Justice: Right to juries in question

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A BILL to end the automatic right for a trial by jury could be introduced this parliamentary session if time permits, it emerged yesterday.

Ministers are drawing up proposals to reduce court time for such cases as petty crimes by ending jury trials. Sources at the Home Office said that the legislation, which is a manifesto commitment, could be "another rabbit the Government could pull out of its hat" if more legislative time is freed.

The Government expects sufficient time will be made available because of its earlier concession to reprieve nearly 100 hereditary peers.

"There is not necessarily a need for jury trials in all cases and ministers are presently working towards proposals which would speed up the justice system," said the source at the Home Office.

There are also suggestions that the law on complicated fraud cases could be altered, but the Government is concentrating on proposals dealing with petty crimes, he said.

The plans are another example of the Government's expectation that its willingness to keep 91 hereditaries in the Lords during the interim period between stage one and stage two of the reform will allow for more legislative time.

Although Tory leader William Hague has repeatedly expressed his opposition to the Lords deal, Lord Strathclyde, the party's new Leader of the Lords, has signalled that peers would vote for it.

To hamper peers' "guerrilla tactics" to delay legislation, the Government has offered to consult all peers over Bills in the Queen's Speech so that any difficulties can be resolved in private meetings before they are debated in the Lords.

As revealed in The Independent, Baroness Jay has written to Opposition whips and Lord Weatherill, the chairman of crossbench peers, to offer meetings with ministers.

Bills to create a strategic rail authority and a food standards agency - both regarded as "missing elements" of the Queen's Speech - are also likely to be introduced if legislative time is freed.