Orders of the Day — Judges' Remuneration Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th July 1965.

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Photo of Mr Leo Abse Mr Leo Abse , Pontypool 12:00 am, 14th July 1965

That is just the point I want to come to.

When I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) describe the Attorney-General as having given the classical trade union argument for an increase, he provoked and aroused still further my suspicions, for few hon. Members sense a classical trade union argument more rightly and quickly than my hon. Friend. There is, in fact, a history to the wage claims of judges which this demand is bound to evoke. We must recall what occurred in 1931. That, too, was a time of national crisis, a time when people felt very keenly about the economic situation of the country. We recall the refusal of the judges in 1931 to accept the cut of 20 per cent. in official salaries which was authorised by the National Economy Act of 1931.

To answer the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Sir T. Brinton), I should like him and the House to recall that the pressures which were then placed by the judges on Lord Sankey—then Lord Chancellor—were quite extraordinary. Lord Sankey has recorded that while nearly all the humble sections of the community were accepting what were—as those of us who are old enough to recall will recall—heavy burdens, the judges were, to use Lord Sankey's phrase of the time, like the men of Invergordon: mutinous.

Nearly all the judges protested individually to him. He has recorded all this. Many of them had private interviews, and there were repeated deputations representing the King's Bench Division, the Appeal Court, the Admiralty Division and the Chancery Division. When they had finished with that, the judges, who had all the skill of any trade unionist, challenged the legality of the authority of the Act itself.

As if that were not enough, in their determination not to have any reduction in what was then £5,000 a year, for good measure they threatened to draw up and present a petition of rights to the Crown. If any trade union official wants an object lesson on how to extinguish the income guiding light, all he needs to do, I am sorry to say, is to read the history of the judges' trade union activities in the national economic crisis of 1931.

That is one of the many reasons why I am on inquiry. I am on inquiry still further because I recall what Winston Churchill said in 1954, when the last award was given to the judges. He was speaking at a time when, for 120 years, there had been no interference in any form with the salaries of judges. Those salaries had been fixed, as the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) has rightly said, for reasons which are founded in the social structure and facts of that time. On that occasion, Winston Churchill said this: It is not likely that another 120 years will pass without some alteration, but there should at any rate be a fairly long period, perhaps a generation, before what we now decide shall be altered, except by tax reduction, so that those discharging these high functions, who have their whole lives to live within strict and rigid limits, should have a reasonable basis on which to work."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd March, 1954; Vol. 525, cc. 1060–61.] Certainly, the judges have benefited by the tax reduction since 1954, because quite clearly, in view of the different Surtax range which has come into existence, the judges have had the benefit which Winston Churchill at the time anticipated.

It is really no use for my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General in the light of that categorical statement of Winston Churchill, to attempt to adduce the argument that they have not had the types of increases that other people have had. It was never intended at that time that they should have. What was intended was that as far as possible there should be a degree of finality, and it is clear that that type of finality was a finality of something like a generation ahead.

Therefore, when we are thinking of these vast vistas of time envisaged in 1954 of course we are suspicious when, suddenly, once again there is this demand. I do not speak about this because I have any churlish resentment about judges having any more money. I accept as much as any other hon. Member the need for an independent judiciary, and one which is genuinely independent. I am as jealous about that as I am about the need for us to have an independent Legislature.

The one Motion standing in the House at the moment criticising the judges is because I and 100 other hon. Members have considered on the question of the damages for personal injuries judges have sought to usurp the rôle of the House. I certainly do not flinch from saying that it is necessary that the independence of the judiciary and the independence of the Legislature should be absolute and should be safeguarded.

Of course, the test that must be made at this moment of time when a demand is being made for an increase of salary is a test that is being made at a time when I am bound to wonder whether our Lord Chancellor has been receiving some of the clandestine buffeting which went on with Lord Sankey in 1931. At the same time, the test applied must be the same us that which is applied in any factory or workshop. I do not think that there is a right to any distinction. Before any wage increase is coming forward, I want to ask what efficiency is being offered and what degree of productivity in the courts is there which would justify an increase of this kind? Goodness knows, there is a need for it.

I was dismayed that my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General has repeatedly today been emphasising that one of the needs for the Bill to increase the number of judges is because of the awkward situation that men who are not High Court judges are being created commissioners to take divorce cases.

I take an interest in divorce matters, as the House knows. I asked the last Administration, and I have asked this Administration, when undefended divorce cases would be taken in the county courts. This is a widespread demand, not only within the solicitors' profession, but outside it. If this were to come about, it would be unnecessary to appoint the additional judges provided for in this Bill. Why is it that this matter which was to be considered by the last Administration is still being considered? Why is it that discussions are still going on with the Bar Council and the Law Society?

Why has this proposal not been implemented? The only argument used was certainly not the argument which I suspected would be used by the Attorney-General today, namely, whether the quality of the county court judge metamorphosised into a commissioner was sufficient. The argument which has been used is that if it were implemented all the majesty which should attend the severance of marriages would go and marriage contracts would not receive the respect which they deserve. This is a little more of the humbug which it is well known surrounds so much of the divorce law of this country.

My suspicion is that again the vested interests are at work which believe that if the doors of the county courts were flung open in this way members of the Bar would not have to attend and that there would be a reduction in the number of High Court judges needed. It is for reasons of this sort that the issues are being clouded.

I can speak with clinical knowledge and from professional experience about divorce matters. I say categorically, having seen lay magistrates dealing with complicated, sophisticated problems of law with great efficiency, that there is no need to create more divorce judges to deal with matters which are and can be dealt with even by lay magistrates and certainly by county court judges.

As has been mentioned by the hon. Member who drew attention to the need for streamlining the administration of justice, there is no reason for suggesting that this would fling so much more work on to the county court judges. I have asked before, and I ask again, how much longer county court judges must spend one week in four acting as agents for hire-purchase companies which manipulate and use them so that they can have judgment summonses? This work could easily be swept away to registrars. If county court judges took on divorce cases, we should not be asked to make provision for more judges.

If the Attorney-General had come to the House and indicated such a reforming zeal that we could see that there was the prospect of greater efficiency and productivity in the courts, we should look more kindly on this proposal to create more judges. The Government readily conceded to me earlier this Session that it was their considered view that the law and practice relating to damages was unsatisfactory. We have heard from the Attorney-General and other Members how burdened High Court judges are as a consequence of cases involving industrial accidents. They concern all of those of us who have any connection with the trade union movement. Yet, although, belatedly, we have had a half-hearted suggestion that there will be a reference of this matter to the Law Commissioners, we do not know whether they will direct their attention to it.

Is it not wrong that we should be asked to create more judges at a time when we do not know what changes may come about in the law and practice relating to damages? I hope that more actuaries will be available and that something will be done about the miserable damages now being awarded in courts to men who have received industrial injuries. I am not encouraged by the idea that if judges are made more remote by higher salaries they will have a deeper appreciation of the need for men to be awarded proper damages for the quality of life which they have lost as a consequence of serious industrial accidents.

I suggest that there is a failure in presenting in this wretched sort of way a Bill at this late hour, a Bill at the end of the Session, a Bill of which one suspects everybody is slightly ashamed. One suspects that this is why it is being introduced in this way. It is unfortunate that it is being introduced without any indication that, parallel with it, there will be the same changes and alterations as to the administration of justice as would be expected to take place on the workshop floor if a group of men were asking for a rise.

If we are to pay judges this increased salary, and there are to be more judges, is it not time we asked ourselves from what section of the community judges are likely to be drawn and what sort of training they are likely to have? It is not a comforting thought that at present a man can become a judge perhaps as a consequence of taking indifferent food in an Inn. The lack of sociological understanding in their training programme makes me wonder whether we are at this stage justified in talking about increases. After all, as we know from many of the interventions which were made in the debate on the abolition of capital punishment, barristers-at-law may know a great deal about the criminal law, but they are not trained to know anything about the aetiology of crime. They are trained to know how to sever marriages, but they have no training in how to deal with them.

If we are to have judges who have regard and respect for the community, before we think about increasing their salaries we should think how we can be sure that they have a broader appreciation and a greater understanding of the needs and problems of the wider community. For most people unversed in law, their certainty that justice will be found in the courts rests not upon legal systems, not upon carefully built up precedents, not upon bills of right, not upon Magna Cartas. It rests upon the deservedly high reputation of our judges.

At this time, when every loyal trade union member and every loyal member of the Labour Party is attempting to educate and tutor the nation to understand the need for an incomes policy, it is most unfortunate that the judges should be so remote from understanding the psychology of the nation that they should be pressing this demand. The fact that those who administer justice to others put themselves in a position, as they are clearly doing as a result of this debate, in which it should even be thought that private gain is more in their minds than the national interest is chastening to all of us who take pride in our legal system.

I deeply regret that the Bill should be before the House at this time. I think that the judges would be wise to take the action referred to in the Solicitors' Journal and voluntarily recognise that this comes at a bad moment from a group who are expected, as we are expected, to give clear leadership to the nation at a time of economic crisis. If this Bill goes through in its present form, it can only be a triumph for the Establishment over wisdom and common sense. I hope that it will be the desire of the House to bury the Bill in Committee.