Lawyers will fight end to trial by jury

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The Independent Online
LAWYERS HAVE pledged a "battle royal" with Jack Straw over the Home Secretary's recent proposals to end the right to a trial by jury for about 20,000 people a year.

Mr Straw, in unveiling his plans to end a person's right to a jury trial in a range of middle-ranking offences, said he believed the changes were necessary because the current system was wasting both court time and public money.

In response the Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, said yesterday that it would form a coalition with lawyers and human rights campaigners to defeat the proposals, which they believe will be costly and lead to miscarriages of justice.

The Home Office proposal would affect about 22,000 people a year in England and Wales, accused of offences such as minor theft or indecent assault which could be heard either in a magistrates' or Crown Court. At present in these "either-way" cases the defendant is allowed to decide if he or she goes before a jury.

But Mr Straw told the Police Federation conference at Blackpool yesterday that of 18,500 cases last year in which defendants chose a jury trial, the plea was changed to guilty in 90 per cent of the cases.

He said: "It has long been a source of irritation to police officers and others that defendants in `either-way' cases are able to work a system by demanding a Crown Court trial for no good reason other than to delay proceedings.

"It causes anxiety and concern to victims and witnesses. It costs the taxpayer thousands of pounds in extra court costs and legal aid, and wastes the time of police officers."

He added: "We can find no other criminal jurisdiction in the world where the defendant may choose where his case should be heard."

He said that there would be safeguards, including right of appeal to a Crown Court judge.

But the Bar Council said that scrapping the right to jury trial would not save money because so many people would use their right of appeal. It argued that it would impact adversely on black and ethnic minority communities who have less faith in magistrates to give them a fair hearing.

A Bar Council spokesmansaid: "We will launch a campaign to see down these proposals. We will be meeting with each and every backbench MP to persuade them of the strength of our case."

The Law Society, representing solicitors, added: "We strongly oppose any move to take away a defendant's right to chose to be dealt with by a jury when being tried for an offence which can have serious consequences on conviction."

Proposals to change the system were rejected in 1997 by Mr Straw, who also criticised a similar proposal put forward by his predecessor, Michael Howard, prompted by a Royal Commission report in 1993.

A jury trial at Crown Court costs an estimated pounds 13,500 compared with pounds 2,500 for a case heard by magistrates, but defendants before a jury are more likely to be cleared. Figures show 40 per cent of people pleading not guilty are cleared in Crown Court, compared with 25 cent before magistrates.