Defendants seek even-handed trials

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The Independent Online
"HE WAS a professional man in his 50s. No convictions. Charged with the theft of two tubes of lip balm," said Janice Dougan, a solicitor, about a client who she defended at Manchester magistrates court. "He had everything to lose and the kind of excuse magistrates hear every time. We elected for a jury trial at Crown Court." Her client was acquitted.

Lawyers yesterday argued that this kind of case - where an individual's reputation may be shattered by alleged minor misdemeanours - makes the right to elect for jury trial essential whatever the cost to the legal system.

Euphemistically, the solicitors imply that magistrates can simply be too wise for a defendant's own good, particularly when they know he, or she, has previous convictions. The less knowing jury might be more even- handed and offer greater hope of acquittal.

"I am often representing somebody who has been before the bench 30 or 40 times before," said Julian Farley, a defence solicitor at Macclesfield magistrates court. "The bench has seen it all before. They are acquainted with him." But magistrates challenged that view. "What's the opposite of cynical?" said one. "Is it non-judgmental, or gullible? Probably the latter."

Defendants are warned that Crown Court carries a greater risk of a heavier sentence. "We remind them that magistrates rarely send defendants to prison while a judge will not bat an eyelid," said Mr Farley.

But some say solicitors play the system as effectively as the criminals. In Macclesfield, defence lawyers are paid pounds 150 for a guilty plea case, pounds 250 for not-guilty and trial by Crown Court jury brings in more money. "At times it can be money led rather than justice led," said one lawyer. "We are in business aren't we? If you can get pounds 250, you're not going to refuse it."