Lawyers and civil liberties groups condemn jury curbs

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Lawyers and civil liberties groups yesterday urged the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, to back down over proposals to limit the right to trial by jury as he prepared for a bitter parliamentary battle to force the proposals into law.

In a letter to The Independent, the Law Society and the Bar Council joined civil liberties groups in urging Mr Blunkett to accept a string of Lords amendments toning down the Criminal Justice Bill.

Ministers will attempt to revive the plans in the Commons today after they were thrown out by a coalition of Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers. They will also try to reverse defeats over proposals to allow juries to be given details of defendants' previous convictions.

Ministers have spent the past few days in negotiations towards a compromise over the most contentious part of the Bill. But Conservatives and Liberal Democrats said they were prepared to allow the bill to "ping pong" between the Commons and the Lords before it is automatically killed at the end of the parliamentary year on Thursday.

Ministers are sure to win today's Commons vote but face a possible rebellion after more than 30 Labour MPs voted against limiting the right to trial by jury in May. But Tory and Lib Dem peers could defeat the measure in the Lords tomorrow if they maintain their opposition.

The letter, signed by Peter Williamson, President of the Law Society, Matthias Kelly, Chairman of the Bar Council, Alison Hannah, Director of the Legal Action Group, Roger Smith, director of the civil liberties group Justice and Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, urged Mr Blunkett to back down.

They said: "In its original form, the Bill would have made radical inroads into the principle that defendants facing serious criminal charges are entitled to trial by a jury of their peers."

They added: "We believe that the Bill in its present form represents a sensible modernisation of our criminal justice procedures, and we urge the Government to accept the changes that the House of Lords has made."

The Bill cleared the House of Lords last night, but the Home Office vowed to overturn amendments on trial by jury and the so-called "bad character" clauses. A spokeswoman said: "There might be some drafting changes and changes in details, but the thrust of it and the principles of the Bill such as jury trial and bad character will be back in the Bill."

A Conservative source said the party would look at any government concessions, but warned that they would not back down on the principle of allowing jury trials in long and complex cases.

Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat candidate for Mayor of London, who is co-ordinating the party's response to the Bill, said: "Liberal Democrats ... will hold firm in support of the defeats already inflicted on the Government. The biggest battle will be on jury trials. Parliament has prevented previous attempts by this Labour Government to do away with jury trials, and today will see another united front against the latest proposals."