Abolition of jury trials 'is attack on justice'

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The Independent Online

The abolition of the right to jury trial in serious fraud cases is an attack on 800-years of British justice, the Government has been warned.

The abolition of the right to jury trial in serious fraud cases is an attack on 800-years of British justice, the Government has been warned.

Civil liberty groups, lawyers and opposition leaders all pledged to resist proposals, announced yesterday, that would allow judges to sit alone in cases considered too complex for ordinary jurors to understand. Announcing the latest curb on jury trials, the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith QC, said that for some time it had become apparent that justice was not being done in some serious fraud cases.

He said he wanted to end a system of "two-tier justice" where it was easy to prosecute social benefit cheats but difficult to try City fraudsters because of the complexity, expense and length of prosecutions.

The Government faces stiff resistance from those who regard the change in the law as the thin edge of the wedge for a wider attack on jury trial. Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, said: "Yet again Labour seem prepared to abandon the principle of fair trials and justice ... The trial by jury is at the heart of our judicial system. For complex trials like fraud it should be possible to create banks of jurors with the skills required to deal with these cases."

The Bar Council, which represents 14,000 barristers, said juries were not to blame for the length and cost of complex fraud trials. The chairman of the Bar, Guy Mansfield QC, dismissed the judge-only plans as "justice lite". He said: "Public confidence in juries is consistently high. People trust juries. The same cannot be said for many other parts of the justice system. To abolish juries is therefore a retrograde step. Juries are able to understand the issues in serious fraud, which boil down to a question of dishonesty. Many other types of serious criminal trial deal with complex and technical evidence, for example ballistics, DNA or other forensic evidence."

Roger Smith, the director of Justice, the civil rights group, called on Lord Goldsmith to rethink his reform and "concentrate on improving prosecutions, wait to see how improvements in judicial case management, only introduced in March, actually work, and stop blaming the referee for embarrassing court defeats".

Lord Kingsland, the shadow Lord Chancellor, said this was "just another example" of the Government's "dilution" of the rights of the defendant. It was a "politically irresponsible proposal" he said.

In the past six years, Labour has brought in or proposed several measures aimed at curbing the right to be tried by a panel of a defendant's peers. In 1999 the former home secretary Jack Straw set out plans for removing juries for 18,000 middle-ranking offences each year. In 2003 his successor, David Blunkett, unveiled proposals for judge-only trials in allegations of jury tampering, when the defendant elected to be tried without a jury and in serious fraud cases. There are alsomoves to introduce such trials in terrorism cases. Lord Goldsmith said yesterday that the Government had dropped proposals that would allow a defendant to opt for judge-only trial. The two remaining reforms, jury-tampering and serious fraud, would be introduced in the autumn, he said. Some say this is intended to meet a 2001 manifesto pledge to convict 1.25 million criminals by 2007-08.