§ 3.5 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for the Third Reading read.
§ VISCOUNT BRENTFORD
My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lord Colville of Culross, who has asked me to express his apologies to your Lordships fox being unavoidably prevented from being present to-day, I wish to move that this Bill be read a third time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(Viscount Brentford.)
§ LORD SILKIN
My Lords, I apologise for troubling your Lordships on this matter once more, but this is a Bill in which I did take some special interest on the Second Reading. On that occasion I explained to your Lordships that the Bill bad had, as I thought, somewhat inadequate consideration in another place. It had passed the Second Reading "on the nod"; there was a very scanty Committee stage; and altogether the amount of time that was taken up on this most important amendment of the law in another place was something of the order of an hour and a half.
A number of honourable Members in another place expressed the hope that your Lordships would give this Bill very careful consideration, and, if necessary, move Amendments on some of the points which had troubled them. When we had our Second Reading here I myself undertook to scrutinise this Bill very carefully, 873 and to put down any Amendments that I thought might be desirable, either to clarify matters or for other reasons. There were, in particular, a number of points which troubled honourable Members in another place—for instance, the clause which provides that, in certain circumstances, where no substantial benefit would accrue to either party from the continuation of the proceedings, the court could dismiss or stay the proceedings. There was some hesitation in accepting these words, because they were thought to be vague and uncertain, and it was not easy to ascertain what was the meaning of "no substantial benefit accruing to either party".
There was also my own difficulty in accepting the fact that, While it was right that husbands and wives should be free to take proceedings against one another, I still thought it rather unseemly that a husband or a wife should be able to take proceedings against the other party in such matters as libel and slander. I thought that particularly inappropriate, and I was proposing to put down an Amendment to accept actions of that kind. However, I have given the matter a good deal of consideration. I have talked it over with a number of noble Lords, and I have come to the conclusion that I cannot devise an alternative form of words to "no substantial benefit". I know that that is the point which troubled the promoters of the Bill in another place. We know what we mean: we mean that where there is no purpose in an action by a husband against his wife, or vice versa, the court should be able to say so, and stop the proceedings, thus preventing waste of time and expense; and what we were rather concerned about was whether these particular words met the case. I must confess that, having given a good deal of thought to it, I can find no better form of words than are in the Bill.
On the other question, I have discussed it with a number of noble Lords and Ladies, and I was impressed with the fact that I should not have had a great deal of support if I had tried to except actions for libel and slander. I know that a number of noble Lords and Ladies would have supported me, but I think that a considerable majority would have been 874 against me, and therefore I decided not to trouble the House by moving an Amendment.
Finally, this is broadly such a good Bill—it is so progressive, and it conforms so fully with the Report of the Law Reform Committee—that I should hesitate to do anything which might possibly endanger its passage. Had Amendments been moved and carried, that would have involved sending the Bill back to the House of Commons for their consideration, and I felt that it was better to accept a Bill, which, even if one had certain minor hesitations about it, was worth having, rather than to endanger its passage. I hope that your Lordships will forgive me for explaining this matter at some length, but, having made such heavy weather about amending this Bill on Committee, I thought that, as no Amendments appear to-day, this explanation was due to your Lordships. I fully support the Motion for Third Reading.
§ BARONESS HORSBRUGH
My Lords, all I want to say is that I regret the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, was not able to find a better form of words. I had some discussion with him, as others did, and I thought that we could have improved this Bill; but evidently it is too difficult. Certainly I, as an amateur, could not possibly suggest other words, but I am not satisfied that in the Bill we have the best form. Once again I would say, as other noble Lords have said, that the difficulty is that we get Bills coming up at this time of year and always have to decide whether we shall make them better Bills or get them through at all. I think that that is great disadvantage to Bills which are going to be Acts of Parliament under which this country is to be administered. I repeat that I should have been glad if the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, had been able to put forward suggestions to make this a better Bill.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR (LORD DILHORNE)
said that the Bill had been considered for only a short space in the House of Commons. In another capacity, I think that I spent considerably more than an hour and a half in trying to devise a formula which was more satisfactory for the purpose of putting into a Statute than that contained 875 in the Report to the Committee. I think that we found the best formula that can be devised. Of course, we shall be glad to consider any suggestions put forward, but it is not easy to define a matter of this kind with a degree of precision and yet arrive at the proper result. I believe that this will work all right in practice, and that the courts can and will give effect to it in accordance with the wishes of all those who have spoken in your Lordships' House.
§ VISCOUNT BRENTFORD
My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Colville of Culross, I should like to thank noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. I am sure that he will consider that the greatest compliment that could have been paid to this Bill is the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, was unable to find the right words whereby it could be improved. That being the case, I am sure that the wording of the Bill must be as good as it can be made. If it is of any reassurance to your Lordships, I would say that for a Private Member's Bill this Bill seems to have received more acute and detailed discussion by the Law Officers of the Crown, past and present, than any Private Member's Bill is ever likely to have had before; for I know, from a perusal of the OFFICIAL REPORT, that the present Solicitor General was involved in discussions and also the ex-Solicitor General. And his predecessor, who is now President of the Probate and Divorce Division, I am credibly informed, has also approved the present phraseology. I feel, therefore, that with this almost classical series of approvals, your Lordships will be fully justified in passing this Bill.
§ On Question, Bill read 3a, and passed.