Magistrates' and Crown courts may be swept away

Click to follow

The replacement of Crown Courts and magistrates' courts with a single-tier criminal justice system is being considered in a radical review ordered by the Lord Chancellor.

The proposals, which also include possible reform of the jury system, are part of the biggest shake-up of the criminal courts of the last 100 years. In an interim report published this week, Lord Justice Auld, who chairs the review team, said he was planning to visit the United States this year to see how their single-tier system works.

Lord Justice Auld, a senior judge in the Court of Appeal, said that he would consider whether the dual structure of the Crown Courts and magistrates' courts should continue.

He said an alternative might be a single criminal court system covering all levels of offences in which judges and magistrates "would all be judges of the court at their different levels, supported by a common administration and, eventually, housed in the same court buildings".

This is similar to the system operated in the US state courts, where shoplifters are tried in the same courtrooms and by the same judges as murderers. There, a trial judge, who has been elected by the state, hears the case, including all bail applications, from start to finish. Cases take less time than they do in Britain because judges are conscious of the fact that they will have to face re-election when they will stand on their case records.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, is keen to make Crown Courts more business-like and has already launched a separate review to bring them in line with modern practices. But as efficient as the US courts appear to be, lawyers say they are prone to being "politicised."

Stephen Jakobi, the director of the campaign group Fair Trials Abroad, which advised the nanny Louise Woodward during her murder trial in the US, claimed that because both state prosecutors and judges are elected, verdicts often reflect popular feeling. "If you're a foreigner or from a minority you can expect to be hung out to dry," he said.

Lord Justice Auld has said he will also look at the composition of juries, the types of case tried by them and the manner of the jury trial. "Although the review is of the criminal courts, and not the criminal justice system, it is plain from its terms of reference that it goes beyond the workings of the... courts," he said.

When the review was launched last year, Lord Irvine said it would ensure that the criminal courts delivered justice "fairly, by streamlining all their processes, increasing their efficiency and strengthening the effectiveness of their relationships with others across the whole of the criminal justice system".