Orders of the Day — Welsh Courts Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 14th October 1942.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Herbert Morrison Mr Herbert Morrison , Hackney South

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

In moving the Second Reading of this Bill to-day, which I do with very great pleasure, I think it would be interesting to the House if I were to give some historical background showing how this problem arose. If in the course of giving historical background I keep rather closely to my notes I am sure the House will forgive me, as I am very anxious to be accurate, and I know there are a number of Welsh Members in the House who will promptly pull me up if my history is wrong. Therefore, I hope I shall be forgiven if I stick closely to my notes and that nobody will be so unkind as to get up and cross-examine me on any of my Welsh history, because I could not stand up to it. I thought it desirable that this Bill should be brought in, and before moving the Second Reading, I proceeded to make what study I could of the circumstances attending the passage of the Henry. VIII Statute of 1536.

By Edward I's Statute of Wales, as long ago as 1284, Wales and its inhabitants had been annexed and united to the English Crown. Although at that time alterations were made in the Welsh laws, the people of Wales still retained their provincial immunities. During the Middle Ages, they had no representation in the House of Commons, with the exception of the two Parliaments of Edward II in 1322 and 1326, to which 46 Members were summoned as representatives of Wales; but the Principality was, in fact, controlled by the Welsh Princes and the Lords Marchers, under whose jurisdiction Wales was really divided into a number of petty kingdoms where crime and disorder were prevalent in the 16th Century. With the Tudors, who, it must never be forgotten, were themselves of Welsh origin, there came a strong Monarchy, a powerful central Government and a political philosophy which would not accept a State within the State. In Western Europe at that time powerful rulers were consolidating their territories and extinguishing the local liberties of feudal times, which too often meant privilege for the few. In this country order was substituted for the chaos left by the Wars of the Roses. The process started with the accession of Henry VII in 1485. To end the disorder in Wales, the Marcher Lordships were converted into Shires, and Wales was incorporated with England. This was done by Henry VIII's Statute of 1536, which was described as: An Act for law and justice to be administered in Wales in like form as it is in this Realm"; and the Preamble to the Statute of Wales of 1536 refers to The King's singular zeal, love and favour that he bears towards his subjects of his said dominion of Wales"— this was before the Statute of Westminsterminding and intending to reduce them to the perfect order, notice and knowledge of his laws of this his Realm and utterly to extirpe to all and singular the sinister usages and customs differing from the same and to bring his said subjects of this his Realm and of his said dominion of Wales to an amicable concord and unity. Section I of this Statute of Henry VIII provided that his said country or dominion of Wales shall be stoned and continue for ever from henceforth incorporated, united and annexed to and with this his realm of England. It was decided that justice was to be administered according to the laws and customs of England and such other Welsh customs and laws as the King and his Council would allow, and Wales was accorded representation in Parliament. Section (17) of the Statute to which I have referred provided that, Sessions courts, hundred-leets, sheriffs' courts and all other courts shall be proclaimed and kept in the English tongue, and all oaths of officers, juries and inquests and all other affidavits, verdicts and wagers of law shall be given and done in the English tongue, and that henceforth no person or persons that use the Welsh speech or language shall have or enjoy any manner of office or fees within this realm of England, Wales or other the King's Dominions, upon pain of forfeiting the same offices or fees unless, he or they use and exercise the speech or language of English. That is a fairly sweeping prohibition, and I am glad that last provision is in, for otherwise it might have denied to us the great services of my right hon. Friend the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George), who is himself a very great exponent of the Welsh tongue. And by the way, may I express my very-deep regret that, owing to the illness of my right hon. Friend, he is unable to be with us to-day. He has taken a great interest in the framing of this Bill, as have other hon. Members to whom I will refer later, and I know he would wish to have been here. His good-will and encouragement have been a source of great aid to me, and I confess that I should have been stimulated and bucked up if my right hon. Friend had been able to be here, and to follow me and say, "Bless you, my child." The Statute of 1536 was, I learn, not a gratuitous piece of tyranny on the part of an English parliament. It was an instance of the pursuit of national unity common at that time in Western Europe, and as a matter of fact common in our country at the present time, though not in the same form. Indeed, this purpose of national unity and the unification of the State was set out in the Preamble, which actually reads: Because that in the country, principality and dominion of Wales divers rights usages, laws and customs be far discrepant from the laws and customs of this Realm, and also because the people of the same dominion have and do daily use a speech nothing like nor consonant to the natural mother tongue used within this Realm, some rude and ignorant people have made distinction and diversity between the King's subjects of this Realm and his subjects of the said dominion and principality of Wales whereby great discord, variance, debate, division, murmur and sedition hath grown between his said subjects. That was the problem as it was seen at that time, and I understand that historians generally approve the assimilation of England and Wales for the peace and order which resulted. The Tudors, however, suffered from the mistakes of their age, and one was the belief that before we can have national unity we must have national uniformity. We know to-day that such nationalism can have disastrous consequences, as indeed we are seeing on the Continent of Europe at this time. That, however, did not prevent the Welsh from keeping alive their national heritage. I for one am all in favour of that national spirit which is characteristic of Wales, and, let me add for greater security, is characteristic of Scotland as well; a national spirit which takes pride in the traditions, the history and the customs of the country; takes pride, if one may say it, in the differences in the way of life and outlook and temperament of the people of one part of this Kingdom from another; but which, despite its pride in its national characteristics and its national tradition, has no spirit of spite or enmity towards the others of this Kingdom.

That is a patriotism which is not a menace to the well-being of mankind; it is a patriotism which adds to the fineness of mankind by adding to the variety and the differences of outlook and temperament of different peoples. Therefore, I am, as I have said, all in favour of that national spirit which takes pride in its individuality, in its culture, in its literature, but which is not so exclusive and intolerant as to require the repression of all other forms of language, literature, and culture. One of the most vital and striking instances of that national spirit is, I venture to suggest, to be found in Wales. Moreover, as I had occasion to say lately, speaking in my other capacity as Minister of Home Security, Wales has a fine public spirit, a fine sense of public and civic service, and I, at any rate, was not surprised to find that notwithstanding the great economic troubles of Wales, the great industrial depression before the war among those areas with the highest proportion of part-time, unpaid Civil Defence workers, Wales occupies one of the highest places in the country. That is a great testimony to the public spirit of the Welsh people.

I have given the House some indication of the historical background of the situation which was complained of, and I think rightly complained of, by hon. Members from Wales. For some years there has been a considerable public feeling concerning this Statute of Henry VIII. Although its legal validity is a matter of some doubt and argument, nevertheless it was felt by the Welsh people that, as long as it was there, it was in a sense a reflection upon, an insult to, and a limitation upon the freedom of, our Welsh fellow-countrymen. In October last year a petition signed by nearly 400,000 residents of Wales was presented to Parliament for the repeal of Section 17 of the Statute and the placing of the Welsh language on an equality with English in the courts in Wales. My hon. Friends who represent Welsh constituencies will recall that in August, 1938, the status of the Welsh language in the courts in Wales was discussed at a National Conference at Cardiff during the sessions of the National Eisteddfod. From the Conference originated the petition to which I have referred. It is based on the view that Section 17 of the Act of 1536 prohibits the giving of evidence in Welsh. Whether that is the effect of the Statute is doubtful, and the House will see that the Bill is for the purpose of removing any such doubt as may exist. It may be that the Section means no more than that English shall be established as the official language of the courts and that the records of the courts shall be kept in English. In any case, my hon. Friends will also be aware that it is the common practice of the courts to allow a witness to give evidence in Welsh, if he can satisfy the court that although he may have a knowledge of English, Welsh is the tongue in which he naturally thinks and speaks and that he would be at a disadvantage if required to speak in English.

It is the case that for many years past, the Lord Chancellor's Department has facilitated the conduct of business in county courts in Wales by appointing judges and registrars familiar with the Welsh language. In the summary courts, many of the magistrates are, themselves, Welsh-speaking, and it is the common practice for the police to provide Welsh interpreters wherever necessary. In assize courts and courts of quarter session interpreters are also provided. In practice, therefore, much has already been done to prevent any risk that Welsh-speaking litigants or witnesses might be subject to disadvantages in the courts of law. The use of Welsh in the courts however, is as the law now stands, a matter not of right, but for the discretion of the judge or chairman, and despite the facilities which in practice are afforded in the courts and make the statutory provision, in effect, a dead letter, the retention on the Statute Book of the Statute of Henry VIII is undoubtedly offensive to Welsh national sentiment, and therefore we think it should be removed.

Accordingly, Clause 1 provides that Section 17 of the Act of 1536 shall be repealed. It also declares that the Welsh language may be used in any court by any party or witness who considers that he would otherwise be at a disadvantage by reason of his natural language of communication being Welsh. I understand that the number of monoglot Welshmen is comparatively small, but the number of English-speaking Welsh who think in Welsh and feel more at ease speaking Welsh is larger. I put it to hon. Members who like myself do not speak Welsh but who have tried—some have succeeded though I have not—to acquire a foreign language, that the real barrier, as I myself found even as far as I got with French, is In getting to the point of ceasing to think in English and beginning to think in the other language. I can understand therefore that Welshmen who speak English quite well and intelligently but whose minds are nevertheless working in Welsh and who consequently, in giving evidence before the courts and particularly when under cross-examination, would be at a disadvantage if compelled to speak English. We considered whether to confer upon the courts, in order to remove any doubts, an absolute discretion to grant the use of the Welsh language, but the more I considered it, the more I came to the conclusion that the only thing was to come absolutely clean and give the party before the court the absolute right of speaking in the Welsh language, if he thought that he would be at a disadvantage otherwise. That has been provided for in the Bill. We have asserted the right of persons who normally think and speak in Welsh, whether or not they understand and speak English, to use the Welsh language in the Welsh courts of law.

To complete the picture which I have drawn I must refer to Clause 3 (2). We have to make provision for those with little or no Welsh, that is to say, those who prefer English or who must speak in English. This we do in Clause 3 (2), under which any part of the proceedings rendered in Welsh must be translated unless the court is satisfied that such translation is not necessary for securing the due and proper public administration of justice; Where, as is frequently the case the Court, the parties and witnesses are all conversant with Welsh, then the proceedings will not need to be translated into English. The records of the courts will, as a matter of convenience, be kept in English, for they may be required at a later stage on appeal. Clause 2 provides for the administration in the courts of oaths and affirmations in the Welsh language. We thought the best way to meet this point was that they should be in a form to be prescribed by the Lord Chancellor. Such oaths or affirmations shall, without interpretation in the courts, be as legally effective as if they were in English.

There is another Clause which deals with interpretation. I have put this in partly because of a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Moelwyn Hughes) in a Question concerning a case in which a court awarded costs against a party to certain proceedings. These were partly general costs, but there was an added element for the costs of interpretation. I think it would be quite wrong that any Welsh person should be involved in any financial disability as the result of speaking Welsh, and interpretation consequently being required, and therefore we have made provision whereby the cost of interpreters will be met from local or public funds, so there will be no further difficulties such as that to which my attention was called by the hon. Member for Carmarthen.

I should like to pay a tribute to those who have given us great assistance. This is a matter which affects not only the Home Office but the Lord Chancellor's Department, and I should like to say how close and helpful has been my cooperation with the Lord Chancellor in all the discussions which have taken place since this issue was raised this year. Indeed, if the Lord Chancellor had not been willing to march the same road, I should have been in difficulties. I should like to express my thanks for the cordial help which the Lord Chancellor, out of his great legal knowledge, has given me in the framing of the Bill. I should also like to pay my tribute to the Welsh Members. There is a Committee of the Welsh Parliamentary Party over which the hon. Member for Denbigh (Sir H. Morris-Jones) presides and of which my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) is now the Secretary and of which the Secretary in the earlier days of this discussion was the hon. Member for West Rhondda (Mr. John). All the Welsh Members have given us very great help, counsel and advice, which counsel and advice have been of the most clear-cut and unhesitating order. The Lord Chancellor and I have met them from time to time. We told them we were sympathetic about the matter but that obviously we could only bring in a Bill if there was the general assent of the Welsh Members. Once we had settled the principles of the Bill, the Welsh Members have been very co-operative, and the position is that the Bill has their unanimous assent and approval. It was conveyed to me not only by the Members to whom I have referred, but I had the great pleasure of hearing it from the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs, who is very keen about this and whom we all admire and respect as a great and outstanding representative of the Principality. I thank all these colleagues for the great help they have given us.

I move the Second Reading at a time when nationalism of a spiteful, destructive and disastrous order is spreading misery and destruction over the Continent of Europe and, so far as it can, elsewhere. It is perhaps characteristic of the extraordinary generous-mindedness of the British House of Commons that the Government should feel that, in asking for this Bill in the midst of a great war, the House of Commons will not scorn us but will welcome our action. Perhaps it distinguishes the mind and temper of this great country from the mind and temper of Nazi Germany and its associates at present. It is a good thing that this should be done. It is right to condemn the excesses of nationalism. The excesses of nationalism are a great curse to humanity and to the world. The best way to prevent these excesses is always to be forthcoming in removing grievances which people reasonably feel in accordance with their national spirit. We believe, and the Government believe, that the Welsh protest against the state of the law as it is is right, and that it is fair and just that that injustice should be removed. It is therefore with very great pleasure— and I feel it a great privilege—that I ask the House to give a Second Reading to the Bill with unanimity and warmth of heart.