Clause 20. — (Qualification of Justices' Clerk.)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th December 1949.

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Mr. Corlelt:

After the remarkable exhibition we had today at Question time I think we should put him in the "very good" or "excellent" class. I should have been very happy indeed had he found it possible to place some of these 58 in the "very good" or "excellent" class, because I am quite certain that some of them deserve to be placed there. However, he did very generously add that some of the best and most experienced of magistrates clerks had been unqualified men. We are very grateful for that. But having said that, he then went on to state the real reason for Clause 20, and said: the functions of the magistrates' courts are now becoming much more complex. Modern statutes and regulations are more technical and difficult to administer than they used to be."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th November, 1949; Vol. 470, c. 905.] Well, we all accept that, but surely it cuts both ways. If modern legislation is becoming so difficult and technical, it is becoming equally so for professionally-qualified men in private practice, and the more difficult they find this legislation to be the less time will they have to prepare themselves for the equally difficult legislation in magistrates' courts. I accept that it will be more difficult, but I cannot see how that will make it more possible for the ordinary qualified man to leave his private practice and devote himself to studying the equally difficult and technical legislation that we have to administer in magistrates' courts.

The Attorney-General then referred to the need that clerks should be qualified people. I must demur at that. I say again that these people are fully qualified; they are statutorily qualified. When the Attorney-General says that they must be qualified, I suppose what he really means is that they should be professionally qualified. I do not think all magistrates will accept that for a moment. I think most of us would say that many of these statutorily qualified clerks are infinitely better qualified than a merely professionally-qualified man. I do not think any magistrate will demur at that, because the ordinary magistrates' clerk and assistant clerk has had a wealth of experience in the work of the court; in that specialised and narrow field he is supremely capable and competent—infinitely more competent and capable than any ordinary practising solicitor who has had no experience whatever in that particular field. Therefore, on the merits of the case alone I urge my Amendment. I urge that the statutorily qualified man has as much right to consideration for these posts as the merely professionally-qualified man.

But I urge my Amendment also on the ground that in a few years' time this Clause will be impracticable. We well remember that the Lord Chancellor gave a special warning about that possibility. If we are to be limited in our recruitment to solicitors who are merely professionally-qualified men, we shall not have nearly sufficient capable recruits to administer this service, because not only will we be limited to solicitors, but we will be limited to an even narrower field; we will be limited to solicitors who must be between the ages of 30 and 50. Indeed, we are limited still further, in that they must have served apprenticeships to magistrates' clerks in magistrates' courts. Well, that limits the field enormously, and I cannot see any possibility of recruiting sufficient capable men in the future from that narrow field. I am afraid that if we find ourselves in that position we will feel compelled to recruit justices' clerks from solicitors who are in ordinary practice, and who will have very few real qualifications for assisting in a magistrates' court. Recruitment from that narrow field would be disastrous to the work of magistrates' courts.

At the moment we have a large and admirable field of choice. We have the professionally-qualified man, and we have this large field of the statutorily qualified man—an admirable field from which to make a choice. I am surprised that we have such a large field on the statutory side, because the service is completely unattractive. The conditions of service in regard to tenure, salary, sick pay regulations and office accommodation do not compare at all favourably with ordinary local government service, and I am very surprised that we have such a good recruiting field.

But, of course, many ambitious young fellows join the service because, in spite of its unattractiveness, they always have the hope that eventually they will become a justices' clerk, and with that open to them they enter the service in good numbers. The result is that places like Birmingham can have eight courts operating simultaneously, perhaps four or five days in the week, and it is thus possible for magistrates to deal adequately with cases. We all know that when we have a long list it is nice to divide it up and say, "We will have two, three or four courts, and we can give more time to the cases," knowing that we shall always have to advise us an experienced, competent clerk who knows what is expected from us. He can advise us in every possible respect, and we go into court quite contentedly, knowing that we can really administer justice.

If Clause 20 is passed, that will very soon not be possible. If we are compelled to take with us into court only a professionally-qualified man, we will find that he simply will not be there; there will not be sufficient men to do this type of work, and we shall not be able to get through the cases in a day, or even a week. Not only will there not be sufficient professionally-qualified men, but the other field of recruitment will have largely dried up. The profession will have become so unattractive that we shall have the greatest difficulty in securing a satisfactory type of individual to come in. The Home Secretary made that perfectly clear on Second Reading, when he said: There is no doubt that … this Clause will render the justices' clerks service much less attractive to the right type of man for the future."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th November, 1949; Vol. 470, c. 810.] That is our whole case. That was the Lord Chancellor's case: that the service will be unattractive if it is to be a blind alley, and if the conditions remain as they are today. Therefore, it seems clear—and I am trying to say this without giving offence—that we are creating a closed shop for the legal profession, and even imperilling the efficiency of magistrates' courts by so doing. I feel that very strongly indeed, and I do not think we have any right to pass a Clause which will do it.

We are doing it with our eyes wide open, too. We have been warned that there is the possibility of a shortage of justices' clerks, and we have had a similar example in the past. We all remember that in 1927 there was set up a Departmental Committee to investigate the possibility of providing a register for ophthalmic opticians. The majority decision of that Departmental Committee was against setting up such a register, because the B.M.A. assured them that they would be able to provide sufficient medical men with ophthalmic qualifications to meet the need. Well, we all know that they have done no such thing. Neither will the Law Society be able, in a few years' time, to provide a sufficient supply of professionally-qualified men for these posts. But in the case of the ophthalmic opticians the alternative supply was not dried up. Very wisely recruitment on a sound basis was continued, so that today we have an alternative supply, with a sufficient number of ophthalmic opticians.

If Clause 20 is passed we shall not have sufficient professionally-qualified men for the magistrates' courts, nor shall we have an alternative supply, and the courts will suffer. I therefore hope that Clause 20 will not be passed. If it is, we shall be treating very harshly a competent and able body of men who have done their job, and done it well, within that narrow specialised field. They deserve better of us, and we should not sacrifice them merely to make—and again I use the phrase—a closed shop for a profession which cannot possibly deliver the goods.