As lawyers and civil liberties groups condemned the proposal as a unjust and unnecessary, it also became clear that it could lead to thousands of criminals getting lighter sentences from magistrates, contrary to the "get tough" message of Michael Howard, the Home Secretary - but saving millions of pounds of expenditure on jails.
In a Commons statement on a review of delay in the criminal justice system, jointly commissioned by Mr Howard, the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney General last autumn, the Home Secretary made the radical suggestion that if all its 33 recommendations were implemented almost all defendants would be in court, and the guilty convicted, the day after being charged.
The proposals were warmly welcomed by the police. But it was equally clear yesterday that much more work remains to be done on the package - no detailed cost/benefit analysis has been obtained and no cut-off date for consultation has been specified - while Mr Howard conceded that he would have to consider the "especially sensitive" proposal for restricting jury trial "particularly carefully".
The objective of reducing delay was emphasised in recent speeches to magistrates by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, in advance of yesterday's paper, drawn up by Martin Narey, a senior Home Office official.
But there was hostile reaction yesterday to the paper's suggestion that the venue for so-called "either way" cases - including a range of theft, burglary, fraud and other offences of dishonesty, and sexual, violent and drug offences - should be decided by magistrates. Mr Howard told MPs that about 20 per cent of all those tried in crown courts - about 24,000 defendants each year - insisted on being tried there despite justices having decided the case was suitable for them. "About two-thirds of those defendants then plead guilty at the crown court."
Defendants with a good reason for a jury trial, including "defending an unblemished reputation", would be able to argue the reasons before the magistrates, Mr Howard said.
But there was condemnation from the Law Society and the Bar. Robert Owen QC, chairman of the Bar Council, said many thousands of people would lose their right to be tried in front of a jury of ordinary men and women at a time when the crown court system was coping with the demands on it.
Mr Howard told MPs that total savings to the criminal justice system flowing from the report could amount to pounds 110m, of which pounds 70m would relate to the proposal to limit jury trials.
The Home Office estimates that some 18,000 offenders would be tried by magistrates, who can only imprison for a maximum of six months, rather than crown court juries if the plans were implemented.
At present, 56 per cent of defendants in crown courts receive a jail sentence. Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, estimated that even if all these got the maximum jail sentence available to magistrates, the daily prison population would drop by 2,500, saving pounds 50m a year in running costs and leading to capital savings equivalent to three or four jails. "This is not about quality of justice. It's about saving money," he said.
The paper contains a range of further controversial suggestions likely to provoke criticism, including switching 17-year-olds to adult courts and restrictions on the use of lawyers by those pleading not guilty.Reuse content