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 Hartley Shawcross Mr Hartley Shawcross , St Helens 12:00 am, 7th December 1949

I am not sure that I am prepared to agree with the last observation of the hon. and learned Member for Brighton (Mr. Marlowe), that the principal qualifications required in a justices' clerk are knowledge of human nature and experience of people. Surely these are the qualifications required in the magistrates, and when these qualifications are emphasised for this vocation we are giving to the justices' clerk a position of undue influence in the decisions of the magistrates on the merits of the case. That is not the function of the clerk at all. He is not there to advise the magistrates as to his views on the merits of the case because of his experience of human nature. His position is to remain silent while the magistrates are discussing broad problems and questions of that kind, and to advise them on technical questions of law, on which he is expected to have a specialised knowledge.

The justices' clerk is not the chairman of the bench. He is there as a technical officer to advise on technical matters, if the justices require his assistance. It is really quite wrong, and it puts the justices' clerk in an entirely erroneous position, to say that what he really needs is long experience of people and human nature, and a shrewd common sense on matters of that kind. These are qualities for the justices, not for the clerk. I do not say they are not desirable qualities for anyone to have. Qualified persons, especially lawyers, who are by no means deficient in common sense, having these qualities are all the better for it.

It has been pointed out that the Amendment restores the Bill to the condition in which it was originally introduced in another place, and my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Corlett) is quite entitled to make, as he did make, a good deal of that point. I suppose it is true to say, however, that second thoughts are best. We gave further consideration to this matter, not because of any dinner that had been held by the Justices' Clerks Society, or by the Incorporated Society of Justices' Clerks Assistants, who I dare say did not neglect also to hold a dinner, but because there was a good deal of additional information made available, and after that further consideration we thought the proper course to take, in regard to this difficult and interesting problem of the unqualified clerks, was to deal with it in the way it now appears in the Clause.

The effect of the Clause is that while some, I suppose most, of the more experienced of the existing unqualified clerks will be retained—those who are in the service now and have been in the service over a certain period of time—the unqualified clerks will, so to speak, be a dying class. When the existing unqualified clerks have served their terms, we shall come to a period when only qualified men will be entitled to appointment.

The effect of the Amendment—and this is the real point of difference between my hon. Friend the Member for York and ourselves—is that he would perpetuate the unqualified clerk. We think that is wrong. The principle which ought to be accepted in this matter is that professional qualification ought to be the ultimate aim. If that is the ultimate aim, we have to have in the Bill some time-limit after which new entrants to the service as assistant justices' clerks will not be eligible for appointment as principal clerks merely by length of service as an assistant unless they have also professional qualifications.