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Sheriffs' Pensions (Scotland) Bill

Volume 643: debated on Tuesday 4 July 1961

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Lords Amendments considered.

Clause 6—(Retiring Age)

Lords Amendment: In page 3, line 35, leave out "appointed" and insert:

"first appointed to the office of sheriff".

10.41 p.m.

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

This Amendment arises out of one made on Report in this House, in order again to meet certain points made in Committee upstairs by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) and, I believe, by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. McInnes). It was to bring in an age limit of 72 for any sheriff or sheriff principal appointed after the date when the Bill became an Act.

In the Amendment as drafted, and I take full responsibility for this—the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) can say what he likes about my competence in regard to this—there was, unfortunately, a technical snag, because it sometimes happens that a sheriff in one of the more outlying and lesser paid sheriffdoms is moved to a better paid office. That is a new appointment and not a transfer.

The effect of this Amendment would be that when that happened to a sheriff in office at present, if he were transferred and was newly appointed to another sheriffdom, he would not be caught by the retiring age under the Bill. I do not think that on Report it was the intention of any hon. Member that that should be so.

I am not sure that I agree with the Lords in this Amendment at all. Originally the Bill proposed among other things to fix an age at which sheriffs would be obliged to retire. There is an upper age limit and there is provision for a sheriff to retire at any time from the age of 65 onwards. We started by saying that the upper age at which a sheriff would be obliged to retire was the completion of the year in which he reached 72 years of age. Then we provided in respect of the part-time sheriffs, that is to say, the sheriffs principal, that only those appointed after the coming into operation of this Measure would be required to observe the retiring age limit of 72 years.

The Amendment now proposes that the Bill should be further altered to provide that this requirement to retire at 72 years of age shall apply only in respect of those sheriffs who were first appointed to a sheriffdom before the passing of the Act. Therefore, we could well find that ten years from now a sheriffdom would still be landed with a new sheriff who would be already over the retiring age of 72 years.

10.45 p.m.

This is an absurd situation. I do not agree with the Amendment. If we take the example of the sheriff of Lanarkshire—no, Lanarkshire would be a bad example. If we take the sheriffdom of Ayrshire, we shall have the learned sheriffs substitute, the full-time sheriffs who are disabled from engaging in private practice, required to retire at 72. But if we accept this Amendment, a sheriff who is already in office in another sheriffdom and is transferred to the sheriffdom of Ayrshire in the year 1971, when he is already 73 years of age, he may be landed on the sheriffdom of Ayrshire under this Amendment, but only under this Amendment; because if we do not agree with this Amendment he would be required to retire at 73 years of age. If we agree with this Amendment, the Lord Advocate can take a sheriff from another sheriffdom in Scotland and appoint him as sheriff of Ayrshire when the sheriff is already beyond the retiring age.

Why does the right hon. and learned Gentleman want to do this? Is he having second thoughts about the original purpose of the Bill? Has anyone pressed him to do this? Is there any good reason for making this Amendment at all? Is it a good thing for us to legislate in 1961 that the compulsory retiring age for sheriffs should be 72 and then provide a legal loophole by which a sheriff could be transferred from one sheriffdom to another ten years after, at the age of 73 or 74? Why should we agree with this Amendment? What is the case for it? I hope that the Lord Advocate can see how the same reasoning applies to a tell us the justification for it, which so sheriff who is engaging in private practice, far we have not heard.

I am glad to hear the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser). I have not discussed this matter with him, but I had come to the same conclusion that this is not a desirable Amendment. My hon. Friend put the case against the Amendment on the basis of a sheriff being transferred from one sheriffdom to another at the age of 71, for example, when he would be able to continue in office until he was 80 or 85. That could hardly be expected to induce in the minds of people who might have to appear before him any great confidence in the legal system of Scotland, and perhaps not in the justice which might be metered out.

I have always been against the idea that for some strange reason judges do not reach the end of their working life. I have never been able to understand why in other professions men are accustomed to retire at 60 or 65 but that in the legal profession they seem to go on for ever. When we discussed the legislation relating to judges' pensions, and during the passage of this Bill, I moved Amendments to the effect that the retiral age should be made as low as possible. I moved an Amendment which the right hon. and learned Gentleman was kind enough to accept to apply this provision to sheriffs not prevented from engaging in private practice.

I do not see why we need to pass this Amendment. If it is a good thing for a sheriff to retire at the age of 72, and I think that it is good for him to retire earlier, it seems to me that there is no argument for stretching it out and allowing as many people as possible to remain after the age of 72. Why should we go out of our way to make a special exception and allow people to stay on after they are 72 when we have decided that it is a good thing for them to retire at that age? I do not understand that.

I can understand the exceptions in the case of a sheriff or sheriff substitute who was appointed before the Bill is passed, because he has accepted a full-time permanent job on this basis. But I cannot see how the same reasoning applies to a sheriff who is engaging in private practice.

For these reasons, and the powerful ones advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, I find it exceedingly difficult to understand why this Amendment has been moved. The legal profession takes some beating. If one tries to control it in one way it gets round it another way. Here, members of that profession are clinging on to the plums and the incomes of office for as long as possible. It is all rather sordid. Why do they not get out and make way for younger people? This is a squalid business altogether—a little bit of money grabbing by people who have already enjoyed handsome incomes, in most cases, all their lives. It is greatly to be deplored.

I would like to see the legal profession acting more magnanimously and a sheriff saying, "At the age of 73 I believe that I am fit, but I know that I am not fit to do the job and I will get out." But, no! Sheriffs can be wheeled into court, or cannot hear half the time, or may snooze. One has only to look round the House of Commons during Question Time. I have seen as many as a dozen hon. Members nodding away and then jerking up their heads. If we have a judge doing this sort of thing, what confidence does that create in the mind of the poor litigant who is appearing before him? The litigant naturally thinks that he is not getting a fair trial. He may be—I am not saying that he is not. But he says, "You should have seen the dodderer who tried me. He did not hear half the things I said."

This is not good enough. What we did in Committee was a good thing. I cannot say that I have been convinced so far by the Lord Advocate of the wisdom of accepting this Amendment, which will allow more people to Carry on than probably would have carried go on if the Clause had remained as it was.

I speak again by leave of the House. I always enjoy the speech of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) about lawyers. I am sure there must be somebody up-stairs who has not heard it before. We are accustomed to it and know it by heart. He was more impressive than usual but that is probably because it is nearly eleven o'clock.

The Bill as originally drafted applied an age limit to sheriffs substitute and full-time sheriffs only if they elected to come under its provisions. That is to say, they could take advantage of the Bill and the age limit or stick out altogether. It was only on Report that we dealt with part-time sheriffs. I confess that, if I had thought of this at the time, I would have drafted the Amendment rather differently. It was not intended to apply to anybody at present in office.

The reason is simply that as a matter of practice and convenience it is desirable on occasion to move an existing sheriff from one of the less busy sheriffdoms to one of the busier ones. I have ascertained that there may be one or two sheriffs who could desirably be promoted, as it were, if Her Majesty were to think fit, but they might think twice about it if they came under the age limit on such a transfer because it is technically a new appointment and, accordingly, it would bring them within the Bill.

The point is not so much foisting an old man on a new sheriffdom, because if he is good enough to be put on a new sheriffdom he is obviously a man of some ability. The argument works the other way, because it means that one rarely leaves an incompetent one to moulder in the same remote spot until he is 80 or 90; what one wants to do is to get a good one to transfer to the busy sheriffdom where he is most wanted.

That is the reason for it. I feel that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser) are not really as "agin" the Amendment as they indicated when they spoke.

Question put and agreed to.