Leading article: Correct first time, Mr Straw - trial by jury is a basic right

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The Independent Culture
"TRIAL BY jury" - the famous words ring out in English history, from Magna Carta to Gilbert and Sullivan. They describe an institution so embedded in the national fabric that rational thought about its purpose and value is nearly impossible. So, on first hearing that Jack Straw, our "tough" Home Secretary, has decided to limit its application, one is suspended between admiration at his political courage and horror at his legal iconoclasm.

A close look at what is in fact being proposed, however, suggests that Mr Straw has simply let himself be captured by the efficiency-minded zealots of the Treasury. Yes, it is expensive to allow defendants accused of serious, but not the most serious, crimes to elect trial by a jury of their peers rather than to make their case before a local magistrate, and it must be very frustrating for the authorities when defendants change their plea to guilty at the last moment. But are convenience and cost really to be traded against the basic principle of justice? After all, it would be much cheaper to execute convicted murderers than to keep them in jail, but let us hope that this would not motivate the Home Office to consider the return of capital punishment.

Mr Straw contends that it is mistaken to refer to trial by jury as an ancient right, for it was only in the 19th century that this choice was given to defendants. In fact, before an 1855 Act of Parliament, the relevant crimes could be tried only by juries; after that date, defendants could choose trial by a magistrate if they wished. It is specious for Mr Straw to argue that doing away with trial by jury altogether in these cases is not diminishing the historic rights of accused citizens.

Black defendants often choose trial by jury in order to avoid appearing before magistrates they perceive to be racially prejudiced, and evidence shows that black people are, in fact, better treated by the Crown Courts when it comes to sentencing and conviction.

The confidence of the citizenry in the fairness of the criminal justice system depends largely on the part played in it by ordinary lay jurors. Tampering with this confidence, in the interests of administrative convenience, is a false economy. The costs, if not measurable, are undoubtedly greater than the benefits.

Until a convincing case is made on grounds of justice for abandoning our reliance on jury trials, governments should refrain from hacking away at the extent of the system just because the police and the court officials find it inconvenient. So while it is refreshing to hear a politician admit that he has changed his mind about something, this is a case where the instincts Jack Straw showed in opposition would serve him well in government. He opposed this reform then; he should abandon it now.