The Queen's Speech: Lawyers stand by `vital' right to jury trial

CRIME; ending of automatic right to A jury trial
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The Independent Online
THE AUTOMATIC right to a jury trial is to be abolished despite fierce opposition from lawyers and civil rights groups, as part of wide ranging changes to the criminal justice system announced yesterday.

Plans to give the police the power to drug test tens of thousands of offenders and arrested suspects along with a new criminal offence to prevent unsuitable people from working with children have been included in the Crime and Probation Bill. There were also proposals for a shake-up for the probation service and a new independent watchdog to oversee the Crown Prosecution Service.

One of the most contentious measures is the Government's intention to scrap the right of defendants to elect trial by jury. Under the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill, it will be left to magistrates in England and Wales to decide where middle-ranking offences, which can currently be heard either before magistrates or at crown court, should be tried. So-called "triable either way" cases at the moment include theft, assault and some drug offences.

The Home Office argues that eliminating the right to choose jury trial could save millions of pounds a year because many defendants who choose a jury trial end up pleading guilty.

But lawyers immediately condemned the Bill as an attack on justice that was likely to hit black people in particular. The chairman of the Bar Council, Dan Brennan, said: "It will create a two-tier system of justice with middle-class defendants given privileged access to the crown courts if magistrates decide they have a reputation to defend."

The Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, added: "This will destroy a vital and historic legal right. Jury trials provide a better form of justice."

Under the Crime and Probation Bill the government plans to allow compulsory drug tests. The measure, however, appears to have been watered down from previous statements and will give the police discretion in deciding who to test. The climbdown from a system of blanket testing is believed to have been due to concerns about the cost and practicality of testing hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom are expected to give positive results.

Instead the tests will be targeted at people suspected of committing crimes to fund drug habits, particularly heroin and cocaine users, who could be refused bail if they test positive.

The results will also be used to channel drug users into treatment programmes, to monitor offenders under probation service supervision and to support a new drug testing community sentence.

But Mark Leech, director of Unlock, the national association for ex-offenders, said plans to drug test people arrested were "a nonsense" unless those who tested positive were then referred somewhere for help. "I don't believe the structure is in place to make it realistic," he said.

Under the Bill, the probation service will become a national organisation and probation staff will be given more powers to ensure that offenders who flout their community sentences are hauled back before the courts. The Bill will also allow more electronic tagging of offenders.

A new criminal offence will be created to stop people identified as unsuitable, either because of previous convictions or because of their past behaviour, from working with children.

In a third Bill an independent inspectorate is to be set up to oversee the work of the Crown Prosecution Service. Under the Prosecutions Inspectorate Bill, the inspectorate will report directly to the Attorney General rather than the head of the CPS and will be able to examine a broader range of issues than the old inspectorate.

Jason Bennetto

Crime Correspondent