HL Deb 16 May 1977 vol 383 cc461-2

2.59 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask Her Majesty's Government a Question of which I have given Private Notice—namely: To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the speech at Bournemouth of Mr. Michael Foot represents the attitude to the Judiciary of Her Majesty's Government, and whether they will make a Statement?

The LORD CHANCELLOR (Lord Elwyn-Jones)

My Lords, the attitude of Her Majesty's Government to the Judiciary is, as it always has been, one of confidence in their impartiality and consciousness of the value of their independence. My right honourable friend, as he has personally assured me this morning and as appears from the rather fuller report of his speech in today's newspapers, was giving an historical survey of the attitudes of the courts in the past towards the trade unions. As he made clear, and as he specifically said, he was not casting aspersions on any particular judge or any particular decision; he was talking about the past, starting, as he has told me, with the Tolpuddle Martyrs.


My Lords, while of course we are grateful to the noble and learned Lord for that exculpation of his colleague, is he aware that in fact the present Lord President referred specifically not only to trade unions but to the liberties of the subject?—or "citizen" as he prefers to say. Is it not the case that these repeated attacks by the Lord President of the Council on the Judiciary are really becoming too serious to ignore? Does the noble and learned Lord not agree that it makes it all the worse that he said he was not attacking any particular judge or any particular decision, because that can only be construed as an attack on the Judiciary as a whole? Will the noble and learned Lord further confirm that judges are appointed by or on the recommendation of Lord Chancellors, and their appointments by successive Lord Chancellors have for a very long time now been made wholly without political considerations being taken into account on either side? Will he repudiate any aspersions on himself or on the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, or even upon little me, by his colleague?

Will the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor further bear in mind that in all contested litigation one party has to lose? How can he expect the ordinary subject or citizen who has the misfortune to lose a case to respect and obey the decisions of the courts if subjected to this unconstitutional vilification at the hands of the Lord President of the Council? Will the noble and learned Lord not go to the Prime Minister and say, "Either Mr. Michael Foot contains himself or I will resign"?


My Lords, when I seek advice upon the question of whether I should resign I do not think the noble and learned Lord will be the first person I shall go to. It is perfectly true that, certainly in my lifetime, the appointments to the Judiciary have been exactly as the noble and learned Lord has described. I do not think there was any insinuation in the speech of the Lord President to the contrary. I do not believe he was attacking the Judiciary as a whole. He was identifying one part of the experience of the trade unions in the historical past. I do not think that there has ever been any better illustration of what he was referring to than that given by the Home Secretary, Mr. Winston Churchill (as he then was), in speaking in the House in May 1911 on the Trade Union Bill, which followed the Osborne judgment, and which subsequently became the Trade Union Act 1913. What he said was this: One of the purposes of the Bill was to relieve trade unions from the harassing litigation to which they have been exposed and set them free to develop and do their work without the perpetual check and uncertainty of frequent trials and without being brought constantly into contact with the courts. It is a very unseemly thing—and indeed in the House of Commons we must regard it as such—to have the spectacle we have witnessed these last few years of these trade union organisations being enmeshed, harassed, worried and checked at every step and at every turn by all kinds of legal decisions, which came with the utmost surprise to the greatest lawyers in the country". That is the kind of development in the historical past to which the Lord President was referring. He was not making a general attack upon the Judiciary today.

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