Letter: Justice in peril

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The Independent Culture
Sir: Magistrates' courts are to have their powers to try defendants increased dramatically as the right to jury trial is restricted.

Presumably the Government would agree that the principal aim of the criminal justice system must be to reach a just result, ensuring that miscarriages of justice do not happen. I have grave doubts about whether magistrates can deliver on this score.

The imbalance between acquittals in the crown court and magistrates' court is striking: 62 per cent to 24 according to government statistics. As a lawyer who represents defendants in both courts I believe the figures reflect a worrying reality.

All too often the perception is that magistrates, and in particular professional stipendiary magistrates, don't listen to evidence in the way juries do. Sitting on cases daily, there is a tendency to think they have heard it all before. Justices come under ever-increasing pressure in the name of efficiency to push matters through quickly so that cases which would take days of careful consideration in the crown court are done and dusted in an afternoon. The truth often lies in the fine detail and magistrates simply do not have the time to give proper consideration to the nuances of the individual case.

Defendants in the magistrates' court also run the gauntlet of poor prosecution and defence preparation. On the prosecution side CPS lawyers are massively overworked; important detail which might assist the defence often remains in prosecution files.On the defence side important witnesses may be ignored, scenes of crime unvisited, legal arguments unexplored. The attitude appears to be that summary trials are not so important. Certainly for lawyers they do not have the same cachet.

Research shows that there is a belief held by both defendants and their solicitors that magistrates are not impartial but on the side of the police. The imbalance in acquittal figures tends to show there is some truth in this.

Only two years ago Jack Straw was saying that removing the right to jury trial was "not only wrong but short-sighted, and likely to prove ineffective". He was right. Our principles of justice, especially the presumption of innocence and the right to jury trial, are widely admired and copied around the world. We should not seek to undermine our core values.

MARK HARDIE

Solicitor higher court advocate

London NW1

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