Below is the text of the maiden speech made by Marcus Lipton, the then Labour MP for Brixton, in the House of Commons on 26 October 1945.
The traditional sympathy extended to those who, like myself, address this House for the first time will, I hope, speedily transfer itself to the much more deserving object, namely, the provision of legal aid for poor persons, on which I venture to speak this afternoon. In May of this year the report of the Committee on legal aid and legal advice in England and Wales was presented to Parliament. This highly qualified Committee, consisting of men and women of great eminence and wide experience, presented unanimous and very practical findings on which I would urge His Majesty’s Government to express an opinion at the earliest possible moment. I am only too well aware of the very heavy demands upon the Government’s time, but this can be said: this question of legal aid is fortunately one that requires no world-wide preliminary measure of international agreement, but is one that can be solved within our own unfettered jurisdiction.
It is, I think, generally agreed that existing facilities are totally and hopelessly inadequate. Laws and Regulations of all kinds are pouring forth in an ever-growing flood, and many of them are not clear even to some hon. Members of this House. Legal assistance for ordinary folk, therefore, becomes all the more necessary, and an adequate scheme of legal aid must be regarded as an essential contribution towards improved social services. There are of course many aspects of this problem covering both criminal and civil proceedings. I shall not attempt to deal with more than one aspect of the problem, an aspect which I know is a source of gnawing anxiety and suffering of spirit to very large numbers of our fellow citizens—how large this House will, in a moment or two, be able to judge.
In 1942 the Army Council, realising the importance of legal aid to Service men and women in their civil affairs, introduced a scheme of legal aid in which I have had the privilege of taking some part. The other two Services followed suit. It is not for me, either now or at any other time, to appraise the value or the necessity of this scheme; of legal aid for the Services.
Suffice it to say that, according to the latest annual report of the Law Society, the number of cases submitted by the Army and the R.A.F. Legal Aid Sections to the Poor Persons Committee now reaches no less a figure than 900 a month. Largely as a result of Service cases, the number of applications received by the Poor Persons Committee of the Law Society in London during 1944 was 11,137, treble the figure of 1941. Of these cases, 97 per cent. are matrimonial. I understand that so far this year over 13,000 new applications have already been received, and that the number of cases awaiting consideration by the Poor Persons Committee increased between January and October of this year from 9,000 to 14,000. The Poor Persons Committee, I know, is doing its best to cope with the influx of cases but it now takes nearly ten months before a poor persons’ certificate is granted. After that certificate is granted, the actual conduct of the case is assigned to another committee of the Law Society, the Services Divorce Department. I understand that at this moment there are 2,500 cases in respect of which poor persons’ certificates have been granted and they are held up because they cannot be accepted by the Services Divorce Department, which is itself more than occupied with current cases. The Services Divorce Department has over 12,000 cases in hand at the moment.
Here is a state of affairs which, when its full moral and social implications are realised, ought to stir the conscience of the nation. Everyone knows that a major casualty of the war on the home front has been the number of homes broken and ruined, not by enemy bombs, but by the infidelity of one or the other spouse. I have known of cases where our men have come back from German and Japanese prison camps to find children in their homes of which they were not the fathers. I have known other cases in which the first intimation that anything was wrong was when the Service man contracted venereal disease from his wife on his return to his home. To a Service man who applies for legal aid, one has to say, “Yes, you have a good case, and you; should certainly be able to obtain a dissolution of your marriage, but it will take at least two years, and it may be a bit longer.” It is tribute to the self-control of our men that in so few cases, when faced with domestic tragedies of this kind, do they take the law into their own hands, and when they do English juries, flatly disregarding judicial direction, have been known to return a verdict of manslaughter rather than murder, a danger signal that the law and public opinion are drifting apart. I do not ask for the impossible, or even for the difficult. At this moment I am not asking for the law to be changed. I ask only that it be applied. A practical solution has been worked out and is available in the report to which I have ventured to draw attention. It is one which, I believe, will be supported in most quarters of the House and by most people whose opinion in the matter is worth taking into account.
It involves no new revolutionary principle. It merely reaffirms a principle established 730 years ago in Magna Charta: To none will we refuse or delay right or justice. I emphasise the word “delay.” It is on this principle that I base my very heartfelt appeal to the Government to give early attention to the report of this Committee. There is another reason. Each of the thousands of cases to which I have referred affects two, if not three, or more persons. The happiness and wellbeing of thousands of men, women and children are involved. Delay amounting almost to a denial of justice puts a premium on irregular unions, illegitimate children who can never be legitimised and all the other unsatisfactory social consequences of unsettled and completely severed family ties. Real social security is not just a matter of housing, education, food and such material things, essential though they are. Social security is just a facade which is not buttressed by the spiritual values that develop out of happy homes. It is our duty to rebuild or to repair the social fabric of these broken lives as well as it is our duty to rebuild our shattered houses. Despite the alarming figures to which I have referred, the vast number of men who have served will happily return to homes where the purity of family life has been cherished and preserved in all these trying years. Let us ensure, as we can do, given the assistance of His Majesty’s Government, that for those of our serving men whose home-coming is darkened by domestic misfortune, the fruits of victory shall not be made bitter because the opportunities of legal redress have become so increasingly remote.