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Amendment Of Inheritance (Provision For Family And Dependants) Act 1975

Volume 23: debated on Friday 14 May 1982

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I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 15, at end insert

'to enable the applicant to recover such part but not all of the benefit to which he would otherwise be entitled'.

With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 3, in page 1, line 16, leave out from 'to' to end of line 19 and insert

`the conduct of the applicant'.

Amendment No. 2 is a clarifying amendment. Under present law the court has a discretion to decide whether the principle of public policy should be applied to the facts of each case. Reference has already been made to the case of Connor. This could be described as an all-or-nothing approach, but in the light of the discretion it would be absurd for the Bill to provide that, although the court may decide that the circumstances are such that public policy requires that no relief should be given, nevertheless it can hold that total relief shall be given.

It is not clear from the clause whether the promoters intend that to be the case. One could mitigate the all-or-nothing approach by allowing partial relief, but do the promoters wish to go further? If so, what do they intend?

I have not understood the hon. Gentleman's point. Perhaps he could elaborate it. It has been made clear that, in the substantive clauses which come from another place, it will be possible for the courts to give part and not all of the estate. Is the hon. Gentleman urging that in every case it must not be all but only part of the estate? That is how I interpret his question. On the general principle, he is pushing against an open door, because, as the Solicitor-General said, the objective is not to have an all-or-nothing approach but to reach a position where part may be given and not all.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It would probably be better and simpler if I were to continue with the other amendment, because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, amendments Nos. 2 and 3 are coupled for debate. The argument for one hinges upon the argument for the other.

The purpose of amendment No. 2 is to probe the intentions of the sponsors in this narrow avenue of the Bill. Amendment No. 3 is related to amendment No. 2. when I have explained the reasons for amendment No. 3, some of the answers might be more apparent to the hon. Gentleman.

Clause 1 envisages that the court shall have a general discretion to give such relief as it considers just, having regard to all the circumstances. The court is directed to consider not only the conduct of both the applicant and the deceased, but the financial needs of the applicant and any other person affected. That suggests that, however blameworthy the conduct of the applicant, relief could be given if he could show greater need than any other person affected,

It is surely wrong to depart too much from the conduct of the applicant being the determining factor. It is only in a case in which conduct, although sufficient to give rise to criminal liability, is morally excusable that any discretion to grant relief from the principle of common law should be given.

As I have said, the purpose of these two amendments, which have properly been coupled for consideration today, is to probe the intentions of the sponsors of the Bill in relation to the fairly narrow aspect that I have mentioned.

It is simple to reply on the probing amendments. I do not want the matter to be fettered when we come to redrafting the necessary clauses.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) will agree that there can be circumstances in which, although culpability and conduct are bound to be the overriding factor, it is seen that the applicant is in an affluent position. If he is, the court may decide that it is not prepared to exercise its discretion. If there was an estate and the person's conduct was weighed, one could consider whether it would be right to throw the applicant upon the resources of the State rather than using the resources of the estate in order to assist.

It is the intention of the sponsors to lay the emphasis on the conduct of the applicant, but to enable the court to have the elbow room to consider the other factors. As a result of the debates, we have all said that we are concerned that the discretion of the court is so limited that it can do only either everything or nothing. It would be unfortunate if we now tried to fetter that discretion. The hon. Gentleman can be assured that any clause that is drafted will be one in which the importance of the consideration of conduct is clearly stated. I hope that, with those assurances, it will be possible for the hon. Gentleman not to press the point further.

The many questions of principle that lie behind the amendment have been discussed because you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and your predecessor permitted a general, wide-ranging debate. Amendment No. 2 raises directly the all-or-nothing matter. I shall not embark upon any further comment on these general principles. The only advice that I can usefully give the House is to repeat that the clause would be unacceptable in its present form. It must be entirely redrafted. Although it has been useful that my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) has raised these matters, it is reasonable, I think, that these should be treated simply as probing amendments rather than introduced into the Bill at this stage.

The short debate on these two amendments has been useful. I am grateful for the explanations given by my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General and by the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse). I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

1.22 pm

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Today's discussion has been sufficiently wide-ranging to cover all the matters that would have been raised in a Second Reading debate. I believe that the intentions of the Bill are well understood. It will come back for further discussion with considerable changes.

I wish to take the opportunity to thank the House for its indulgence. I should like to thank also the Solicitor-General and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) for the great help that they have given me. I wish especially to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse), who has done most of the work and without whose help, as the discussions today have made clear, there would not have been a Bill at all. I am sure that my constituents understand that I seek to bring relief to a small group of tragic people, mostly women, whose suffering will be alleviated. I believe that the final shaping of the Bill in the House of Lords will mean that on its return it will be acceptable to both sides of the House.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Homewood) on his good fortune and wisdom in selecting a Bill which has been generally welcomed by both sides of the House. I congratulate him also on his courage in tackling a subject where an obvious need exists and for seeking boldly and bravely to improve the law in this respect. Notwithstanding the amendments that have been made, I believe that a very useful Bill will emerge.

I was lucky enough to serve on the Standing Committee on the Bill. I felt then, and still feel, that it is a better Bill for new clause I relating to the responsibilities of those who have been convicted of murder.

Following those few words, I once again congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering and wish the Bill a speedy passage.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.