Defendants may lose right to opt for trial by jury

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The legal profession is gearing itself up for a fresh confrontation with Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, over plans to remove the automatic right to trial by jury from a range of crimes.

Under the proposals, which are expected to be announced tomorrow, the defendant's right to choose whether a case is heard by a magistrate or a jury in the crown court will end.

The changes will affect the "either way" category of crimes, which can be heard in either court. These include theft, possession of class B and C drugs, possession of an offensive weapon, gross indecency, and dangerous or reckless driving.

More serious offences, such as murder, must be heard in the higher court, while lesser crimes are dealt with by magistrates.

Ministers believe time and money are being wasted by defendants opting to take so many of the "either way" offences to a jury trial.

The number of offences being dealt with in crown court has risen from 59,000 in 1980 to 73,800 in 1992.

Lawyers have already reacted angrily to what they believe is a threat to a fundamental judicial right - to be judged by your peers.

The move, which will go out for consultation and is unlikely to appear in the Tories' election manifesto, is broadly similar to proposals contained in the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice in 1993. Mr Howard backed away from the proposals then after opposition from senior judges.

Barristers and solicitors believe the right for a defendant to opt for a jury trial is an important legal principle which, if broken, could tilt the balance of the criminal justice system too far in favour of the prosecution.

A spokesman for the Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, said: "We would have grave concerns about the proposed changes we have heard about and we will make our views very clear.

"Obviously the offences that are heard by juries are fairly serious offences which can carry significant prison terms.

"It has always been a principle of the legal system that people charged with serious offences have a right to be tried by their peers."

The Government is also expected to publish a Green Paper next week on tackling child crime. Among the proposals are new powers to impose curfews, enforced by electronic tags, in exceptional cases on parents who fail to control child offenders aged under 10. The plans are to try and divert youngsters away from a life of crime.