Jack Straw is expected to propose legislation that will remove the right to a jury trial for about 18,500 people a year accused of offences including theft, possession of drugs and assault. Magistrates will instead be asked to assess the gravity of the offence and decide whether a Crown Court jury or a magistrates' court should try the case.
The move follows research by the Home Office that suggests hundreds of thousands of pounds, and thousands of hours of court and police time, could be saved by removing the automatic right to a jury.
But the proposal provoked a storm of reaction from lawyers and civil rights groups. They claimed that the move is an erosion of the justice system.
At present some so-called middle ranking offences are defined as "triable either way" and can therefore be either dealt with by a magistrate or, if the defendant so chooses, go before a Crown Court.
Mr Straw is expected to sweep this away when he makes the keynote address at the Police Federation's annual conference in Blackpool today. Thousands of defendants choose to go before a jury each year, but the Home Office has found that many are then pleading guilty before the case is tried, wasting a vast amount of police and court time.
The offences that can currently be tried in either court include theft, actual bodily harm, criminal damage, cruelty to children, child abduction, gross indecency with an adult and living off the earnings of a prostitute.
The Home Secretary is expected to argue today that the new power would only be used when the magistrate had evidence that the case was extremely weak. It is thought that in a few extreme cases the magistrate's decision would be subject to an appeal by the defendant.
Last night lawyers warned that the new proposals would pose a significant threat to one of the fundamental human rights in this country, dating back to 1166. John Wadham, chairman of the civil rights group Liberty, said that the right to trial by jury was crucial and something that should not be eroded.
"Juries in the criminal justice system ensure that the system is not dominated by professionals, and act as a safeguard," he said.
The Bar Council claimed that the removal of the right would have a greater impact on black Britain because more defendants from ethnic minorities chose to go before a jury. Peter Herbert, chairman of the Society of Black Lawyers, said: "Juries have clearly demonstrated that they have a better understanding of race issues than the average bench." The Law Society of England and Wales said that it opposed any move to take away a defendant's right to trial by jury.
Mr Straw's reform is understood to be aimed at minor and medium offences such as shoplifting. But the Law Society added: "An allegation of dishonesty is never a minor matter and cannot be given a price tag as it is a conviction and has serious implications for the individual."
There was further concern that Mr Straw's proposals would effectively fall foul of the Human Rights Act 1998, which the Home Office said yesterday would be implemented on 2 October 2000.
"The Human Rights Act speaks of a right to a fair hearing, but before the ink is dry on that historic legislation the Home Secretary plans an ill-considered cost-cutting exercise without regard to the implications," added Mr Herbert.
Lawyers also noted the speed of Mr Straw's change of position. In February 1997, in response to similar proposals by Michael Howard, Mr Straw said in the House of Commons that the suggestions were "short-sighted".
The removal of the right to choose trial in certain circumstances was first proposed in the Royal Commission of 1993, followed by a series of consultation papers published by Tory and Labour governments.Reuse content