Right to choose jury trial costs taxpayer pounds 100m

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The Independent Online
LAWYERS REACTED angrily yesterday to a suggestion by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, that they were opposing his plans to end the right to choose trial by jury simply because they stood to lose money.

The Home Secretary was attacked by the Law Society and the Bar Council after he published his Modes of Trial Bill and Freedom of Information Bill.

Mr Straw defended his proposals to scrap the right of defendants to opt for jury trial for middle-ranking offences. He said that letting defendants choose which court should try them was an "eccentric" anomaly which cost the taxpayer more than pounds 100m a year.

There was no evidence to support lawyers' arguments against the proposals and their leaders were acting "like any good trade union" to safeguard incomes.

Under the Bill, magistrates would decide which court should try a swathe of offences, including theft and assault, which at present can be heard either by magistrates or a judge and jury at the Crown Court. Mr Straw said that too many defendants had been "working the system" to delay proceedings because most of them ended up pleading guilty in the higher courts.

He dismissed arguments put forward by Dan Brennan, chairman of the Bar Council, that the move would erode justice and affect poorer and ethnic minority defendants in particular. "Dan Brennan is saying what any good trade union would say," Mr Straw said. "A lot of money is at risk here. When I talk to my chums at the bar or solicitors, everyone knows what the score is."

A spokesman for the Bar Council said that Mr Straw was clearly panicking about his "dangerous" Bill. "Lawyers could make plenty of money from the endless appeals and twists and turns that will arise from his proposal," he said.

A spokesman for The Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, said: "The argument that solicitors are only acting in self- interest falls down flat. If anything, we have a commercial advantage in these proposals which will create more work in the magistrates' court."

Mr Straw also claimed that new research would show that there was no evidence that black defendants, who tend to opt for jury trial, would be disproportionately hit by the new measures.

The Home Secretary was similarly defiant about his Freedom of Information Bill as critics accused him of failing to meet their fears that it would leave ministers with the final decision on releasing key documents. More than 190 MPs had signed a Commons motion criticising the draft Bill despite winning some concessions on the original plans.

The Bill guarantees rights to information held by public bodies, but includes a clause that would allow the Government to refuse to release information that would cause "prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs". Campaigners say that this undermines the whole legislation. They want to see the Bill's blanket exemption on information used to formulate policy lifted and the powers given to the proposed Information Commissioner to order the publication of material in the public interest.

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