( Mr. Hinde Palmer, Mr. Amphlett, Mr. Osborne Morgan, Mr. Jacob Bright.)
Bill 7 Second Reading
Order for Second Reading read.
in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said, he would not on this occasion enter at length upon the property relations between husband and wife—that had been amply discussed in the debates upon the Bills introduced in 1869 and 1870; but he could not but express his regret at the absence from the House on important public duties of the hon. and learned Recorder of London, in whose hands the conduct of that measure would have rested had he been present, and whose intimate knowledge of its subject, together with his great personal weight and influence, would have served to gain for it a favourable consideration. Still, the principle of the Bill was so plain and so just as to commend itself to the common sense and reason of those who examined it. The question, moreover, had been fully discussed by the present Parliament in 1869 and 1870, and in the latter year the Act was passed which it was the object of the present Bill to amend. Substantially the common law of this country as to married women's property remained what it was before the Act of 1870, which professed to amend it. That law was that by her marriage the whole of a woman's personal property was immediately vested in her husband, and placed entirely at his control and disposal. By contracting marriage a woman forfeited all her property. This seemed, at first sight, an extraordinary and indefensible proposition. The present Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the debate on this question in 1868, said—"Show me what crime there is in matrimony that it should be visited by the same punishment as high treason." Mr. Mill, in speaking on this question, said that a large portion of the inhabitants of this country were in the anomalous position of having imposed on them, without having done anything to deserve it, what we inflicted on the worst criminals as a penalty—like felons, they were incapable of holding property. Now, they had heard much of the discrepancy between law and equity, and he did not think a stronger example of the contradiction between them could be quoted than in this instance relating to the property of married women. For the common law being, as he had stated it, the equity branch of our jurisprudence, took an entirely different view of the rights of married women in respect of property. And he might remark, in passing, that it was one of the strong recommendations of the Lord Chancellor's scheme of legal reform that it would put an end to this anomalous condition of things, by fusing together the jurisdiction of law and equity. By means of the Courts of Equity the wife's property, which would otherwise be forfeited to the husband, was protected from his control, and the same object was constantly attained through the medium of marriage settlements, which were really standing protests against the common law of the land. But poor women could not afford the expense either of having a marriage settlement, or of applying to the Courts of Equity; and the present Bill would obviate the necessity of their resorting to those costly modes of protecting their interests. The Bill, in fact, was specially designed for the advantage of women belonging to the poorer classes and to the shopkeeping community possessing comparatively small property. In 1868 the Secretary to the Admiralty (Mr. Lefevre) brought in a measure very similar to the present one, which, having been read a second time, was referred to a Select Committee, who however reported so late in the Session that the Bill had to be withdrawn. In 1869 the Recorder of London brought in his first Bill, based entirely on the same principle as that of the Secretary to the Admiralty. That Bill, in its turn, was read a second time and referred to a Select Committee, comprising several eminent lawyers, who most carefully settled its provisions; and the Bill he had now presented was substantially the same as the one which came from that Select Committee. The measure of 1869 passed through that House, and went up to the House of Lords, where it was read the second time, but there stopped. The Recorder re-introduced the Bill in 1870, when a rival Bill was also brought in by the hon. Member for Chester (Mr. Raikes), but one treating the question in a very partial and imperfect way. The Re- corder's Bill was read the second time, while the rival Bill was rejected by a majority of 162. The former went up to the other House, where it was dealt with in such a manner as to destroy almost all the good that was in it. When it came down very late in the Session in that mangled condition, the Recorder accepted it under protest, because it still contained one redeeming feature—namely, a protection for the earnings of poor married women, but he intimated that legislation on the subject could not end with this Bill—that there remained much to be remedied, and that the Bill admitted principles which, unless it was supposed that bad husbands were only to be found among the poorer classes, must lead to a fuller and more complete measure. This was not the only protest against the legislation of 1870. The Attorney General admitted that there were so many defects in the Act of 1870 that it would be necessary to pass an amending, Bill; and Mr. Dodgson, an eminent lawyer, who had drawn the Bill in charge of the hon. and learned Member for Coventry (Mr. Staveley Hill), also stated that it was full of blots and itself a blot on our statute book, and the most absurd Act he had ever read. One prominent fault was this—it contained a provision that no husband should be liable for the ante-nuptial debts of his wife, although by his marriage he hind acquired under the law all her property; so that neither the husband nor the wife was liable as the law now stood for those debts, and the creditors were powerless. Another clause enacted that property coming to a married woman as next-of-kin in the case of an intestacy was to belong to her absolutely; but a large legacy or bequest to her would go to her husband. Suppose, for instance, a father to die intestate, his daughter being next-of-kin she would receive the amount, whether it was £200 or any larger sum; but supposing that next week her uncle died, leaving her a legacy of £5,000, that legacy would go—by forfeiture, as he might call it—to her husband. In fact, the Act of 1870 bristled with anomalies and absurdities. Its chief value was that it conceded the principle flint married women ought to be entitled under certain circumstances to their own property. Instead, however, of starting with that principle, the Lords had framed a number of complicated clauses, providing that women might enjoy almost every kind of property—money in the funds, in joint-stock companies, or in a loan or a benefit or building society, and deposits in savings banks. This in a manner practically conceded the principle for which he was contending; but this concession was so hampered by special provisions and restrictions that it was almost impossible for poor women to avail themselves of them without employing a lawyer, which they could not afford to do. The power of separate trading would be a great boon; but there being no provision in the Act rendering married women liable to be sued for debts, the wholesale houses would not supply goods to married women carrying on business in that way. The present Bill sought to remedy the defects he had indicated, by providing that a married woman should be capable of acquiring, holding, alienating, devising, and bequeathing real and personal estate, of contracting and of suing and being sued, as if she were a feme sole. That was the only sound principle on which they could effectually amend the law. It might be urged again, as on former occasions, that it would be mischievous, in a social point of view, to make married women so independent in regard to their property; but that objection equally applied to marriage settlements and to the equitable doctrine carried out by the Court of Chancery, against the introduction of which, indeed, it was advanced, but without effect, centuries ago. The whole mischief had arisen through the Bill being dealt with in the other House on no intelligible principle. He expected to hear the stock objections against this Bill, but he hoped the House would not be influenced by them; but would not hesitate to reaffirm the principle which it had repeatedly sanctioned, and to make the law affecting millions of their fellow-subjects consistent with common sense, justice, and equity. He now moved the second reading of the Bill.
Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—( Mr. Hinde Palmer.)
in moving that the Bill be read a second time that day six months, said, that he should certainly repeat the stock arguments against this measure, and if the arguments were rightly founded he did not see why he should avoid their repetition. He admitted that the Act of 1870 required very considerable alteration. He agreed with the learned gentleman referred to (Mr. Dodgson) who had shown to what extent he thought the Act faulty, by having embodied his views on the subject in the Bill now in charge of the hon. and learned Member for Coventry (Mr. Staveley Hill). There was a necessity for the protection of the earnings of married women among the lower orders; but it was a very different thing when they sought to deal with the case of married women of the higher classes, who could either protect themselves or would be protected by their friends. What was the ordinary course followed with respect to a married woman possessed of property? There was hardly an instance in which that property was not protected by the instrument under which it was derived or by a settlement made antecedently to the marriage. In almost all cases a settlement was drawn in this form. Supposing the parties to be on an equality, the first life estate in the property was given to the husband; on his decease it was given to the wife: a joint power of appointment was reserved to the husband and the wife among the children of the marriage; in default of the exercise of that joint power of appointment, it was reserved to the survivor; and in default of the appointment, the property passed equally among the children. However, they wore now dealing with the Act of 1870, and the question was whether they were to extend its principle and operation. The hon. and learned Member (Mr. Hinde Palmer) said the wife's property became her husband's absolutely by the common law; but what was the reason and intention of that? First of all, there was the religious notion which regarded husband and wife as one person; and, secondly, there was the idea of the common law on the subject, that as the husband was liable for the debts of the wife and for the maintenance of her children he was entitled to her entire property. He had stated the common form of a marriage settlement. Even when that settlement was effected by an appeal to a Court of Equity, that Court took to a great extent the same view as if the parties wore in the ordinary relations of life. It did not settle, as a matter of course, the whole property of the married woman to her separate use—it made, it might be, some provision for her separate use out of it; but that provision had reference to the position of the parties, to the ability of the husband to maintain her, and to his resources and state of life. A life estate in the property of the wife was always given to the husband unless there happened to be some great disparity in the position of the parties, or unless some apprehensions with respect to the character of the husband were entertained. The Bill, however, proposed that in all cases the life estate should be vested in the wife, and a course thus taken which was now regarded as being derogatory to the husband. There was, he might add, in the Bill nothing to provide for the issue of a marriage, while the 9th clause, which had reference to the mutual debts and obligations of husband and wife, was open to the greatest objections. It was a settled principle of law that for debts contracted by the wife for household purposes, for the maintenance of the children, clothing, and matters of that kind—when contracted by her as the agent of the husband, the husband could be sued. Under the 9th clause, however, the wife might be made liable, but then she could sue her husband again. He could hardly imagine a greater element of discord between them, and supposing the wife to have absolute possession of her own property, she might expend it without the slightest control on the part of the husband, and leave him in the position of being solely liable. He would merely, in conclusion, warn the House on the sacredness of the relations of married life and of the expediency of legislation with respect to them not proceeding so fast as had of late years been the case. The operation of the Divorce Court had, he was afraid, been to bring the marriage tie somewhat into ridicule; the habits of luxury in which society now indulged rendered many young men unwilling to take upon themselves the obligations of married life. He hoped the House would not add another element to deter them from entering into those obligations by introducing new seeds of discord, which might, and which he believed would, deter many honourable and worthy men from undertaking the liabilities which the marriage relation involved. Entertaining that opinion, he begged to move that the Bill be read a second time that day six months.
who had also given Notice to move the rejection of the Bill, rose to second the Amendment of the hon. Member for East Sussex—for his conviction was that if the Bill were to pass it would introduce distrust and illfeeling where harmony had hitherto been found to prevail. He objected to the measure on every conceivable ground —he objected to the very form and title of the Bill. It was called a Bill "to amend" the Act of 1870; but it was not an amending Bill—it was an originating Bill. Hon. Members would be astonished when he told them that the Married Women's Property Bill of 1870 consisted only of 14 sections, and of those the measure under discussion would repeal 12; so that the hon. and learned Member who moved the second reading (Mr. Hinde Palmer) would have acted more straightforwardly if he had introduced a Bill to repeal the existing law. Of the incidental clauses the hon. and learned Gentleman now asked the House to insert, they were exactly the same as were contained in the Bill of 1870, in the discussion on which Lord Penzance had said they—
He wished, before going further, to state what the common law was previous to 1870 with regard to the husband— and he was not aware that it had been substantially altered. In the absence of settlements, the personal property of the wife became vested in the husband—leaseholds to a limited extent—while of real property he was entitled to the income during his life, the wife having the ultimate destination of the property. If he survived, and she had children capable of inheriting the property, he would become entitled to a tenancy for life. In return for those privileges the husband, on his marriage, immediately became liable for the debts contracted by the wife before marriage, and after for her support and for that of her children, not only by his marriage with her, but by any previous marriage. He became liable to pay her debts and to indemnify against civil wrongs which she might have committed before or since the marriage, while any property which he might become possessed of during the coverture was liable for her dower. He could not see in such a law anything which justified hon. Gentlemen in calling a married woman a slave down to 1870. He, on the contrary, was of opinion that her position was an enviable one. It was true that she gave her property to her husband; but she was, on the other hand, shielded by the common law from hostile interference, and when a crime was committed by her in the presence of her husband she was presumed to have committed it under his influence. Not only, in short, was the common law not unduly harsh in the case of the married women previous to 1870, but it was entirely in accordance with the feelings of the people of this country, and proceeded on the intelligible principle that the wife was the weaker vessel, and that it was only proper that the husband should be at the head of the establishment. Well, that state of things the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr.Hinde Palmer) proposed to change; but everyone of the clauses which he had brought forward with that object had been eliminated from the Bill which had passed in the House of Lords. he quite concurred in the opinion that no worse Act of Parliament than that of 1870 had ever become law; it was so full of defects that, he believed, it could be interpreted neither by the Judges nor by anybody else. That was no good reason, however, why he should assent to such a measure as that now under discussion. The hon. and learned Gentleman asked the House to agree to changes which would permit a married woman to have complete and absolute power to alienate her property, to sue and be sued, and to enter into contracts. What would be the practical results which would follow such an alteration of the law? He would give a few practical illustrations how the law stood under the present Act, and how it would stand under the Bill. A married woman was to have complete and absolute power of alienating her property, to have the power of suing and being sued, and of contracting. The practical effect of such a state of things might be this—Suppose a husband and wife living together in a house which was the property of the latter, and that they had some slight difference: the wife might say to him, "This is my house and I would much rather you would leave it." If he did not leave it, she would be enabled to bring an action of ejectment to turn him out. The husband might be expelled from the house one day and somebody else brought into it the next. Again, she might bring any action on contract she thought fit against her husband. Let the House fancy a husband and wife, plaintiff and defendant, sitting down to breakfast and passing a considerable portion of the day together, and the wife then going out to consult her solicitor and coming home to dine with her husband. What a pleasant state of things that would be! There was another anomaly which would arise under the operation of the Bill which provided that a husband should not he liable in damages for any wrong committed by his wife. Let him suppose that a lady driving a carriage ran over somebody through negligence. Under such circumstances, there was now a remedy against the husband; but under the Bill there would be no remedy at all in the event of the wife not having any property. A wife, again, under the Bill might contract with the outer world— she might trade on her own account without the consent of the husband. Let the House imagine the husband a grocer and the wife setting up a shop in the same street and taking a partner whom she called a cousin—her partner need not be a woman, and might not be a cousin at all. These were not overdrawn cases; they were likely to occur; and if they were not likely to occur, yet when the House was testing principles it was proper to press those principles to their result. Suppose, again, that a husband and wife had each £500 a-year, and that they sent their children to school; suppose the wife took them to school, who was to pay for them? The same thing applied to servants: he doubted whether if a wife engaged a servant the husband would be liable for her wages. But the hon. and learned Gentleman said that he was merely seeking to do by the Bill things which were every day done by the Court of Chancery. He would remind him, however, that the object of the Court of Chancery was not to protect the wife against the husband, but to protect her against her own imprudence and against the imprudence of the husband; while the essential object of a settlement was to provide an inalienable provision for the children of the marriage. But if this Bill became law, the woman might dissipate every shilling of her property to-morrow. The experience of America was appealed to in support of the Bill; but the case of the two countries was entirely different. It was the old mistake of applying to an adult a remedy because it had been found to suit the constitution of a child. He would remind the House that the happy homes of England had been fostered by the law which it was sought to alter, and which had existed over 1,000 years; and he ventured to express a hope that it would not give its assent to a measure which was calculated to destroy that good feeling which it was so desirable should exist between husband and wife."Would give a married woman the same rights of possessing and dealing with property, and of contracting obligations with third persons, that an unmarried woman enjoyed; while it nevertheless left untouched her status as a married woman. It left untouched her right to be maintained by her husband; she would be able to spend her property anyhow she liked, without any obligation of contributing to the expenses of the household; and when it was dissipated she would be entitled to the support of her husband and to pledge his credit for necessaries."—[3 Hansard, ccii. 603.]
Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."—( Mr. Gregory.)
in supporting the second reading of the Bill, said, that the alternative before the House was either to accept the present Bill or to repeal the Act of 1870. The latter Act was no more than a feeble compromise—and as to the arguments that had been urged against the Bill that day, to the effect that it would produce discord in married life, they were to be found again and again embalmed in the pages of Hansard. Indeed, the hon. Member for the University of Cambridge (Mr. Beresford Hope) had gone so far as to say that a proposal such as that now made would result, if passed into law, in turning England into a bear garden and every woman into a shrew. Would it be believed that such language was applied to a measure which simply sought to give women that protection without which no hon. Gentleman whom he addressed would allow his sister or daughter to embark on the sea of mar- riage? As to the argument advanced by the hon. and learned Gentleman who had just sat down (Mr. Lopes), that under the Bill a wife might bring an action of ejectment against the husband, she might do that as the law now stood—not, indeed, by an action of ejectment, but by bill in Chancery. Every objection, he might add, which had been urged against the Bill was met by the doctrine of "separate use"—a doctrine which, in the Court of Chancery, had been found to operate exceedingly well for the protection of the wife, and. which did no harm to anyone. The Bill merely sought to establish' the broad principle that marriage did not, like treason or felony, work a civil forfeiture; and he could not help thinking that it was opposed by some hen. Members not so much because of what, in reality, would be its effect, as because of that to which they feared it would lead—the development of the "Women's rights" question, and. looming behind that a Parliament in petticoats. He, however, believing the matter to be just and right, should give it his cordial support.
said, he would gladly see the Act of 1870 repealed. He thought his hon. and learned Friend who had just said that this Bill proposed to do nothing more than could be done by a bill in Chancery, had fallen into some mistake, because a woman could not now do many things which were proposed by this Bill without consent of her trustees, and he was sure no trustees in the world would allow her to do what was proposed to be done under this Bill. There was one point of view which had been overlooked—he meant the injurious operation of the Bill in the case of creditors. A wife might, for example, enter into a business apart from her husband, might fail, take all the money she could realize back to her husband, to whom she might say it belonged, and the creditors would have no remedy. On the social aspect of the question he would not dwell, beyond saying that it had on a former occasion been very well illustrated by his hon. Friend the Member for the University of Cambridge, to whom the hon. and learned Gentleman had just referred, and whose warning he hoped the House would remember, for it was, he believed, founded on true wisdom.
said, that as the Bill before the House was almost identical with the Bill which he introduced in 1868, he hoped he might be allowed to state why the House should not be satisfied with the Act of 1870; but should accept the more complete measure now under discussion. The Bill of 1868 was carried only by the casting vote of the Speaker, and was referred to a Select Committee. The object of the measure was to remedy the evils which resulted from the then state of the law, under which all the unsettled property of the wife passed to her husband—a state of things which operated very hardly especially among the poorer classes, where it was not unusual for all the little property the wife possessed to be swept away and squandered by the husband. The Committee were of opinion that the wife ought to be protected, not by extending the rules of equity, but by a radical alteration of the common law itself, by preserving for the wife all the power she would have had over her property had she remained single. In 1869 the Bill was again introduced by the hon. and learned Member the Recorder of London, and the subject having been more fully considered. was passed on the second reading without a division, and was again referred to a Select Committee, by whom it was again thoroughly discussed, and. the Bill having been carried by a large majority, it went up to the House of Lords, where it met with a very different fate, and became so altered as to be scarcely recognizable. He doubted whether in the Statute Book there was any Act so badly drawn, so faulty, and so absurd in many of its details as the Act of 1870. He trusted that those Judges who lied recently inveighed from the Bench against hasty legislation would remember that the Act of 1870 was exclusively the handiwork of the Law Lords of the House of Lords. Among its many defects, however, it presented one great and important advantage—it recognized for the first time the necessity of protecting the wages and earnings of married women; and in order to secure this advantage the measure, as altered by the House of Lords, was permitted to pass when it came down again to this House. The measure, however, was accepted as an instalment, in the belief that Parliament would not refuse on a future occasion to remedy its manifold defects. The Bill now before the House was identical with that passed by the Committee in 1869. The difference between the Act of 1870 and the present Bill was this—for the House of Lords having admitted the grievance of the law previous to 1870, that Act must be accepted as the existing law on the subject, and the House must therefore compare the present proposals with that Act—the Act of 1870 permitted married women to sue, but it did not permit them to be sued. It recognized the right of a married woman to property of whatever amount which she might receive as next-of-kin to an intestate, or under a deed or will, provided the sum bequeathed did not exceed £200. He could see no reason why these arbitrary limitations should have been fixed on. It was admitted on all hands that the law could not remain as it was, and the only question therefore before the House was, would they accept the Bill now before them, or revert to the old state of things which existed before the Act of 1870 was passed? Some hon. Members had entirely mistaken the law as to the liability of the husband to support his wife and children; it was not that he was compelled to support them according to their station in life, but merely that he should keep them from going upon the parish.
remarked that the husband was liable for necessaries supplied to his wife and family.
replied that there the question of agency was involved, not the legal liability of the husband for the support of his family. Under these circumstances, the Bill was right in throwing upon the wife the same liabilities which the husband now had. Besides the fact that the Act of 1870 was unintelligible, it was but little known among the poorer classes, and it was only by making a measure like that equally applicable to all classes that a knowledge of it would spread downward. The House had denied to women the right to exercise the franchise; but, certainly, there was some foundation for the demand for the franchise in the complaint that women were not fairly treated by the legislation of Parliament. He trusted, therefore, that this measure, which would remove certain acknow- ledged grievances of women, and which dealt with the question in a broad and simple manner, founded on equal justice, would be accepted by the House.
said, that the question before the House was reduced to a very simple issue. The position of those who supported the Bill under consideration was that a husband and wife should be separate as regarded property, torts, and all dealings with the outside world. The view of those who approved the Act of 1870 as it would be amended by the Bill he was bringing forward was, that while the property of the wife should be protected against the creditors and the extravagance of the husband, the marriage relation should in all other respects be preserved. The evidence which had been taken before the Committee which had been appointed on the Motion of the hon. Member for Reading (Mr. Shaw Lefevre) had shown what was the existing state of the law upon this question in America. Mr. Cyrus Martin Fisher, a member of the Virginian Bar, stated that the law in his country before 1840 was the same as the law of this country, and that at that date it had been brought into the state in which it would be hero if this Bill passed; that—
That was the law in America, and he should be sorry to see it made the law in England by passing this measure. The Act of 1870 contained one flagrant defect. While it effectually protected the wages and earnings of married women as their own property, it contained a defect, and it was to remedy this defect that he proposed his "No. 2 Bill." He agreed with the hon. Member opposite (Mr. Shaw Lefevre) that the provisions of the Act were not sufficiently known among the poorer classes; but he hoped that this debate would be the cause of their becoming more widely known than they were at present. One of the great dangers that would result from the Bill becoming law was that it would induce married women to set up fraudulent claims as against their husbands' creditors. The defect in the Act of 1870 was to be found in Clause 12, which enacted that the husband was not to be liable for his wife's ante-nuptial debts, and that the wife herself was not to be liable for them beyond the amount of her separate property. The consequence was that as property without settlement passed to the husband on marriage and he was not liable for her ante-nuptial debts—and her property was not liable unless it was settled to her separate use—great opportunity was afforded for raising fraudulent defences to just claims. That defect the hon. Member proposed to meet by Clause 9 of the present Bill; but it seemed to him impossible to say that that section of the Bill would remedy completely this defect of the Act of 1870. When the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Shaw Lefevre) said that the law declared it to be only necessary for a husband to keep his wife and children out of the workhouse, he would remind him of the numerous cases in which the law held that a husband was liable for all necessaries supplied to the wife according to her station in life. The Bill of the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. Hinde Palmer) was calculated to establish distinctive relations between the husband and wife as regarded the external world, but not to remedy the defects of the Act of 1870, against which he (Mr. Staveley Hill) provided by the Bill which he had introduced to the House."Although the wife had unrestricted control over her own property, she was not liable to contribute in any way towards the support of her husband and children—because the American idea was that every part of her property should be appropriated to the support of the wife; that every man ought to be clever enough to support his wife without her assistance; that she might squander her property how she liked, even on another man—a circumstance which might probably cause some domestic unpleasantness, but nothing more—and that, whatever might be the condition of the husband, his wife was not bound to do anything towards his support."
submitted that they ought to proceed upon one of two principles—either to revert to the old law, which gave everything to the husband, subject to settlements in equity, or to proceed with a measure which dealt separately with the rights of the husband and wife. He dissented from the opinion of the hon. and learned Member who had just spoken (Mr. Staveley Hill) that this Bill would affect the marriage tie. The real fact was that the marriage tie after the passing of this Bill would remain precisely as it was now. Hon. Members opposite did not object to the Act of 1870 so far as it went—they did not object to the earnings of poor married women being protected. Why, then, did they object to give protection to a woman who had property? The Act of 1870 created a distinction between two classes, and in so doing proceeded on no principle whatever. What was wanted was an Act of Parliament which would proceed upon an intelligible principle. While in the case of a poor woman protection was granted at once, in the case of a rich woman protection could not be obtained without going to a lawyer. There was no reason for this difference except that arising from a vague idea that if the present measure should pass there would be such a divergence of interests between husband and wife as to lead to discord. He thought that hon. Members had not shown that such would be the case. They said that great difficulties would arise; but under the present law painful disputes were continually arising between these parties. He knew instances in which most flagrant injustice to married women had been committed by their husbands because the law did not extend its protection to the wife. He knew a lady of very considerable property who married without a settlement. Every farthing she half was swept away in a few weeks, and she was obliged to apply to her relations for help. One would have imagined that such injustice was impossible in a civilized country. Hon. Members opposite who objected to this Bill because they feared that the change proposed would lead to additional disputes seemed to forget that the Court of Chancery gave to a wife all the powers which this Bill would give to her. ["No!"] The Court of Chancery had been always trying to make up for the defects of the law in this respect by requiring settlements upon the wife from her after-acquired property; and it gave to her immense powers over her settled estate, and looked upon her as a single woman even for the purpose of making a will under a power. Did hon. Members opposite ask the House to say that a state of things which permitted gross injustice produced harmony in families? Injustice could not produce any good in any family in the Empire. Was it right or wrong that a married woman should lose all those rights which she had as a single woman simply because her husband was bound to provide necessaries for her? The Court of Chancery, where property had been settled upon a wife, protected her rights—the supporters of this Bill asked for a Parlia- mentary and universal settlement by which all wives should have control over the property which they possessed without going to the Court of Chancery for it. He, like the hon. Member for Reading, was one of those who doubted the expediency of granting the franchise to women; but he thought they should be anxious to abolish any part of the law which inflicted injustice upon women who were not directly represented in that House. He thought the Act of 1870 had not improved the law—on the contrary, he thought it had confused it—it was based on no principle, and was altogether a muddled piece of legislation. This Bill, on the contrary, was founded on a sound principle, and therefore he heartily supported it.
confessed he always felt great hesitation in differing in opinion with the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. Hinde Palmer) on a legal question. It appeared to him, however, that there were errors of misconception as to what was really the law upon this matter, and what was proposed to be done in the way of altering or amending that law. He had listened with attention to the observations of his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Coventry (Mr. Staveley Hill), and it was his impression that, in commenting upon the provisions of the Bill then before them, he said he thought it was calculated to affect "the marriage relations of husband and wife." His hon. and learned Friend did not mean "the marriage tie." If it were true, as stated by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. W. Fowler), this Bill proposed to do little more than was at present done by the Court of Chancery—then it appeared to him that there was no use for any Bill of the kind whatever. If, on the other hand, it was a Bill, as he took it to be, to change the entire relations of the marriage life, then, he submitted, that they ought to hesitate before they affirmed its principle in so thin a House as the one before them. He agreed with the hon. Member for Cambridge that it might possibly be desirable to revert to the legislation antecedent to 1870, always, however, retaining the 2nd clause of the statute then passed, which he deemed invaluable; but let them not believe that in the Act of that year it was intended to make, or did make, any distinction between the rich wife and the poor wife, with regard to her earnings or her personal property. The words were "any woman." It might be that the husband should not be allowed to take from the wife her own personal property; but it was obvious that under the Act in question, if the husband and wife chose to act collusively, the honest creditor might be defrauded of his property, whilst the husband and wife had still ample means at their disposal. The Bill, so far, appeared to be altogether one-sided. It was said that the Court of Chancery interfered to guard the wife against the improvidence of the husband; but, as it seemed to him, this was only half-stating the question, insomuch as it interfered to guard against the improvidence of either, or both, when it declared that the wasteful extravagance of the parents should not be needlessly entailed upon the children.
said, the main argument against the proposed change in the law—that it would alter the relations been husband and wife—was extremely speculative. He did not believe that the happiness of married people depended to any great extent on the law of property. Where two persons were about to be married they generally allowed their relations as to property to be settled by the lawyers. He however thought that the question involved, being a very large social one, ought to be viewed in a common-sense light, and not altogether to be left to lawyers to determine. Was it sound or just that by the fact of marriage the wife's personal property should become the property of the husband exclusively? Surely no Legislature of women would ever sanction such a law as that. The Equity Courts from the earliest times had interfered to prevent the enormities of the common law in this respect. Why should there be any difficulty in altering the law in this respect because the Court of Chancery had been hitherto acting as legislators upon the question? He thought it was the duty of that House to protect the wife's personal property as her own exclusively, and to leave the parties to make whatever settlement they thought proper upon marriage.
confessed his anxiety, on behalf of the humbler classes, to see some such measure as that before the House passed into law, inasmuch as he thought it would promote the welfare of thousands of homes. He should, therefore, heartily support the second reading. The Act of 1870 had but imperfectly carried out its objects, and it was of the greatest consequence that that Act should be amended, as every one who heard the speech of the hon. Member for Reading (Mr. Shaw Lefevre) must, he thought, admit that the Act of 1870 could not be referred to as a piece of sound or useful legislation. Security for the earnings and wages of the wife should be given in the most simple form possible, and the law thus established ought to be made accessible to every one without any heavy legal expense. It was no doubt true that by the law of England a man was bound to support his wife and children; but it too often happened that the husband squandered all his means in drunkenness, debauchery, and dissipation of every kind. In those cases the law should step in to protect the wife and children from the misconduct and extravagance of the husband. He thought that they ought to waive any fanciful objections or prejudices in respect to the supposed danger of interfering with the present law of marriage in connection with the respective rights of husband and wife, when they recollected that there were thousands of cases in which the fruits of the hard industry of the wife were squandered away by profligate and brutal husbands.
said, he believed that every Member of the House was of opinion that the Act of 1870 was extremely imperfect, and required revision: but the question here was whether the present Bill was, as it purported to be, an amendment of the present law, or whether it opened up an entirely new scheme of legislation. For his own part, he believed that this Bill, if carried, would create great difficulties in all the domestic arrangements of life. It would cause antagonism between those who we were taught to believe were one. If the property of wives were dissipated by husbands, that was the fault of their friends in not taking care that proper settlements were made. Taking the Bill as it stood, however, property might be dissipated by the wife as well as by the husband; and while all sorts of remedies were proposed to prevent tyranny on the part of the husband, no safeguard was provided against collusion between hus- band and wife. A wife's money might be put into a business, and as long as the business prospered, the profits would go to the firm; but, if bad times came, the money might be withdrawn, and the creditors might not get a farthing in the pound. In some parts of Europe the law even gave priority to the wife over other creditors; and he knew of one case in which, out of $100,000 of assets, the wife took $80,000. Unfortunately, things were done by commercial men when in distress which they would be shocked to do in prosperity, and creditors were defrauded in consequence. If the Bill passed, stringent clauses should be introduced with a view to prevent collusion of this nature; but, believing the Bill to be imperfect, believing that it would lead to a great deal of mischief, and open the door to much collusion, he should vote against the second reading.
said, he wished to explain shortly the reasons which would induce him to vote for the second reading of the Bill. It had been assumed that the House was now asked to make a material change in the principles upon which the English law had hitherto been administered. Even if this were so, and if the ancient principles of our law were bad and unjust, it would not be a good argument for adhering to them to say that they were old. But the change now proposed was not only good in itself, but had authority in its favour. Our law of property—especially between husband snd wife—grew up in times when personal property was practically non-existent. The law, therefore, then concerned itself solely with landed property. Down to the time of Henry VIII., and the Statute of Wills, a married woman was well fenced round from the influence of her husband by the ordinary operation of the law; because during coverture her landed property was absolutely inalienable, and no will could be made respecting it. Married women thin; enjoyed a considerable amount of protection, though not all that might be desired—there was none of that absolute delivery into the power of the husband of everything the wife possessed which had become the law of England since personal property rose into importance. Such absolute dominion exercised by the husband over the wife's property was not the principle of English law in olden times, but was rather a modern abuse. They were, therefore, now doing nothing contrary to ancient authority in giving the woman in respect of personal property a considerable amount of power, which for many centuries she possessed over real property. This being a Bill to amend the law, the question was, did the House think the existing state of the law satisfactory? For his part, he was not satisfied with the law now affecting the property of married women. Moreover, every man of sense acted as though he were dissatisfied with it; because, upon the marriage of any woman in whom he was interested, he took care to except her from the operation of the general law by means of settlements. Each of the settlements operated as a privilegium contravening the general law; and was it not right to provide for married women generally the protection which every prudent man secured for his daughter by means of trustees and the Court of Chancery? The existence of trustees and of the Court of Chancery was a standing argument against the existing law, for the Court of Chancery would have nothing to do but for trusts and settlements which were not in accordance with the general law. But if the Act of 1870 embodied a sound principle, why not carry it further? Why say that £500 which a wife made or to which she succeeded should be protected, and that £500 to which she became entitled by way of legacy should not? The Act of 1870 protected the wife's earnings, and raised up the same grounds for dissension between man and wife which were alleged against this Bill. But the principle having been conceded in 1870, he saw no sense in stopping there. He could not see why hon. Members who said that the principle of the Act of 1870 was sound should now refuse to carry it to its legitimate result. Now, the question was—did this Bill go too far? Clauses in the present Bill, and among them Clause 9, might be open to criticism; but the substance of the Bill was contained in Clause 1—that a married woman might hold, acquire, and alienate property, and sue or be sued, as if she were unmarried. Why not? She enjoyed this right now in certain cases, and might hold railway shares if she took the trouble to register them in her own name. Why, in common sense, could she not equally hold them if they were not so registered? No doubt extreme cases might be cited, but they did not test the Bill fairly. The opinion of Word Penzance had been quoted, and in a certain class of cases the authority of Lord Penzance was unrivalled. But in what class? The experience of Lord Penzance had been chiefly gained in a Court where he had to deal entirely with quarrelsome, disgraceful, and unhappy marriages; and of course he saw, to use a colloquial term, "the seamy side" of marriage. He did not see—and no Judge ever did—the hundreds and thousands of marriages which, under any state of the law, while men and women remained what they were, were and would be happy to the end of the chapter. Settlements would continue to be made under any change in the law. Persons would be able to make what private arrangements they liked before marriage, and in nine cases out of ten where there was property they would continue to do so. But in cases where a woman without this protection fell into the hands of a husband who unjustly and improperly tried to make away with her property, this Bill would protect her. A clever woman had said that, by the law of England, husband and wife were one person, and that person was the husband. He did not see why if a woman had property, she should not enjoy the rights of property like everybody else, or why even a husband should take away from the wife that which was her own. Protect the husband from the wife's debts, improve the law in this respect; but he hoped the House would not reject a Bill against which none but theoretical objections could be urged, and which was founded on the principle of the old law of England.
thought the hon. and learned Gentleman had somewhat misapprehended the opinion given by Lord Penzance, who said there was no commoner cause of violence and cruelty by the husband than the possession by the wife of some little money which she was able to retain: yet this was the class of cases which the hon. and learned Gentleman sought to make universal. He regretted that the House had heard nothing to-day about the systems which prevailed in France and other European countries with regard to the property of married women, for these systems were more applicable to this country than the example of America. He thought, also, that in a commercial country like ours the arguments of the hon. Member (Mr. Muntz) deserved greater attention than they had received from the hon. and learned Gentleman. We had not only to consider social comfort, but the commercial security which was necessary to protect traders against collusion and fraud. He gave Notice that if the Bill were read a second time he should move in Committee to confine its operation entirely to cases in which the wife should have obtained a protection for her own property.
in reply, said, that it appeared that the principle of the Bill was admitted, and the only question was how far it should be carried. He submitted to the House that the Bill would not by any means carry it too far.
Question put, "That the word now' stand part of the Question."
The House divided:—Ayes 124; Noes 103: Majority 21.
Main Question put, and agreed to.
Bill read a second time, and committed for Friday.