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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Photo of Mr Anthony Marlowe Mr Anthony Marlowe , Brighton 12:00 am, 7th December 1949

I am not making any adverse comment. We all know that there is a perfectly legitimate process of lobbying both in another place and in this House. Anyone can put forward an interest which they wish to be represented properly in Debate. I am not making any point about that. I am only trying to get the genesis of this thing and put it in its proper perspective.

The introduction of the original Bill followed the Roche Report, and I think that it is important to remember that the Roche Report, in paragraph 79, advocated the grouping together of commissions of the peace for the purpose of getting whole-time clerks, and it was against that background that any recommendation of the Roche Committee with regard to qualification was made. But that basis has gone, because the Bill does not attempt to adopt that recommendation of the Roche Committee. Therefore, anything further which the Roche Committee had to say about qualification becomes of considerably less value, except—and I will summarise the effect of paragraphs 174 to 177 of the Roche Committee's Report—that what is really required of a justices' clerk is experience. The report went on to say: The degree of experience and knowledge cannot be defined by Statute. I entirely agree, but that is precisely what the Government are trying to do. They are trying to define by Statute the degree of experience and knowledge that can be gained by passing an examination. I cannot accept that as the standard required. It is well to notice what is the examination. A justices' clerk has to give his time to administering criminal law. There are subsidiary offences, but the main part of his duty is administering criminal law, and I suppose that the two main essentials of knowledge required by him are knowledge of the criminal law and knowledge of evidence and procedure.

So far as evidence and procedure are concerned, there is no better school than experience and sitting in court. As to criminal law, which is the branch of the law in which he needs to be most versed, what is suggested by this Bill is not that he should learn criminal law, but that he should go in for an examination requiring him to learn conveyancing, the law of real property, the law of equity and accounts and other subjects required in the solicitors' examination. Of what use is a knowledge of conveyancing equity and real property law going to be to a justices' clerk? How can it be said that once he has passed an examination in conveyancing he becomes better qualified to administer criminal law or to assist the justices in administering it in a criminal court? I suggest that is an utterly false standard in relation to this particular case.

I would say, generally, that it is not always the man who passes examinations who is best at using worldly knowledge to the greatest advantage. It is through the experience that a man gains in court and through his having to deal with witnesses and to handle his bench and look after his daily routine that a man becomes best qualified to discharge the task of a justices' clerk. That will enable him to discharge his task far better than passing a hundred examinations in conveyancing or in any other subject.

To counter that point, some suggestion has been made that the Law Society should facilitate the qualification of solicitors. I cannot see that that is a helpful suggestion. All that it will do is to bring about a sort of devaluation of the solicitor's status. It is going to make an easier examination for solicitors without any guarantee that they will then use their knowledge for this particular purpose. It is a most unsatisfactory way of trying to arrive at a compromise.

If that procedure is adopted—and one does not know precisely of what it will consist—there would be nothing to prevent a man from taking a simplified solicitors' examination for the purpose of becoming a solicitor's clerk, but it would not be possible to compel him to become a solicitor's clerk, and he could say "I am now qualified" and go off and practise as a solicitor, although in fact he had passed only some kind of simplified solicitors' examination, and read a few books called "How to Become a Solicitor without Tears" or something like that. That is not at all a satisfactory way. It would be most undesirable that the high standard of the solicitors' examination should be debased in any way. It is very necessary to retain the high standard, and we ought not to meet this difficulty by introducing some devaluation of the examination.

Reference has been made to the figures given on Second Reading with regard to the number of qualified and unqualified clerks. I think the figures the Home Secretary gave related to 1938, or to some pre-war year. I have the latest figures, and the present position is that there are 124 whole-time clerks, of whom 73 are solicitors and 51 are not, which means that a little under half are unqualified. If we are to insist upon having a professionally-qualified man for this job, the sort of man we shall get is the man who has qualified and failed to make a success of his profession. That would be most undesirable.

Any really competent solicitor can make a good deal larger income in private practice than any justices' clerk can receive. I believe that the maximum amount received by a justices' clerk does not go beyond £1,500 a year. There may be one or two exceptions, but £1,500 a year would be a pretty good salary for a justices' clerk. It would be a poor solicitor who could not do a great deal better than that in private practice.