HL Deb 22 May 1969 vol 302 cc468-71

3.20 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to make a Statement about certain alterations in the arrangements to be followed at Sittings for Judicial Business. As your Lordships know, the practice for many years has been that at Sittings for Judicial Business in the House itself the Lord Chancellor, if he is present, presides on the Woolsack. If he is not present, then any ex-Lord Chancellor who is present presides. In the absence of the Lord Chancellor and any ex-Lord Chancellor, the senior Lord of Appeal in Ordinary presides and takes precedence over any other Law Lord who may be present. This practice was recognised by the Commission issued by Queen Victoria in February, 1900, which authorised the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary for the time being to sit Speaker in the absence of the Lord Chancellor and any former Lord Chancellor.

The same practice has been followed at Sittings of the Appellate Committee which was set up shortly after the last war. What was then intended to be a temporary expedient has become the general rule, and ever since 1948, as your Lordships know, the hearing of appeals takes place upstairs except during the Parliamentary Recesses, though judgments are delivered in the House itself.

Now, as your Lordships are probably aware, there have since the war been considerable changes in the position of the Lord Chancellor. There has been an immense increase in the pressure of business falling on him as a member of the Cabinet as well as in the administrative duties of his own Office. This, coupled with the fact that the House nowadays meets for Parliamentary Business at half-past two instead of half-past three or four, makes it virtually impossible for any Lord Chancellor to sit judicially except during Recesses. This means that he can really only make himself available to sit during the first week or two in October, the first ten days or so in January and perhaps a week at Whit-sun.

This is exactly the situation which was foreseen and regretted by Lord Simon. In the debate on May 11, 1948, on the Motion for the setting up of the Appellate Committee, he stressed the importance of the judicial work of the House and emphasised the desirability of the Lord Chancellor's continuing to play his full part as president of the final court of appeal in the United Kingdom. This is, indeed, a matter of the importance of which every Lord Chancellor must be conscious, but the situation to-day is entirely different from what it was in the days when Lord Haldane, Lord Birkenhead or Lord Simon presided regularly over the Judicial Sittings. The change first came about at the time of Lord Jowitt, and I know that no one regretted it more than he did. Since his time the pressure of Government business has got even worse, and I am afraid that we have to recognise the impossibility of putting the clock back.

This means, my Lords, that to-day when a Lord Chancellor gives up the Woolsack he may, and indeed almost certainly will, have had very little experience of sitting judicially unless he happens previously to have held judicial office. This, of course, is comparatively rare and the only case in which it has happened since the war is that of the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Simonds. In these circumstances, it has for long seemed to me wrong that when a man has ceased to be Lord Chancellor he should nevertheless be compelled to preside over your Lordships when sitting judicially, even though he may have far less experience of judicial work than his colleagues who are sitting with him. For this reason, I myself decided some time ago that, when the time comes for me to give up the Woolsack, if I were to be invited to sit judicially I would do so only on the understanding that I could be released from the obligation to preside.

I have discussed this matter with the two former occupants of the Woolsack, the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Simonds, and the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, both of whom have presided over Judicial Sittings with distinction since they ceased to hold the office of Lord Chancellor. I have also consulted the Lord Chief Justice and the Master of the Rolls, as well as the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary and Lord MacDermott, the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, who is himself a former Lord of Appeal in Ordinary. They all agree with me that the time has now come for a change in our arrangements, and that in future, while the Lord Chancellor ought undoubtedly, by virtue of his office to preside at Judicial Sittings whenever he can manage to be present, in his absence the chair should be taken by the senior Lord of Appeal in Ordinary for the time being, reckoning seniority from the date of first appointment to that office without regard to rank in the Peerage.

My Lords, I should like, if I may, to add a word about the position in the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. There precedence depends on seniority in the Peerage, and in the absence of the Lord Chancellor the chair is taken by the senior Lord present. My right honourable friend the Lord President of the Council has authorised me to say that he agrees that the time has come for a corresponding change in the Judicial Committee, and that he considers that it, too, should adopt similar arrangements to those I have described.

So far as Sittings in the House itself are concerned, it will be necessary to replace Queen Victoria's Commission of February, 1900, by another Commission authorising the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary for the time being to sit Speaker in the absence of the Lord Chancellor without any reference to persons who have previously held the office of Lord Chancellor. I am glad to be able to acquaint your Lordships that Her Majesty has graciously agreed to the issue of such a Commission.