Straw pushes for new limit on jury trials

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The Independent Online
THE HOME Secretary has decided to push ahead with plans to restrict defendants' right to a trial by jury.

The Government will introduce legislation later this year in an attempt to speed justice and cut costs by using magistrates' courts rather than crown courts for some cases, The Independent has learnt.

In a separate but related move, Jack Straw has also made clear he is determined to abolish jury trials for complex and expensive fraud cases, such as the Guinness and Maxwell affairs. He is now understood to be convinced the right to opt for a jury trial should be removed for certain types of "middle ranking" offences, such as theft and grievous bodily harm.

Defendants in magistrates' courts frequently choose a jury trial in a crown court because they believe they have a better chance of acquittal, but many change their plea to guilty at the eleventh hour. More than 21,000 people opt for a jury trial every year, but with a contested crown court case costing an average of pounds 13,500 compared with the pounds 2,500 cost of a magistrates' hearing, Mr Straw is determined to press on with reform.

He has yet to decide which of four options set out in a consultation paper last year would be included in a Bill. Among the alternatives are removing some offences from the list of those triable either way; allowing magistrates to determine the venue in all cases or those where the parties could not agree; or removing the right to trial by jury from defendants previously convicted of a similar offence. "The status quo is not an option. We are aiming and hoping for legislation this parliament," said a senior Home Office source.

Due to a lack of parliamentary time, a Bill outlining the changes is unlikely to be brought forward before theQueen's Speech at the end of the year. However, the Bill will certainly be on the statute book before the next general election.

When the proposals were first publicised last September, an alliance of civil liberties groups and lawyers attacked them as "ill considered". The Bar, the Law Society, Liberty, backbench Labour MPs and the Access to Justice pressure group warned the measures would undermine a fundamental tenet of British justice.

Michael Howard, the former home secretary, shelved plans for reform after they provoked widespread opposition among the legal profession.

Moves to abolish jury trials for complex fraud cases are also now being "actively considered" by the Home Office. Fraud cases make up 1 per cent of trials, but account for 40 per cent of the costs.

Pressure for reform increased after Kevin and Ian Maxwell were acquitted in 1996 of conspiracy to defraud the Mirror Group pensioners, a case that cost taxpayers pounds 20m.Among the options being considered are replacing juries with either a panel of judges or a judge and two lay experts.