Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, thrust himself to the centre of the campaign against the idea, which he denounced at a London conference as socially divisive and legally unacceptable. Barbara Mills QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, speaking at the same conference, flatly contradicted him.
The Royal Commission on Criminal Justice recommended in a report this month that defendants should lose their right to insist on crown court trial for certain offences. Magistrates should decide which cases they heard and which they sent to a crown court jury, leaving defendants with no say in the matter.
Lord Taylor, giving his first detailed response to the commission's 352 recommendations, said he welcomed much of the report.
But earlier he had told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: 'I think most people feel that trial by jury is one of our fundamental rights and that it should not be sacrificed largely on the altar of the economy of time and money.'
In his speech, he went on to criticise the commission for suggesting that magistrates take suspects' reputations into account when deciding whether to hear a case themselves. Critics say this means that jury trials would be offered to middle-class defendants in court for the first time but denied to working-class defendants with previous convictions.
Lord Taylor echoed that view. 'I do not accept that a defendant with a criminal record has, by that token, a weaker claim to a jury trial. On the contrary, he or she may well feel specially vulnerable,' he said.
Lord Taylor also attacked the commission's call for a formal system of plea bargaining, under which defendants would be told what sort of discounts they could expect on sentences if they admitted guilt. That would place innocent suspects under pressure to plead guilty, he said.
But he welcomed the equally controversial recommendation that the defence should disclose the essence of its case before the start of the trial. 'Justice is not served by keeping the prosecution unaware of what they will need to prove or disprove.'
Speaking later, Mrs Mills took issue with Lord Taylor over the call to limit jury trials. She said: 'I would not be supporting either personally or on behalf of the Crown Prosecution Service anything I thought was going to be socially divisive, or looked like one law for the rich and powerful and one for the poor and those whose voice isn't heard.'Reuse content