Change sweeps the law

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The Independent Online
ANGER over proposals to abolish defendants' right to a trial by a jury yesterday overshadowed other recommendations from the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice designed to prevent more wrongful convictions.

Lawyers welcomed the commission's widely anticipated call for a new body to investigate alleged miscarriages of justice but reacted with dismay to measures which they said were motivated by the desire more to save money than protect the interests of defendants.

The commission was established in March 1991 by Kenneth Baker, then Home Secretary, after the release of the Birmingham Six; other miscarriages have added to the importance of its work.

The 352 recommendations address virtually every aspect of the system and, according to Lord Runciman, the commission chairman, will 'very significantly reduce the chances of juries returning mistaken verdicts . . . and seriously increase the chances of miscarriages of justice being rectified.' The proposal for a new investigative body is coupled with a call for the Court of Appeal to be 'more prepared' to quash jury verdicts. 'We would like to see the Court of Appeal take a less restrictive attitude than it has in the past,' he said.

The commission proposes retaining the right to silence but said defendants should be forced to disclose their case before trial.

Other recommendations include a DNA data base, a formalised system of plea bargaining and stricter sanctions against poor performances by professionals.

However, there was profound concern over the call to limit the Crown Court cases heard by juries.

Reformers were also disappointed that the commission backed away from a radical approach to three issues at the core of recent miscarriages. It avoids proposals for corroboration of confession evidence, rejects independent supervision of the police and recommends only a supervisory council for forensic science.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, said the proposal to end the right to choose trial by jury was 'very controversial', adding: 'What I want to see is a system that will minimise miscarriages of justice. It is a miscarriage of justice if an innocent person is convicted but also a miscarriage of justice if a guilty person is acquitted.'

Any measures the Home Office want to implement swiftly could be included in the criminal justice Bill planned for the autumn.

The police service, relieved that the commission did not advocate a system of independent supervision of investigations, last night welcomed much of the report and said the new body to investigate miscarriages would improve public confidence. The Bar Council was among the report's sternest critics, expressing disappointment at the rejection of its proposal for the Crown Prosecution Service to supervise police investigations. The commission had failed to meet its 'central objective' of preventing more wrongful convictions. Rosemary Thomson, deputy chairman of the Magistrates' Association, said: 'It seems wrong to take away the right to elect trial in the Crown Court.'

Michael Mansfield, the barrister who represented five of the Birmingham Six and Judith Ward, said the recommendations 'failed to address the underlying problems of the last 10 to 15 years'. Ms Ward described the report as a 'missed chance'.

Chris Mullin, the Labour MP for Sunderland South who campaigned for the release of the Birmingham Six, attacked the failure to outlaw uncorroborated confessions which, he said, lay 'at the root of many big miscarriages of justice'.

One of the few bodies to give the report an unreserved welcome was the Serious Fraud Office, whose requests for a wider scope to take on more cases and new measures to speed up fraud trials were supported.

Commissions key recommendations


An independent authority to investigate alleged miscarriages of justice; new powers for Court of Appeal


Abolition of a defendant's right to insist on trial by jury


Right to remain silent retained, but defence required to disclose case, or risk adverse comment by prosecution


Uncorroborated confessions will still be admissable, but rules to be tightened


National DNA bank of genetic profiles of criminals, and new forensic science supervisory body


Judges urged to penalise poor lawyers; independent supervision of police rejected


Limited introduction, reduced sentences for guilty pleas

(Photograph omitted)