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

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

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Henry Smith Mr Henry Smith , Nottingham South 12:00 am, 7th December 1949

The last two speeches to which the Committee have listened prove that we who are sponsoring the Amendment have our opponents well and truly on the run. The hon. and learned Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller) had to fall back, I thought rather pontifically, on the ponderous announcement that, after all, the Roche Committee had recommended what they did recommend, and by implication suggested that the Committee ought to accept that. Not at all. A majority of the Roche Committee were qualified lawyers and, therefore, in their recommendations they were merely acting as judges in their own cause. The greatest weakness, however, of the hon. and learned Member for Daventry, as, indeed, of my right hon. and learned Friend, was that they gave away their whole case by falling back upon this pitiable little bit of a bait, this infinitesimal concession, that, "We will arrange that the only boys who can do the job shall have facilities for becoming qualified." That gives the whole thing away.

The Attorney-General was in a cleft stick. He had ignored the most potent and devastating argument of the hon. and learned Member for Brighton (Mr. Marlowe) that if these appointments, which have a full-time salary, are to be reserved for qualified lawyers, then we shall get only the worst of the solicitors—those who cannot do any good in anything else. I know what I am talking about in this, Mr. Bowles, because it so happens that of my father's six children the only one who became a qualified solicitor has in the last 20 or 30 years made more income than the remaining five of us put together have done. It is perfectly obvious that full-time appointments as justices' clerks at a salary—I apologise for repeating the argument of the hon. and learned Member for Brighton, but the Attorney-General ignored that argument, which was devastating; that is why I repeat it—will not and cannot attract men of the calibre of that particular member of the Smith family who happens to be a solicitor.

Another argument which was advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Corlett), in a very cogent and, I thought, wholly admirable speech, was completely ignored by the Attorney-General. It was this: my hon. Friend referred to simultaneous courts. In my constituency of Nottingham there are two courts sitting each day. One is taken by the clerk and the other by his chief assistant, who is. personally known to me. It has sometimes happened that the clerk, being only human, has fallen ill, and the chief assistant has carried on for eight or nine weeks. If he can do that without a chief assistant, what is the use of arguing that he is not competent to fulfil the office of clerk? Indeed, the Attorney-General did not argue any such thing. He admitted that these assistants were the people who knew the job best and could do it best.

8.45 p.m.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman said, "We have given much thought to this." But what was the use of his telling the Committee that, when earlier he had said that the Government had been moved by second thoughts? I should like to know from my right hon. and learned Friend if, when he said that much thought had been given to this, the "much thought" had been given originally in drafting the Bill, as it first left the draftsmen's office, or after the dinner to which the hon. and learned Member for Brighton referred.

To me, who am not a solicitor, or lawyer, and never go to courts, except occasionally in the capacity of defendant, the whole thing appears—as it must appear to hon. Members of the Committee in the light of the pontifical utterance of the hon. and learned Member for Daventry about the Roche Committee laying down the law on Mount Sinai or somewhere else—to me the whole thing looks like a rather human, but slightly sordid attempt by the Law Society to get a closed shop.

Why is it that these solicitors want to take away this little plum from a very worthy section of the community, these assistants? They are not numerous, I know; and socially, I suppose, they are a little obscure. They do not command battalions of votes, but they are respectable people in the literal meaning of that much misused adjective, in that by their work they have earned the respect of the community and they have been doing it over many years before I was alive. It was a Conservative Government, the Earl of Beaconsfield's last Administration, which put them on a statutory basis, but they had been doing the work before that.

I have some feeling in this case because it used to be said of my father, who was a solicitor's managing clerk, that he was the brains of the firm. I know that within a year of his demise the firm amalgamated with a rival firm of solicitors in the same street, and I argue in that case post hoc, ergo propter hoc. If this Clause is allowed to stand as it is, what will happen is that the highest posts the magisterial service can offer to men who have given to that service their youth and middle age will be quite subordinate posts. The Attorney-General betrayed the most painful awareness that, as a result, we are not going to attract the right type of young people into this service.

I do not know if the Home Secretary is to reply to this discussion, but, as he told the Committee yesterday, he has a Nonconformist conscience. The whole thing suggests to me the First Book of Kings, in which there was a tragedy, and that tragedy is being re-enacted here with the justice's clerk in the rôle of Naboth, the Law Society in the rô1e of Ahab and, I am rather afraid, the Home Secretary in the rôle of Jezebel. I ask the Committee to stand firm against the Government in this. We do not want to divide the Committee, but I ask them to stand firm.

My interest arose in this manner: three or four of these assistants came to me in Nottingham. Not one voted in my constituency and what their political allegiance is, or was, I do not know—I should imagine it was certainly not Labour. They satisfied me, first, that they had a good case, and, secondly, that they were politically helpless. I think that here the House of Commons in this Committee can rise to its best tradition. Let us show by what we do now that we are motivated by other considerations than big battalions of votes, and do justice to these forgotten men