Blunkett scales back trial by jury

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The Independent Online

The Government is to strip away the rights to a jury trial of thousands of defendants in a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system that could lead to even greater numbers of people being sent to prison.

The Government is to strip away the rights to a jury trial of thousands of defendants in a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system that could lead to even greater numbers of people being sent to prison.

A Government White Paper to be published next Wednesday states judges will be able to sit alone in trials where they believe a jury might be subjected to intimidation, or in cases involving fraud and other "complex" issues.

Defendants will also be offered the right to apply to have their cases heard by a judge alone, as part of an initiative to reduce the number of jury trials.

The maximum custodial sentence available to magistrates will be doubled from six months to a year, meaning thousands more cases will not be sent for jury trial.

The Government is also planning to restrict the rule of "double jeopardy", meaning that hundreds of defendants could face retrials not only for murder but other serious offences, such as rape and other crimes of extreme violence.

The White Paper says double jeopardy will not apply "where it is a grave offence that would be punishable by imprisonment, in cases where compelling new evidence has come to light and a retrial is in the interests of justice".

The reforms, designed to increase the proportion of cases that lead to conviction, will include police powers to impose bail conditions, likely to include electronic tagging, on suspects who have not even been charged. Prosecutors will be offered "incentives", thought likely to be cash payments, for preparing strong cases.

Other measures in the White Paper include legislation intended to reduce the large numbers of middle-class people who exempt themselves from jury service because of work obligations.

The paper also plans to increase the catchment area for juries to ensure they are more reflective, particularly in terms of ethnicity, of the population.

The package of reforms, which will inevitably lead to a surge in the jail population, comes as the Home Office began placing prisoners in cells in police stations yesterday because there is insufficient space in prisons.

But a draft version of the White Paper, leaked to The Independent, complains that "far too many of the guilty can still escape sentence".

It aims to redress a perceived imbalance in the criminal justice system in favour of the defence.

It says: "There are too many cases where tactical manoeuvres designed to secure acquittals by disrupting the process mean the right verdict is not reached, and that is simply not good enough."

In a rebuke of the methods of defence lawyers, the White Paper says: "We will not tolerate abuse and obstruction of the system and we will not allow the process to be treated as a game of snakes and ladders by the defence as a tactic to get the defendant off."

The Government promises to bring about "reduced chances of 'playing the system' and escaping justice".

Statistical evidence shows district judges and magistrates, sitting alone in magistrates' courts, are more likely to convict than juries in Crown courts.

The paper states: "We will legislate to allow trial by judge alone in cases of complex fraud, and where the jury is being intimidated, and consider allowing this in other complex cases."

The document suggests that intimidation is a common problem in courts, with 30,000 cases being abandoned in 2001 because victims and witnesses refused or failed to give evidence in court.

Harry Fletcher, the assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "The solution is not to allow judges to hear cases alone but to give police and prosecutors resources to ensure juries are not nobbled and cases are simplified."

The key points

  • Judges to sit alone if jury might be subjected to intimidation, and in major fraud hearings or other complex cases
  • Double jeopardy rule to be scrapped in cases of "a grave offence punishable by imprisonment" and cases with compelling new evidence
  • Magistrates' sentencing powers to be doubled, further reducing number of jury trials
  • Defendants to be given right to apply for a judge-only trial
  • Police given powers to impose bail conditions on suspects before even charging them
  • Removal of exemptions allowed to escape jury service
  • Extension of jury catchment areas to avoid white-only juries in racially sensitive cases