Letter: Trial by magistrate

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Sir: I believe a defendant facing trial in front of a stipendiary magistrate may indeed be at risk of the worst option (letter, 26 November). Judge, jury and sentencer is an onerous burden for a justice sitting alone and even the most diligent and objective stipendiary may not hear the finest nuance in evidence or note the way in which it is given, out of sheer case fatigue.

My experience, sitting in a busy outer London court, is that this is not the case with lay magistrates. Trials are not rushed in order to push matters through and most criminal trials at our level are set down for half a day or longer.

Perhaps there is an argument to say that cases that can currently be heard, at the choice of the defendant, in either the crown court or the magistrates' court should in future be heard by a bench of three, but this should include a stipendiary, where one is attached to the court. In this way, moderate-level offences would be heard by an experienced but not case-hardened tribunal.

However, I do not believe that the Government's proposals to limit the right to jury trial will diminish the overall fairness of our system of justice.

The legal profession may consider that clients have a better chance of "the right result" before a jury. The right result for the community, though? There is a lot to be said for the common-sense experience shown by a tribunal of three lay magistrates for all but the most serious cases. Speed of justice and cost are sound reasons for the changes proposed, with no reason to conclude that more innocents will be found guilty unjustly.


Elstree, Hertfordshire