One in four defendants acquitted by juries

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The Independent Online

There is a greater chance of being acquitted by a jury than ever before, according to a government study that shows one in four defendants clears his or her name in court.

There is a greater chance of being acquitted by a jury than ever before, according to a government study that shows one in four defendants clears his or her name in court.

The findings have been seized on by civil rights groups who say thousands of innocent people would be denied a fair trial if the Government presses ahead with its plans to curb the right to jury trial.

Of the 74,700 defendants who pleaded not guilty in the Crown Court last year, 25 per cent were acquitted compared with 18 per cent before Labour came to power in 1997.

A spokesman for the human rights group Liberty said the report confirmed jury trial as an "important safeguard" in preventing miscarriages of justice. "This report shows that a high proportionate number of cases come before a jury are not strong enough to convince independent-minded people of somebody's guilt," he said.

The proportion of cases discharged by the judge after a not-guilty plea also increased in 2000 to 36 per cent from 34 per cent in 1999.

Defendants accused of criminal damage were most likely to be cleared while those who faced drug charges were more likely to be convicted.

Liberty said the figures also showed that a move to increase the role of magistrates and district judges would lead to more convictions than under the present system.

Last month Lord Justice Auld, in his recommendations for reform of the criminal justice system, called for an even greater restriction to jury trial than that proposed in Labour's two Mode of Trial Bills. The Auld recommendation has been rejected by the legal profession. Roy Amlot QC, chairman of the Bar, said he was strongly opposed to the "attack on the jury system implicit in the plan", which would remove the right to jury trial for thousands of defendants accused of a range of middle-ranking crimes. The Law Society is also against.

The National Association of Probation Officers said the proposals to reduce trial by jury would lead to a sharp increase in the prison population.

Cautions, court proceedings and sentencing published by the Home Office's research development and statistics directorate, reported that nearly two million proceedings were completed in magistrates' courts last year, an increase of 20,000 on the previous year.

Proceedings for television licence evasion increased by 76 per cent between 1999 and 2000, the report found, largely because of changes in visiting practices by inspectors so that more checks were made on households at times when the television set was likely to be switched on. There was also an increased concentration on previous offenders.

The report showed that magistrates have become more willing to use prison as a punishment. For adult males sentenced at magistrates' courts, the proportionate use of immediate custody for serious offences increased by 2 percentage points to 17 per cent between 1999 and 2000 – nearly twice the rate of 9 per cent in 1995. Magistrates were most keen to use prison when sentencing people accused of burglary. But overall the number of offenders found guilty or cautioned for serious offences fell by 7 per cent to 477,000.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, said Lord Justice Auld's review offered "a possible way forward on the issue of jury trials which might overcome some of the objections that were raised in relation to the Mode of Trial Bill".

Auld's 300 recommendations will form the basis of a public consultation exercise. Lord Irvine of Lairg, the Lord Chancellor, said: "The Government has taken no decisions on his report and we are keen to encourage wide debate."