The fears are based on research which shows that black defendants have markedly less confidence in magistrates and are more likely than whites to opt for trial by jury. Further research has shown that black defendants facing theft charges were far more likely to be sentenced to immediate custody at magistrates' courts than white defendants accused of similar offences.
Proposals for cutting the right to choose trial by jury were outlined in a government consultation paper published last July. The proposals have also been criticised by the Law Society and civil rights groups.
Yesterday, Bruce Houlder QC, chairman of the Bar Council's public affairs committee, said: "The research evidence that is available demonstrates that ethnic minority defendants choose trial by jury significantly more than white defendants. They still believe they will receive a more sympathetic hearing from a jury that will include members of their own ethnic community. Denying 20,000 unconvicted defendants the right to choose trial by jury will make our court system less, not more, efficient."
He added: "We have serious doubts about the lower courts' ability to take on these extra cases without significant disruption. The evidence is that the performance of the Crown Courts in handling these shorter cases is improving."
Mr Houlder pointed out that when in opposition, Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, criticised these very proposals for being "not only wrong but short- sighted and likely to prove ineffective".
Courtenay Griffiths QC, of the Society of Black Lawyers, said that black defendants often regarded magistrates courts as "police courts". He referred to research by the Runnymede Trust which showed that 45 per cent of Afro-Caribbean defendants chose trial by jury, compared with 30 per cent of white and Asian defendants. Research at Leicester Magistrates' Court found that 13 per cent of black defendants received immediate custody for theft offences, compared with 5 per cent of whites. White defendants were also given unconditional bail at the rate of 60 per cent compared with 44 per cent for black defendants.
Mr Griffiths said: "The [Stephen] Lawrence Inquiry has shown us all too clearly what can happen when a section of the community no longer has confidence in an element of the justice system."
A spokeswoman for the Magistrates' Association said: "The association refutes the presumption that a jury is fairer than a bench of magistrates and does not agree with the argument that a right to elect [trial by jury] promotes confidence in the judicial system."Reuse content