HL Deb 20 March 1967 vol 281 cc547-50

3.39 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Third Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time. Some doubts were expressed about this Bill on the Second Reading, but I venture to think that those doubts were in substance dissipated once the House had realised that what, in the main, this Bill is doing is creating reality out of what is now a piece of hypocrisy, and that the actual changes will be very much less, I think, than had at one time been thought. I hope that the House is now satisfied with the Bill and that we can send it forward on its way with good will. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(The Lord Chancellor.)


My Lords, I should not have thought it necessary to say anything on this occasion, but for the fact that on Report stage I had an Amendment down which I was unfortunately prevented from moving in Committee. If I had been able to move it in Committee and had then received the reply which my noble and learned friend in fact gave me on Report, I should have had the opportunity of replying to it, as I would have done because, quite frankly, I thought that his reply was not in all respects satisfactory. As my noble and learned friend knows, on Report stage, having moved my Amendment, I had no further opportunity of replying; so I thought I might just say a few words now with reference to the speech which my noble and learned friend made in reply to my Amendment on Report.

It was an Amendment which would have permitted, at some time in the future if it should have been thought desirable, the extension of the operations of this Bill to enable county courts, as well as dealing with undefended divorce cases, to deal with short defended cases. It put no obligation on anybody to extend the Bill in that direction. It was merely a question of whether at some time or other it might be thought desirable to do so, and therefore permitting the Rules of Court, for which the Bill itself provides, to make appropriate provision in that respect. I appreciate that my noble and learned friend may not be keen on extending this Bill to short defended cases: and he may have very good reason for his view. But a future Lord Chancellor may take a different view—indeed, a previous Lord Chancellor also takes a different view. Therefore, it is a matter which could be open to argument; and all I wished was to make it possible if at some time it was thought desirable to do so.

The main argument that my noble and learned friend put forward was the difficulty which the registrar would have in deciding whether a case was likely to be a short case or a long case. He would have before him, as we agreed, the case for the petitioner and the case for the respondent; but my noble and learned friend thought that, on the basis of reading those two statements, the registrar would not be able to make a decision. But, of course, he could make a decision on the basis of hearing both sides. It is quite a normal practice for the solicitors for the petitioner and the solicitors for the respondent to appear before the registrar, and on the occasion of that appearance the registrar could inquire how many witnesses each side proposed to call, and what was the solicitors' view of the probable duration of the case. And on the basis of such a hearing he could make a decision. As my noble and learned friend well knows, from his much greater experience than mine, before any case in the High Court is heard the solicitors on each side have to give to the court an estimate of how long the case is likely to last, and it is on the basis of those estimates that the daily lists are prepared. So there is no real difficulty here.

I have not put an Amendment down again on Third Reading, as I might have done, because this Bill is going forward to another place, and I have every hope that somebody may desire to table a similar Amendment there with a view to achieving what I have failed to achieve here. But I hope that my noble and learned friend will reconsider this point, in the light of what may occur in another place, and will not turn his face resolutely against the possibility of achieving what I think it would be desirable to achieve at some time in the future.

Apart from that, I wish this Bill every success. I think it is a great move forward. I know that my noble and learned friend has been desirous of pointing out to those noble Lords who are not very enthusiastic about this Bill how little change it makes. I think it makes a great change. I believe that it is a great advance in the direction of helping poor people who find it necessary to go to court to get a divorce, or to take other similar matrimonial proceedings. It will help them to get it done with a minimum of expense and trouble, and, in many cases, without having to travel long distances. I think it is a very great advance, and I am most grateful to my noble and learned friend for introducing this measure. I only hope that he will be willing to accept the possibility of going a little further at some time in the future.


My Lords, I know what an interest my noble friend Lord Silkin has always taken in this subject, and for how long a time he has wanted to see our law become what it will become if this Bill passes into law. I appreciate that he personally would have liked to go further and either enable the county courts to try some defended cases, as well as undefended cases, or to enable the Lord Chancellor to provide that they should. For the reasons I gave at Committee stage, it seems to me that the right place to draw the line is between defended cases and undefended cases.

As to my noble friend's point that he was seeking merely to give jurisdiction to a Lord Chancellor to make this change in the future, I have felt that this was not a responsibility which ought to be put on a Lord Chancellor; that it does matter to people in what courts divorce cases are tried; that it is a subject on which there always have been different views, and that therefore it was a matter which ought to be decided by Parliament rather than left to a Lord Chancellor to decide in the future. However, if Amendments are made to the Bill in another place your Lordships will of course have every opportunity of considering them, as I shall also; and I hope that my mind is never closed on any proposals which have been made. I am grateful to my noble friend for what he has said.

On Question, Bill read 3a; an Amendment (privilege) made; Bill passed, and sent to the Commons.