it may well be that most useful advice can be given before that.

Frankly my own present opinion is that it will not be possible to use State subsidies for the work that is done in the earlier stages. One is bound to speak quite bluntly. It may be that there are cases in which a young woman goes, I do not say to the institution which the most reverend Primate has in view, but to some institution claiming to be of that class. She may say, simply: "I am very much in love with so-and-so. We want to be married and I do not want to have any children. Will you tell me how that can be avoided?" It will be a very remarkable step in State action if advice on the use of contraceptives is subsidized by the State and I am not at all sure there will be a general opinion that that ought to be done. It is, of course, a medical question also. It is important to distinguish between good work that can be done before marriage and what was referred to by the most reverend Primate as assistance in reconciliation when the marriage threatens to break down. I think it very important that we should look on this question in a practical spirit.

I will now take the second point which occurs to me, after reading the Report with every possible sympathy and with a great deal of admiration. Reconciliation implies that something has gone wrong, and I most warmly agree with the noble Marquess, Lord Reading, when he says that the best chances of reconciliation are at the earliest possible moment. I should suppose that there is a far better chance of reconciliation being effective before any proceedings have been instituted. Probably there are few of us who, in the experience of our own lives, have not on the score of close friendship endeavoured to be of some use to a husband and wife, both of whom were known to us. One or the other may have confided in us, and we have all in our turn done what we could. It is right to prevent this terrible tragedy happening. The appeal to remember earlier loyalties and past affection, and, still more perhaps, to think of the fate of the children, is an appeal of which any man of good sense and practical sympathy may hope on occasion to make good use in regard to those who are his friends.

Frankly, I do not believe—this is perhaps a mistake—that it requires quite so much technical expertness as some people suppose, but then I am not a believer in the theory of casuistry. I am inclined to think that persons of good sense and sincere affection may be helpful here, and I am not sure what degree of training, or if the obtaining of a degree in social science, is a considerable additional qualification. That it is done with great success in a number of cases I admit, and I am not in the least opposed to that effort being supported and encouraged by the State, provided always that the State contribution does not tend to be a substitute for what ought to be support from private contributions.

How is reconciliation to be effected in the great majority of cases? Most of the cases +that come to the Divorce Court are undefended cases. They are cases in which the aggrieved party files a petition which is served on the other side, but the other party does not appear at all. Looking at the thing from a purely practical point of view, and with every sympathy, I find it rather hard to see how the new system is going to work. I share the view which has already been expressed, that the last sentence in the first paragraph on page 15 of the Committee's Final Report is of very questionable wisdom. After saying "Even after divorce proceedings are started, endeavours for reconciliation should continue" the paragraph ends by saying "Moreover the welfare officer" (which means I suppose the Court welfare officer) "should have access to every petition and, in such cases as he thinks suitable, should write to the parties or their representatives offering his services." I question that.

You would have an official having the run of every petition on the file—now unhappily there are thousands—and according to his view of what he thinks suitable you would have him addressing the parties, apparently by correspondence, and saying "Can I help you?" I am afraid he would be received with much more resentment than gratitude, for desirable as it is to promote reconciliation in proper cases, it is quite undesirable that a person should be put in the hands of even a very wise man or woman just because he or she has been appointed Court welfare officer. The fact that the welfare officer may inspect petitions, I should think, would give him no material at all on which he could judge between one case and another. I have never had any considerable practice in Divorce Courts—though I have been there as counsel—but I do not know of anything in the petition for divorce which would enable the welfare officer to say in one case: "This is a case where I should write to the parties to offer assistance," but in another: "This is a case in which I should not". The noble and learned Viscount, the Lord Chancellor, may have considered this. I mention this—as I know the House understands—not in a desire to tie critical, but because in this matter we have to see what can be done.

There is a further difficulty—and here may be speaking in a way which will not receive general approval, but I feel that it is my duty to state it as I see it. Reconciliation is a most desirable thing. It is heart-breaking to think how many people smash up what ought to be the best thing in their lives—in some cases, perhaps, because they have no wise counsellor to help them. All the same, I must confess to this view. I think that by the law of the land the aggrieved party is given a right, if the evidence is sufficient, to the relief which the law prescribes. 1 can quite understand the view of those people—and there are many such—who feel not merely that particular cases are distressing but that the whole conception of divorce is a breach of some- thing which they hold most sacred, and therefore grasp at the idea of reducing the number of cases. But if one takes the view that the law of the land for ninety years has been that there is a right to relief granted in particular cases, it certainly does appear that there will probably be a great many cases in which the attempt at reconciliation is not only useless but is an interference with the right of the citizen. And the moment you consider an extreme case you see it.

Take some dreadful case in which, perhaps, a man has treated his wife in ways which are too horrible to be described; a case in which he has not only forgotten all his duty to her, but has done it openly, constantly, insultingly, flaunting his wrongdoing. I, for my part, am not prepared to stand here and say that in such a case reconciliation is desirable. It seems to me that there is a point at which you cannot say: "You must put up with great domestic hardship" but you must say: "The law of the land gives you this right, and if it gives you this right I do not think that this is a case where it is really useful or indeed right, to attempt to produce a reconciliation."


May I ask the noble and learned Viscount precisely how that is relevant to these proposals? It is suggested that there will be an offer made to help to bring about reconciliation, and to that offer any party is at liberty to say: "No thank you." When one of the parties has said "No," the whole thing ceases. How can this be an invasion of any one's right?


I may have put this rather more strongly than I need have done. But I think it my duty to point out what I believe are some of the difficulties here, and I am bound to do it quite fearlessly, as I am sure the most reverend Primate will agree. Certainly it is not proposed to deprive anybody of his right, but I can imagine cases w here the offer might be thought an outrageous impertinence. That is a consideration which I think the State must bear in mind before it seeks to widen the area in which reconciliation—


How is it an impertinence to say to any one "Do you wish for any help?"


I am not sure that there are not some relations in life in connexion with which it might be felt that that proposal, gratuitously offered, was not very appropriate. I am not denying that there is an area in which this can be done. All I am saying, with very great respect, is that I doubt whether the area is quite as large as is sometimes supposed.

As I said at the beginning of my speech, my purpose in making these observations was merely to endeavour to get down to tome of the practical difficulties. I have not made them in any spirit of criticism or hostility to the general idea, as applied in appropriate cases. It is agreed, I understand—and I am bound to say that I did not understand it quite so well at first—that what is here proposed is entirely confined to what happens after marriage, and in cases where unhappily these differences have broken out. I wish it were possible, in suitable cases, to render help before proceedings are taken. Apart from that most valuable service, which is rendered privately by those who are able to intervene, I do not think that the State can do it at all. It is the function of other authorities. So far as the position after the writ has been issued is concerned, there may be, and no doubt are, such cases in which we should all like to help. All I am concerned to do is to ask the Lord Chancellor to indicate to us, if he can, what he thinks may be the area in which the State could intervene for this purpose. I would like also to ask whether he is able to advise us whether a Court officer, such as a Court probation officer, is the sort of person who could render this very delicate but very invaluable service.

Sometimes, I think that a mistake is made in referring to the probation officer in the magistrate's court. The probation officer in the magistrate's court is a most invaluable person. He is invaluable particularly for making inquiries in reference to individuals who hardly seem responsible, or with whom it may be that a little wise advice may go a long way. If the magistrate has before him a man who has manifestly broken the law in a violent manner, he does not refer the case to the probation officer. The use of a probation officer is of a rather different kind. I am inclined to think, therefore, that although this would be a very useful provision, it would be a mistake to expect it to cover quite such a large field as might seem to be suggested by the Report. I regret very much having had to make any observation which might seem to be in the least critical, because, as I have already emphasized, it is not from any desire not to see things done. But I am very sure that it would be a mistake to allow ourselves to be carried away by the general feeling that a great service can be rendered in this way. For my part, I believe that a reduction in the shocking number of divorce cases is bound to be brought about, not so much by persuading or advising people in a certain number of cases that proceedings should not be continued, but by the restoration on some fundamental basis of a better understanding and a greater respect for the institution of marriage.

5.20 p.m.


My Lords, I would like, with your Lordships' permission, to make a few observations on probation officers and the voluntary organizations which have been referred to by the most reverend Primate with regard to reconciliation. I do this because for twenty years I have been greatly interested in probation work, although in my case it has been work connected with juvenile delinquency. But, naturally, I am very much interested in the recommendations of the Denning Report regarding the extension of the probation service into a marriage welfare service. Of course, this has been happening for some time. The position of a probation officer as regards reconciliation was put on a legal footing by the Summary Procedure Act of 1937. By this Act any magistrate can request a. probation officer to do his best to reconcile husband and wife. Of course, there is no question whatever of compulsion; that would entirely defeat its own ends. At present the arrangement is that if a man or a woman wishes to obtain a summons the magistrate suggests that the applicant should seek the good offices of the probation officer. Consent is not always given because, as the noble Marquess has said, very often by the time a case comes to the Court it is too late for reconciliation. That is a very important thing. The same difficulty arises once any aggrieved person has been to a solicitor. I speak with great respect before so many members of the Bar, but it is clearly difficult for any lawyer, however well intentioned he may be, to advise reconciliation, if by so doing he might possibly be giving advice savouring of collusion. It is a point many people have pointed out. to me when I have said to friends of mine who are solicitors: "I wish you would advise your client to go to a probation officer."


May I interrupt the noble Lord? He may be dealing with a slightly different point, but I am sure he will not mind being reminded that one of the things which, beyond any question, every solicitor of standing who has practised in the Divorce Court is constantly doing, is to try to produce a reconciliation between the parties.


I am glad to be corrected by the noble Viscount. At the present moment people consult the probation officer privately, and these occasions offer a very much enhanced opportunity for arrangements of reconciliation. One of the great difficulties is that this opportunity does not receive enough publicity, and there are very few people even now who know that a man or woman can go to a probation officer and get his advice on their difficulties. I would like to think it might some day be possible to give increased publicity to this perfectly admirable service. That, briefly, is how the probation service works to-day. We now find it will have to be extended. The Denning Report suggests that a moral welfare service should be formed, and it should be drawn from the probation officers who already have experience of this work. I would like, in my humble way, strongly to support this, and also to make another suggestion. I would like to see the two services eventually separated. I think that when we have managed to evolve a marriage welfare; service, the training should be separate from the present probation service. It is obvious that the knowledge necessary for trying to instil a few morals into an erring youth is different from that which is necessary to bring together a man and wife. Of course, that will take some time to effect, and meanwhile we are faced with the great difficulties of getting recruits for the probation service. Last year, for instance, we wanted ninety recruits, and I regret to say that less than thirty were obtained. This is a very serious state of affairs.

I have before taken the liberty in your Lordships' House of urging that the probation service should be made more attractive. I have one other point to make in that respect. It is that the age at which one can begin to be trained, whether man or woman, for the probation service should be lowered. To-day the age is either twenty-four or twenty-five, and you cannot begin training until you reach that age. Surely it is important that a man or woman when they finish the last stage of their education, whether it be at college or elsewhere, should be able to begin at once training for this very important service. I would like now to pass on to the subject of voluntary organizations which are not in any way competing with the probation service. One is connected with the Court and one is completely disconnected from the Court. The most reverend Primate referred to the Marriage Guidance Council, and. the other organization, to which I think he also referred, is the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council. I think these are the two best known, if not the only two which are working at the present moment in London.


There is The Church of England Moral Welfare Council.


May I make just these few remarks about the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council which, of course, is recognized by the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster? It was founded only last year, and it was founded with two specific objectives: it was to educate young people in the duties of marriage and parenthood, and to give advice in marital differences and effect reconciliation where possible. Although it started only last year, it functions at the present moment in the Roman Catholic dioceses of Westminster, Brentwood and Southwark and it is intended to extend its activities to all the cities and big towns in this country. In common with other similar organizations, all the marriage consultants are volunteers, none of from is paid at all, and those people who work in the office receive only approximately two-thirds of what they would get were they working in commercial concerns. I would like to give a few figures to show that in certain cases reconciliation has been effected. In January and February of this year 123 cases were brought before the Advisory Council. A great many of them arc still being carried over, but already 34 reconciliations have been effected. That is quite a good record for an institution which has been set up for such a short time. I would like to add that this organization, like the others, is entirely supported by voluntary contributions.

The Catholic Marriage Advisory Council and the Marriage Guidance Council work, I am glad to say, in close harmony, but I think it only right to add that the existence of two bodies is absolutely necessary for Roman Catholics for the very obvious reason that there may be (I do not say there always are) divergencies of principle both on divorce and, of course, on artificial birth control. That is why it is necessary for two bodies to exist. However, that does not in any way prevent them from mutual help in their own efforts to effect a reconciliation. While on the subject of help, perhaps I might say that a lot of help has been received from the Press in publicizing these various activities, and I am sure everybody is grateful for the help that has been given. This cannot be said for the B.B.C., and it has been affirmed in writing by the Marriage Guidance Council that the lack of co-operation on the part of the British Broadcasting Corporation has amounted to obstructionism. If that is the case, and I have no reason to doubt the word of the Marriage Guidance Council, I think it is greatly to be deplored. It seems to me the B.B.C. is the ideal medium for publicizing the work of these two organizations and putting over the idea of happier married lives.

In conclusion, I should like to stress the main recommendations in the Report of the Denning Committee: first, that a marriage welfare service should be established, drawn from the present probation service, and that the objectives should be in the giving of guidance, both in preparation for marriage and in difficulties after marriage; that it should be sponsored by the State, but not be a State institution, and that it should be regarded as a function of the State to give, where appropriate, grants in aid to those organizations which are working in the field of marriage welfare. I am absolutely convinced that such expenditure would yield a very rich dividend in human happiness in this country. If I may say so, I think we all should be very grateful to the noble Marquess for moving this Motion to-day.

5.31 p.m.


My Lords, like other speakers I would begin by warmly thanking the Denning Committee for their Report and for the attention which they have drawn—not only our attention but that of a very large public—to what is a matter of the utmost magnitude. Perhaps I do so all the more gladly as Chairman of the Church of England Moral Welfare Council arid as one who, for many years, has had a special concern and interest in all questions of morals and marriage. The facts on which the Report is based are, of course, well known to us all, and particularly to all social workers and clergy throughout the country. Indeed, for a long time many of us have publicly been drawing attention to those facts and to their most grave consequences for our national life; and it was surely high time that the Government accepted their responsibility for appointing a Committee which should bring new light into a very large field. I am thankful that the Committee, though appointed to deal with matters merely of procedural reform, did see that that question must be set against the much larger background of the situation as it confronts marriage in the life of the people to-day. The noble Marquess is surely right in asserting that public opinion is gravely shocked and profoundly troubled at the vast increase in divorce—and rightly so.

The Report reminds us that only thirty-six years ago the number of divorces in this country was about 1,000 a year. Now the number of new cases filed is 1,000 every week. That is the measure of the vast increase in something that affects the whole stability of home life in the country. Of course, that vast increase is partly due to war conditions—the peculiarly difficult situation in which men and women found themselves during the war—and, at least partly due to what the Church of England Prayer Book calls "marriages entered into inadvisedly and hastily." But even if you set aside the number of cases attributable to war conditions only, it is surely obvious that the present disastrous situation will not right itself. Behind these facts and figures lies the frightening truth that, as the Report: says, broken marriages are largely clue to false ideas and unsound emotional atti- tudes to marriage itself. A generation or so ago it was almost universally assumed that if you entered into marriage you were entering into a permanent relationship. A short time ago I was speaking to one of the happiest married couples I know. Both the man and the woman concerned were saying to me how, during the first year or two of their married life, they were perpetually at difference, the one with the other; they were quarrelling; both of them frequently wished they had never married at all; but they knew that they were married and were married for life. Consequently, they began to give and take; they made the necessary adjustments, with a now extremely happy result.

But to-day a very large number of young people arc marrying or the assumption that, if the marriage does not work out as happily as they think it ought to do, they can freely and easily get out of its obligations, arid that has changed the whole conception of what marriage means. I cannot help feeling that that change is at least partly due to the mere fact of the increased facilities for divorce. Those increased facilities were provided in order to meet hard cases and to avoid irregular associations, but they have, in fact, resulted in multiplying the number of cases which come into the Divorce Court, the number of marriages which come to ruin. They have wrecked the whole basis of the stability on which marriage used to rest. Perhaps (I at least sometimes think so) we ought to remember that the majority of marriages now coming to collapse are between persons who were born and brought up during or immediately after the First World War, at a time when it was notorious that home ties had been very much weakened. On the other hand, I seem to see (I hope I am right) amongst the growing boys and girls of to-day—many of them children of those broken homes—a sense of resentment against the low ideas of marriage which have caused them their suffering. It has resulted in. a great longing to find permanence and stability in the marriages and homes that they mean themselves to make. If I am right, that is one element of real hope in the days to come.

I would join with others, of course, in warm approval for the whole idea of the Marriage Guidance Council. There is no question about the value which the present councils, of various kinds, have given and are giving. The Report wants to see their work extended, to have councils started all over the country wherever there is a need. I should want all people of good will (and especially with the influence which the Church can bring) to be fully at the service of such councils; for of course it must be remembered that the value of the work done by these councils will always depend on the outlook of the members composing them. It is impossible, so to speak, to lay down rules, but, obviously, persons who regard marriage as primarily, if not entirely, a legal contract for physical satisfaction, without any real or important spiritual meaning, are not persons who can give the valuable counsel and advice that this Report wants to obtain from the Marriage Guidance Councils. We shall do all in our power to ensure that the members are those who can be most rightly trusted to produce for the community high ideals.

There are one or two practical points in the Report on which I would like to say a word. First, I value the paragraph on page i6 that has to do with the whole question of collusion. Mention has been made of it in the discussion, but hardly adequately, I think. It is pointed out in the Report that there should be no feeling whatever that there is something injudicious in the parties to a broken marriage meeting one another for common consultation, either with a hope of reconciliation or in regard to such difficult questions as what is to happen to the children when the divorce case goes through. And it stresses that solicitors should not advise their clients to have nothing to do with one another, but should point out that the law favours reconciliation, and any overtures to that end will not prejudice the case when it comes into Court. I hope that that statement of principle will be widely understood and acted upon. Much good would come from that, quite apart from the work of any special officers whom the Court might appoint.

There is another matter of some importance mentioned on page 16. I quote: It is very desirable that any communication between a party to a marriage and any one whom he has consulted with a view to reconciliation should be privileged from disclosure; but we do not think it needs any enactment for the purpose. May I very humbly venture to disagree? Not long ago, there came to my knowledge the case of a trained welfare worker who had been trying to help a woman whose marriage was likely to be broken by Court action. She was then subpoenaed by the husband, the plaintiff in the divorce suit that followed. Happily, counsel for the plaintiff stated in court his reluctance to call this witness, and the Judge concurred, saying he thought it would be a grave mistake that she should be called; and, therefore, she was not called. But it remains the fact that she might have been called, and her confidential information extracted from her.

The whole basis of the work of the welfare officers, or of reconciliation generally, must rest on the assumption of complete confidence between the persons concerned and the party they are trying to help, and even one case in which in Court that confidence was given away would seriously prejudice the whole idea. I humbly venture to hope that the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack will consider very carefully whether it would not be right to give legal protection in such cases, and to extend the idea of privilege to cover this kind of confidential information. Beyond that I would only reiterate what others have said, that all these questions of reconciliation, of Court action, and the like, most important and valuable though they may be, only touch upon a very small fringe of the problem. The real problem is to reinstitute in the minds of people, and especially of the young, true ideas of what marriage means, of its glory and its greatness, and to help them to set their faces against those prevalent low ideas of marriage, which spoil it for themselves and, surely, endanger the whole well-being of the community.

5.45 p.m.


My Lords, I should have preferred to address your Lordships for the first time on a different subject, but I feel I have a contribution to make to this debate, being one of that great body of unpaid whose conduct and work is under examination by the Commission appointed by the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack. I subscribe entirely to the opinions of the Report as expressed by the most reverend Primate and the noble Marquess. I regard it as a very valuable document. I would, however, venture to suggest to your Lordships that in the main the Report concerns itself only with the cases which come before the Divorce Courts, and with the problem of young people. In my judgment, in the consideration of this problem, and in the creation of the reconciliation machinery that may he necessary later, we do not want to lose sight of that great mass of people who do not come into either of those classes, but who nevertheless are a problem in themselves.

I have been an active member of my Bench for, I suppose, twenty years, and I have been chairman for some years. It is part of my duty to listen to applications that are made to us for summonses, and the like, and I have been much impressed with the need for the greatest care in not denying to these people the justice which they have come to get. One finds the middle-aged married woman who, perhaps for years, has suffered quiet cruelties which no one outside the house knew—not necessarily cruelties that would entitle the woman to go to the Divorce Count, but nevertheless cruelties. The woman has submitted -to those cruelties, year after year, because of the existence of children whom she loves and does not want to leave. Finally, the last straw comes, and she summons up sufficient courage to come to the Court. Too often I have seen a woman at that point encouraged to consider reconciliation.

In that respect I would like to warn your Lordships' House of the fallacious statistics that are given in relation to reconciliations. As a rule, we have no means of following the case to discover whether the reconciliation is really a reconciliation or merely a continuance of that wretched existence which has prevailed formerly. I have a vivid recollection at this moment, since it happened only the day before yesterday, of a case where such a woman applied for a summons. She was before my Court last October and the problem then was that it was difficult to know what would happen to her if she obtained her separation, because she had no alternative home to which she could go. The probation officer's assistance was sought; the woman continued to live with her husband, and in that period she suffered just the same cruelties as before. Now she is having her summons. It seems to me that there are two stages in this problem. One is long before the matter gets to a Court—whether the Divorce Court or a Court of Summary Jurisdiction—and in my judgment that can best be dealt with by a system similar to that which we have in my own neighbourhood. We publish on the public buildings the names of doctors, parsons and other prominent persons, who are usually known to the people of the neighbourhood, and any one of whom will be prepared to listen to them if they are in any domestic difficulty. That system has been most successful.

Finally, I want to say to your Lordships that we need the most carefully-trained persons for this work. There should be no encouragement—indeed there should be considerable discouragement— of magistrates attempting this work of reconciliation, because of the danger of denying to these people the justice they seek. Subject to what i have said about the preliminary work that can be done. I believe the voluntary organizations provide the best machinery to do the remainder of the work. When the noble and learned Viscount, the Lord Chancellor, replies, I hope he will give us some idea whether it is the intention of the Government specially to train persons—not probation officers as such—to deal with this particular problem.

5.53 p.m.


My Lords, I shall not keep your Lordships for very long, but I would like to spend a moment in emphasizing what, after all, is the main point for our consideration this evening—namely, the question of reconciliation itself. In the course of the debate it has been questioned whether reconciliation is really possible or whether it is likely to cover a large area of the cases concerned. I would strongly emphasize the fact that it is possible, and I would suggest that it should be sought in every case that comes under consideration. The noble Lord, Lord Kershaw, has said that we cannot tell what is likely to happen after the reconciliation has taken place, and he has suggested that there may be more mischief afterwards than there was before. But that kind of ignorance extends on both sides; if there is a divorce, we cannot follow the case up and see what misery is caused as a result of divorce.

Reconciliation is certainly the most important remedy that we have for this trouble, and yet it is extraordinary that just at a time when adultery is thought less of than it has beer for centuries in this country, and when "living in sin" has become a kind of music hall joke, adultery is regarded as a sufficient excuse for breaking up a marriage and a home. The possibility of forgiveness seems hardly to be considered at all. This is a moral question, and we must meet it on moral grounds. We must begin by recognizing the possibility of forgiveness. After all, every one of us rests his hope of eternal salvation on the possibility of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a creative force, and a force which we should set in action. We should try to release the springs of this activity so that it may heal the wound of a broken marriage and bind the parties together again. I venture to hope that the noble and learned Viscount. Lord Simon, will not be afraid of the possibility that reconciliation will cover only a small area of these cases.


I am merely trying to consider, as a practical matter, to what extent it may produce good results. I hope it will.


I think the noble and learned Viscount will be interested in a report I received a short time ago from Australia. In one of our dioceses there, a reconciliation board was set up and has been in action for a year. It has had 100 cases before it, and in every one of those 100 cases reconciliation has been effected. Not a single one has reached the Divorce Court. It is not possible to achieve much more than a Zoo per cent. success! I venture to think there is a very great field for activity here. In this country we have, as the most reverend Primate said, 100 marriage guidance centres in various towns and cities. Here in London we have our centre, and at that centre no fewer than 5,000 cases have been discussed and the parties helped. We are only just scratching the surface of the situation at the moment. There is a tremendous opportunity lying before us, and I very much hope that the Government will give what financial help they can to those endeavours. I leave entirely on one side the possibility of welfare officers in the Courts, and I address myself simply to the question of supporting the Marriage Guidance Council which already exists. That is an organization in being, and if it can be helped and supported with sufficient funds, it can extend its v./6:k in every town and populous centre in the country. It can set to work to train the necessary leaders so that they may have sufficient skill and training to enable them to deal tactfully with this question. In that way I believe we should be doing a great deal to relieve a situation which is already threatening to become completely disastrous.


My Lords, it would be convenient if we broke off at this stage, for the Royal Commission.