Skip to main content

Orders Of The Day

Volume 480: debated on Wednesday 8 November 1950

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Solicitors Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

5.3 p.m.

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

Now that the talking and Divisions—I will not say the tumult and the shouting—of the last few days has died, the lot falls to me to initiate the serious legislative business of the House by moving the Second Reading of this Bill. Although I shall not prophesy whether or not the Session will go out like a lion, it is not perhaps inappropriate that it should come in like a lamb; and this is a veritable legislative lamb. Like all the Bills with which the Law Officers are associated, it is short but not cursory. It is as clear as the mysteries of the legislative craft make desirable. And I hope it will turn out to be entirely noncontroversial and wholly commendable.

I must not claim all these virtues to myself, because this Bill bears a close family relationship to one which was introduced as a Private Member's Bill in another place, and which was there passed with the unanimous approval of all their Lordships then present. As it was not possible last Session to provide facilities for the further passage of the Bill through this House, the Bill lapsed; but when we saw this orphan of the legislative storm lying upon the wayside, we realised it was in the public interest, and indeed a matter of some urgency, that legislation should be passed in regard to the matter. So, although I am not the putative father, I am the adoptive father of this little Measure.

The Law Society, although it is established under a Royal Charter and although it has been made the chosen instrument of a large number of Statutes, is a voluntary society, composed of such solicitors as choose to join it and to pay its subscription. And it is a society which, in the main, finances its manifold activities out of those subscriptions paid by its own members. But it has been recognised for a long time that many of its functions are of such general concern and necessity to the whole body of the solicitors' profession that all solicitors, whether they choose to be members of the Law Society or not—which is a matter entirely for their free discretion—should make some financial contribution towards the activities of the Society.

In 1922 it was provided that those contributions should take the form of a fee of £1 paid by the solicitor on taking out his annual practising certificate. Since then, the scope of the statutory functions of the Law Society and its various public responsibilities have increased so considerably that the revenue secured in that way, from the fee of £1 on each certificate, has become quite inadequate. Indeed, the Government have found it necessary to pay an Exchequer grant of £2,500 each year to enable the Society to discharge certain of its vital functions.

This Bill, therefore, provides that the fee which should be payable in future, on taking out the practising certificate, should be such sum not exceeding £5—I understand the maximum is not likely to be asked for at the moment—as may be determined by the Master of the Rolls, with the concurrence of the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice. The object of the proposal is to spread the cost of these functions over the whole body of the solicitors' profession, but to do that only in regard to those functions which are imposed by Statute upon the Law Society, and not in regard to those which are merely discretionary and which it can pursue or not as it chooses and which it pursues, if it does, at the cost of the subscriptions of its own members.

Perhaps I might say a word or two about the Law Society generally, and about the particular statutory functions to the discharge of which this Bill will make an additional financial subvention.

Members on both sides of the legal profession have been traditionally the subject of rude suspicion and ribald jest, and as for the lawyer in politics, perhaps occasionally with justice he has been regarded as an object of suspicion, a mere political hack who, "if not actually hired, waits anxiously and expectantly upon the rank," although I have myself never understood why it was more of a derogation to say of a person that he was a hired A.G. than to say of a person that, for instance, he was a hired P.M.G. But there it is—these beliefs die hard.

But the truth is, I think, that in modern times, although the attractions of the legal profession have certainly not increased. the members of it have shown a steadily increasing, and now very high, sense of public duty and responsibility, and I have no doubt at all that that is very largely due to the encouragement which the Law Society and, on my side of the profession, the Bar Council, have given to a corporate sense of public responsibility, of service and of obligation in return for the privileges which members of the legal profession enjoy.

Much of the work of the Law Society is, of course, discretionary, of a voluntary kind, not imposed by Statute. It is, for instance, a learned society representing the profession, constantly called upon to give advice and assistance to Government bodies, local authorities and other bodies of that kind on matters which have legal implications, and its experience is always at the disposal of the Government. I must, indeed, myself acknowledge with gratitude the assistance which, during these past five and a half years, the Law Society has always been ready to give to the Government and, indeed, to me personally.

On innumerable occasions the Society has prepared, no doubt at no little trouble and expense, evidence for Royal Commissions which have been set up, for Departmental Committees and bodies of that kind—Committees dealing with the reform of the company law or the reform of the patent law, for instance; the Committee which is now sitting under the Master of the Rolls to consider the methods by which the cost of litigation may be reduced and the processes of litigation may be expedited. To committees of this kind the Law Society has given the utmost assistance.

A notable example, of course, is the work of the recent Committee on Legal Aid, under Lord Rushcliffe. The scheme which was finally adopted by Parliament for providing legal aid was conceived by the Law Society and, in particular, by its indefatigable secretary, Mr. Lund. After a suitable period of gestation in the Committee, it is now being brought into active life by the Law Society and Bar Council in co-operation and, in particular, with the assistance of the distinguished solicitor, Mr. Littlewood, all of them acting as accomplished accoucheurs.

The House may like to know—and this is something which I mention in passing —that October was the first month in which the legal aid scheme was in operation and in that time no fewer than 9,060 applications were made for legal aid in the High Court, involving, of course, a great deal of work and a great deal of study by the Society's various local committees, which have been set up in order to handle the applications. While it is too early to say how the scheme will work eventually, I think one can say that, while obviously it must have teething troubles of one kind or another, it has so far, in this short time, been operating with remarkable smoothness, so far as one can see, and with close co-operation between the two branches of the profession in the public interest.

The direct expenses of that scheme are being met by a direct Government grant but, in fact, there will be many incidental and indirect matters arising out of the scheme which will involve the Law Society in additional working expenses—expenses which will not be reimbursed and which it will have to meet out of its own funds. One matter to which I attach great importance is the disciplinary functions which are now reposed in the Law Society under statute. It is most important that they should be discharged efficiently and with expedition. It is in respect of those functions that the Government have been making the Exchequer grant of £2,500, but the cost of those functions at present—and I suspect that this figure is likely to increase considerably—is nearly three times as much. When this new scheme under this Bill is in operation and the additional revenue is obtained from the practising certificates, it will be possible to relinquish the Government grant of £2,500, and, consequently, this Bill will provide a little relief to the Exchequer.

Then there are the very important accountancy functions which are also imposed under statute, under which the Law Society is required to keep a very close watch on the accounts of solicitors so as to see that each of them, individually, keeps proper accounts, that their accounts are audited and that any solicitor who transgresses in these matters is dealt with. In that connection, again, there is the administration of the fund out of which clients who have suffered loss from any default on the part of a solicitor may be compensated.

Another most important function—again one which is charged on the Society by statute—is in regard to legal education. Most of the fee which is received on the issue of the practising certificate is, in fact, devoted to the purposes of legal education. The position is that the revenue which the Society derives from examination fees and sources of that kind is quite insufficient to cover the cost of the Law Society's law school in London and the grants which it has to make to the law faculties of the approved schools in the provinces. As one who once taught in a law faculty, and who taught himself what little law he knows by purporting to teach it to others, I realise the great importance of not only maintaining these grants to the provincial law schools but, indeed, of increasing them. In fact, the Law Society has been unable to increase them at all since the end of the war and it is manifestly desirable that they should be increased.

The truth is that, looking at the statutory functions of the Law Society generally, the cost of administering and discharging its various duties has been steadily increasing, in part because of increased costs generally and in part because of the fact that the duties themselves have become steadily more numerous. It seems to us to be in the public interest, therefore, that the Society should be put in a financial position to conduct its various duties efficiently and properly. It is no longer practicable merely to increase the voluntary subscriptions paid by those members of the profession who voluntarily decide to join the Society, nor is it indeed right that the burden of carrying out duties which are imposed by statute upon the Society for the benefit of the whole profession and of the public should be carried out at the expense only of those members who, for one reason or another, join the Society.

The proper course, as it seems to us, is that part, at all events, of the costs imposed by statute should be borne by all solicitors, whether members of the Society or not. These proposals which, as I have said, were first introduced in another place, have the full support of the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice, the present Master of the Rolls and also of his predecessor, that most distinguished Master of the Rolls, Lord Greene. I put them before the House as meriting not only legal support—and I observe that there are a number of members of my profession here, I hope to support them—but also lay support from the public. I commend them as assisting the interests of the public and promoting the public spirit of the profession.

5.20 p.m.

The learned Attorney-General hopes there will be lay support for the Bill. I do not know if he realised he was going to get it at once; but both my hon. and learned Friends who normally speak on these matters, unfortunately cannot be here today, and they have asked me to express their views and the views of the party on this Bill. The interesting thing, in view of our previous discussion that we have had—I am sorry to speak twice on the same day, and I suspect the same thing will be said by the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman); but I hope we shall, both of us, not make it a daily practice to speak more than once—the interesting thing in view of our previous Debate is that this Bill originated as a Private Member's Bill in the House of Lords. It was introduced by Lord Schuster, and now has been adopted by the Government, and brought in here as the first Measure of the Session.

We on these benches welcome its introduction, and we hope that it will have a speedy passage through this House, though, no doubt, hon. and learned Gentlemen will have matters that they wish to raise on it which I am not competent nor yet would wish to discuss from my inexperience in that field. However, merely speaking as a layman, I understood from the right hon. and learned Attorney that all that this Bill in fact did was tcy ensure that there was sufficient finance available in the right place for the Law Society to carry out what are now its statutory functions, because the previous finance at its disposal, which, I understand, dates from 1922, was not itself a very large annual sum; and would of course, with the change in the value of money, let alone increases in statutory functions, be no longer sufficient. That seems to me to be merely making it possible to carry out in the future what Parliament in the past has decided should be carried out, and if that is all there is to it, then I cannot see that there need be any objection in any quarter.

It does, however, call one thing to the attention of Parliament, I think; and that is that it is undesirable for Parliament to impose functions upon people and expect them to carry out statutory duties, and not simultaneously see that they are sufficiently endued with the funds to do what they are ordered to do. So perhaps in future—it does not apply now—perhaps in future when, I do not say the Law Society, but any other body, is ordered by Parliament to do something, I think we should be a little more careful than we have apparently been in the past to see they are put in a position to do it. I quite understand how it happened. If we have a series of amending Acts, each one only slightly extending functions, it is very hard to get to the moment when we can say, "Now we must give them more finance." Apparently that time has now been reached in this case. That is all, as I understand it, the Bill is intended to do, and we wish it well.

5.23 p.m.

With the motives behind the Bill I, like probably most other hon. Members, find myself in complete agreement. As my right hon. and learned Friend has pointed out, the effect of this Bill will be to relieve the Exchequer of some of the expense which it at present bears. Although I am in agreement with the motives that lie behind this Bill, there is one aspect of it to which I should like to take exception. This House, it seems to me, is being asked once again to pass a vote of no confidence in the eminent and learned Gentleman who occupies the distinguished position of the Master of the Rolls.

I should like to submit to the House that the actual amount which the Council of the Law Society thinks ought to be charged to solicitors is not a matter of earth shaking importance. It is a matter upon which, of course, the views of the Law Society would be entitled to the utmost respect; for this reason, that the Council of the Law Society would not propose any alteration of the fee for practising certificates unless it had very good reasons for doing so. This Bill enables the fees for the practising certificates to be increased up to a sum of £5; but before whatever increase the Council of the Law Society may think proper can be put into effect, it has to receive the approval of the Master of the Rolls. To that, of course, I see no objection. What I think is quite unnecessary is that the Master of the Rolls has to go to get the concurrence of the Lord Chancellor and of the Lord Chief Justice.

It is a matter which, in my view, could well be left within the competence of the Master of the Rolls himself to decide in association with the Council of the Law Society. I know that this provision, this kind of tripartite consultation between three of the most eminent judges in the land, is a continuation of what appears in the 1932 Act. In the time at my disposal I have not been able to lay my hands upon the particular statute—which originated this tripartite consultation—it is one of the 27 Acts which the 1932 Act consolidates—and I do not know who the Master of the Rolls was at the time when this proposal for tripartite consultation was first put on the Statute Book. Perhaps, some other hon. Member later on in the discussion will be able to enlighten us.

But what I do, in all seriousness, want to urge is that it is surely unnecessary that three of the most eminent judges should have to put their heads together before there can be any increase in the fee for the practising certificate. It seems to me to be a relic of the past. In my view, advantage might have been taken of this opportunity to simplify the procedure somewhat. Let us consider an anomaly that may arise. The Master of the Rolls may say or come to the conclusion that the fee ought to go up. He may, perhaps, get the Lord Chief Justice to agree with him. The Lord Chancellor, who is superior to either of them in the official hierarchy, if he disagrees, will be overruled by two of his judicial subordinates. It does seem to me to be quite unnecessary, and the only caveat I enter upon this occasion is for the purpose of suggesting that for a fairly simple matter of this kind it is surely unnecessary to resort to a top-heavy procedure involving three of the most eminent judges in the land to come to a conclusion with the Law Society as to what the practising fee should be.

5.28 p.m.

I am glad I am present on this occasion when this Bill comes before the House for Second Reading. I think I am the only professional Member in the House who is neither a solicitor—and, therefore, directly imposing penalties upon himself—nor a member of the other branch of the profession who have certain gains by assisting solicitors. I am in the happy and independent position of being neither one nor the other—and not even a judge. In these circumstances, I think I am completely independent in what I am going to say.

The right hon. and learned Attorney-General went through the various functions of the Law Society. He omitted one function for which we are all indebted to them, and that is their hospitality from time to time; and it is on those occasions when most of us learn what are the difficulties of those who manage the Law Society. All I can say is that when the Law Society comes to Parliament and asks for something, I do not believe there is any Member of either House, lay or professional, who would hesitate to give them what they ask.

There may be one or two members of one branch of the profession who may want to enter a caveat to that, and perhaps I had better tone it down and say that in both Houses there would be an enormous majority in favour of giving the Law Society what they wanted.

The Law Society have two main functions: education, to which the learned Attorney-General has referred, and discipline. It is through those two great functions that they have made what is called, I think rather unkindly, the lower branch of the legal profession in this country stand higher than the corresponding practitioners in any other part of the world. That is due to that education and that discipline, and when the Law Society, speaking through the mouth of the Attorney-General, tell us that they have not got sufficient funds adequately to carry out one or other or both of those functions, there can be no hesitation whatever, and we should give them what they ask. The way in which they ask—namely, by imposing penalties upon themselves—is something that might well be taken note of by other bodies of citizens in this country. They could have come and asked for different assistance from this House, and I believe that we might have found our way clear to do something for them.

The only point I am wondering about is this. It is quite true in one sense that this is a comparatively small annual increase for which they are asking for the certificate, but the important thing to bear in mind is: What does it cost a young man on being admitted? What has he got to pay out to be admitted; and what other annual obligations, if any, has he got on his personal pocket? I remember very well, in earlier years than I am afraid most hon. Members in the Chamber at this moment will remember, when the difficulties of managing clerks to get education and to get themselves admitted were very much greater than they are today. In my very early days I was one of those who endeavoured to teach—although I am bound to say that I do not know that in those days I knew a very great deal myself—for two or three years a class of managing clerks at the Workingmen's College in Camden Town. It was to those sorts of expedients that the education of that branch of the profession was reduced in those days. It is very different now.

But having had that experience in my early days, I say that anything the Law Society asks for to assist them in the education of those who desire to become solicitors, and anything they ask for to keep those who are admitted up to the standards which we take as a matter of course in the profession in this country, ought willingly to be granted by this House. I have great pleasure, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, with you in the Chair, in giving all support to this excellent Measure.

5.35 p.m.

I apologise to the House for addressing it a second time on the same day, but in view of the fact that everybody who has so far addressed the House on this Bill—except the layman who spoke for the Opposition—has been a member of the other branch of the profession, and as the money is to be paid by solicitors, I thought that perhaps it might not be out of place if a solicitor, had a word to say about it before we part with the Bill, more particularly as there are a number of hon. Members on both sides who are solicitors, and who on professional points like to consult one another from time to time. I am bound to say that we have not had the opportunity of consulting one another about this Bill, but I think it would be safe to say that even without such consultation, none of us is in the least degree critical of this Measure or would wish to withhold support from it.

I think, and I believe the others to whom I refer would think, that the case or this Bill is amply made out, and the House ought to give it an easy passage. Nevertheless, I should like to protect myself as a solicitor from the suggestion made by the hon. and learned Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens), that we should tell the Law Society in advance that we are prepared to give an easy unopposed passage to anything they might at any time care to propose.

It was because I thought the hon. and learned Gentleman was going quite as far as that, that I ventured to interrupt him to say that, speaking for myself, I would not go as far as that. I am relieved to hear that he would not go as far as that either. Indeed, this Bill is really an illustration of how necessary it is—although on this occasion we are all in favour of it—that the House of Commons should not take anything for granted in these matters. There are a great many people—certainly a great many members of the Law Society—who would be in favour of making membership of the Law Society compulsory by statute and there is quite a strong case to be made for it. It is most interesting to see so many hon. Members opposite who almost foam at the mouth on every occasion when anybody refers to anything that might be called a "closed shop," some of whom are most enthusiastic for making membership of some learned society, the Law Society or other societies, compulsory.

I think that the Law Society has been wise to avoid the temptation—and it must have been a strong temptation—to ask the House of Commons for powers to make membership compulsory. It is already a "closed shop" in a very true sense, and a necessary sense, in that nobody can practise this profession without satisfying the Law Society of his standards, both by way of legal education, by way of character, and by the constant supervision of his professional conduct, the inquiry into complaints, a strong disciplinary code, and all that. That is quite right. It is very good trade union practice, and I am all in favour of it. I am only surprised that some hon. Members opposite are in favour of it for the learned societies, but opposed to it for the trades.

One of the consequences of not having compulsory membership of the Law Society is that, up to now, those who have been members of the Law Society have had to pay part of the financial burden which really belongs to the whole profession, and what we are really doing in this Bill is making sure, without making membership of the Law Society compulsory, that every member of the profession shall pay his reasonable proportion of the expenses of those statutory functions which can only be discharged, and which by statute must be discharged, by the Law Society. It is for those reasons that we are in favour of it and we hope the House will accept it.

Mention has been made of other professions, and in moving the Second Reading my right hon. and learned Friend referred to the legal aid scheme, and to the fact that the Act enacts almost exactly, though not quite, a scheme formulated by the Law Society itself. I see my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health sitting on the Front Bench. I am wondering how much easier a time he might have had if in the Health Service he had had a body like the Law Society to deal with instead of a body like the British Medical Association. It is an example of which our profession is proud, and we hope that other professions may some day follow suit. Meanwhile, we welcome and support this Bill.

5.41 p.m.

I would like, as a back bencher on this side of the House, to say my word of welcome to this Bill, which performs the relatively unusual task of extracting money from the pockets of the lawyers. That is not always the result of legislation passed in this House. I ought, first of all, to declare my interest in this matter by saying that I am a practising solicitor and also a member of the Law Society, although, as already has been said, this is not a Bill from which practising solicitors will derive any financial benefit—rather the reverse—we shall derive a much more important benefit from this measure, in that it is another valuable contribution towards the maintenance of the standards of our profession.

I am not sure that I share the anxiety expressed by the hon. and gallant Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton) with regard to consultation with the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice. I think, speaking from a personal point of view, that solicitors rather value this association with the very highest dignitaries of the profession. We are, after all, as solicitors, officers of the court, and I think we like to feel that the eminent gentlemen at the head of the legal profession are taking, from time to time, an interest in our welfare, even though on this occasion it will be at our expense.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) has mentioned the question of membership of the Law Society. Like many other solicitors, I have been a member of the Law Society all my practising life, but I would be as strong as anyone could be in opposition to any measure to make membership compulsory. It would be equally undesirable to attempt to bring pressure to bear on non-members by financial or other means; but nothing of that kind is attempted here.

This is a very proper measure which is now proposed. As time has gone on, Parliament has seen fit to place upon the Law Society many statutory duties, and, although it is almost as dangerous to praise one's disciplinary body as to criticise it, I think it is in order to say that the Law Society has discharged its functions in these matters with great dignity and success.

One of the results of this Measure will be to spread throughout the whole profession, irrespective of membership of the Society, the additional cost of carrying out the statutory duties we have placed upon the Law Society. For that reason, and having great confidence not only in the Society itself but in the very happy working arrangements which have been arrived at between the Society, on the one hand, and the Master of the Rolls and the learned Attorney, on the other, I think that this measure should enjoy our united support.

5.45 p.m.

After the discussions that we have had during the past few days, it is welcome to enter into the calmer atmosphere of professional discussion on a matter which, I am sure, will command whole-hearted support from all parts of the House, whether from members of the solicitors' profession or from lay quarters. It is a very pleasant feature indeed that we can rely, as we can, on the support of lay Members of the House in matters which appertain to our profession.

It is useful at this stage, now that this measure is before us, for this House and for the country to realise the tremendous changes which have taken place in the solicitor's branch of the profession since 1922 and the present day. The fee that we are being charged is £1 per year, 15s. of which goes for education and the other 5s. for the duties which the Law Society have to carry out and which are imposed upon them by statute. Since those days, I have been listing the number of obligations which have been imposed upon the Law Society, and I find that there are in 17 Sections since 1932, 17 obligations and responsibilities imposed upon the Society by statute, and, in addition, there are 13 responsibilities imposed upon the Registrar of Solicitors by statute.

I think that in view of those immense responsibilities the profession is entitled to be reinforced, particularly having regard to the changes which have taken place in the solicitors' branch of the legal profession. In 1922, the solicitors' branch of the legal profession was more or less a closed shop. Only those of the better-to-do sections of the community could enter their sons in the profession, because, first of all, there was the heavy stamp duty of £80 imposed on the articles, of clerkship, and, in addition, the articled clerk or his parents had to be prepared to pay a premium to the solicitor to whom he was articled. Then, in spite of this burden, there was only a limited field for him when he qualified, whereas today the solicitors' branch of the profession has been thrown open to the community, largely due, if I may say so, to this Labour Government. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] That is quite right. I am being factual about it. We have reduced the stamp duty from £80 to 2s. 6d. In addition, we have made available to all members of the community opportunities of having protection by being advised by solicitors and barristers. There is now no longer one law for the rich and one for the poor. I do not say that with any sense of disrespect to the Opposition.

There are further opportunities for those who enter the profession, without those financial handicaps, because of this new legislation, of earning a livelihood. My point, therefore, is that because there are more opportunities for members of the community generally to put their sons and daughters into the profession, and because when they get into the profession there is more opportunity of their earning a livelihood, the additional amount which the Law Society is calling upon those who enter the profession to pay by way of annual payments—the sum of £5 maximum—is by no means a burden on those who are in the profession at the present time or on those who will enter it in the days to come.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Committed to a Committee of the whole House. [ Mr. Wilkins.]

Committee Tomorrow.