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`Ancient' right dates from 1855

While it has undoubtedly passed into our constitutional framework, the right of a defendant to elect trial by jury is not as ancient as sometimes believed.

Before 1855, there were only two categories of offence - those triable only on indictment and those triable only summarily.

After that, the distinction became blurred. The 1855 Administration of Justice Act allowed JPs to try minor larcenies (dishonesty offences), with the consent of the accused. The changes were said to have been made for "diminishing expense and delay in the administration of criminal justice". The list of "either way" offences expanded, most notably in the 1925 Criminal Justice Act, which included for the first time such crimes as serious theft offences, assault occasioning actual bodily harm and some forgery offences. Ministers claim that many defendants who elect jury trial do so to delay proceedings or increase their chances of acquittal. Supporters of the right claim it is vital in dishonesty cases where a conviction stains a person's character. But, like yesterday's paper, the 1993 Royal Commission on Criminal Justice recommended that defendants should no longer have an absolute veto over a magistrate's decision to retain jurisdiction. JPs should consider factors including the defendant's previous reputation and past record, the gravity and compexity of the case and the likely effect on the accused, the commission said.