Howard to spell out plans for court reforms

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The Independent Online
Burglars and petty thieves could lose the right to jury trial under plans to be announced today by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary. Under a package of measures designed to speed up the working of the courts, Mr Howard will propose that, in future, magistrates and not defendants should decide whether a crown court trial is necessary.

Other reforms on which the Home Secretary plans to consult include proposals to give magistrates' clerks new powers to deal with offenders, and new rules under which defendants would normally be brought before the court to answer charges the day after arrest.

The plans are among 33 detailed proposals drawn up by a former prison governor, Martin Narey, for Mr Howard. He hopes they will help him to regain the initiative from Labour in the battle over which party should be seen as the guardian of law and order.

The Home Secretary will argue that the courts system has become increasingly cumbersome and inefficient. The average number of days taken for a case to go through magistrates' courts has risen from 98 to 132, and 80,000 cases are sent to the crown court for trial each year.

Under Mr Howard's plans, defendants accused of "either way" crimes which can be tried in the magistrates' court or in the crown court will no longer make the final decision on where their case is heard. At present, two- thirds opt for jury trial in the hope that it will give them a greater chance of acquittal. Civil liberties groups are expected to protest at the plan to restrict jury trials, saying that it would remove an important right from people accused of crimes.

Magistrates' clerks could be given a free reign to request medical and social inquiry reports, and could also be allowed to extend bail without reference to a magistrate.

The report is also expected to recommend that serious crimes, including rape and murder, should be sent straight to the crown court rather than being referred to the magistrates first.

There could also be a return to the practice of treating 17 year-olds as adults rather than as juveniles, which used to exist in the 1980s.

t Solicitors reacted with dismay yesterday as the long-running battle over whether the Crown Prosecution Service and other employed solicitors should present cases in the higher courts ended in a messy compromise, writes Patricia Wynn Davies.

After six years of campaigning for new rights of audience, objections from two senior judges ensured only a partial victory for the profession.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the Lord Chancellor, announced that solicitors working for the CPS, local authorities, the government legal service and companies would have some new rights to handle cases in crown courts and the High Court and above without having to instruct barristers. But the accompanying restrictions prompted criticisms that they hardly amounted to new rights at all.

New rules, Lord Mackay said, will limit CPS solicitor- advocates to handling plea and directions hearings and other preliminary proceedings in crown court criminal cases, while in civil proceedings in the higher courts solicitors will not not be able to appear as advocates on their own in any hearing concerned with the merits of the case. Those employed by local authorities will likewise be barred from appearing alone, without outside counsel, in care proceedings.

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