Parliament: Straw admits to `anxiety' over jury trial restrictions

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JACK STRAW admitted yesterday that he had suffered "anxieties" about his controversial plans to restrict jury trials in a range of cases.

The Home Secretary, in an attempt to avert a backbench rebellion over the measure, assured MPs he would address their concerns once the legislation was debated in the Commons. "I appreciate that MPs on both sides have anxieties over the proposals. So did I. But once the Bill is before the Commons and outside this chamber I will speak to many of you and convince you that these concerns have been very carefully taken into account," he told MPs during resumed debate on the Queen's Speech.

Under the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill, magistrates, rather than defendants, will decide whether cases, including burglary, will be heard by them or in a Crown Court.

The Bill is expected to reduce the number of Crown Court trials by 12,000 a year and save an estimated pounds 105m.

But the Government is likely to encounter a substantial rebellion by Labour MPs who are concerned that the change would infringe civil liberties.

Mr Straw was challenged over the issue by Gwyneth Dunwoody, the Labour MP for Crewe and Nantwich, who told him: "Many of us have a very considerable worry that we should abandon it [trial by jury] on what may be somewhat doubtful legal grounds."

But Mr Straw said that while he had been concerned about the proposal at first glance, the "more I've looked at it, the more I believe the argument for change is overwhelming".

Insisting the Government was not "taking a risk with liberty" with the proposals, he added: "One of the points that has certainly been persuasive is the fact that we are almost alone in any Western jurisdiction in giving the choice of venue of trial to the defendant.

"It does not happen in other Commonwealth jurisdictions. It does not happen in Scotland where, oddly, the choice of venue is a matter for the prosecutor, not even for the court.

"I have heard nobody suggesting that the quality of justice in Scotland is somehow, therefore, inferior to that in England and Wales."

Mr Straw said he and the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, thought a defect in the Royal Commission proposal was "that there was no route for an interlocutory appeal against a refusal by the magistrates to transfer jurisdiction in a case to the Crown Court.

"This Government, with the full support of the Lord Chief Justice, has provided exactly that interlocutory appeal, so the final decision on venue of trial will be made by a fully qualified judicial professional, namely a Crown Court judge."

But Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary, said earlier that the measure would introduce new delays into the criminal justice system and would lead to no savings in costs.

"This is a bad proposal and one that we will be opposing," she said. "Jury trial is one of the traditional guarantees of liberty in the judicial system of England and Wales. Restricting the right to a jury trial will further erode public confidence in the whole criminal justice system."