The House of Lords dealt a heavy blow to David Blunkett's criminal justice reforms last night when it threw out moves to limit the right to trial by jury.
Peers of all parties, including a succession of retired judges, denounced the Home Secretary's plans as an attack on a centuries-old right - voting against change by 210 to 136 votes, a majority of 74. In response, the Home Office vowed it would overturn the defeat in the Commons but, without compromise, it is in danger of losing the entire Criminal Justice Bill if it fails to pass through the Lords by the end of the parliamentary year in November.
The Government proposes to allow trial by judge alone in three circumstances - where the defendant has asked for it, in complex or lengthy fraud cases and where there is a serious risk of jury intimidation.
Ministers, who argue that the measure will affect only a handful of cases, have been backed by more than 20 chief constables, including Sir John Stevens, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. They say it will be a crucial weapon in the fight against jury "nobbling".
But Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws, a Labour peer, warned that the move could pave the way to restricting the right to jury trial in other kinds of cases. She said: "Whatever the Government tells us about confining this part of the Bill to very few cases we have to ask whether we trust the Government to do just that."
Lord Hunt of Wirral, a former Tory cabinet minister, called on the Government to "end their obsession with restricting trial by jury". He said: "The Bill neither respects, nor safeguards, jury trial and puts administrative convenience ahead of fundamental rights."
Lord Hunt argued that jury members were easily capable of understanding serious fraud cases and said that jury "nobbling" happened in very few cases in practice, saying the tampering should be tackled rather than changing the system. "Telling the public that certain cases are inappropriate for jury trial would undermine public confidence in, and commitment to, the jury system."
Baroness Scotland of Asthal, a Home Office minister, insisted: "There is nothing in these provisions which seeks to damage the sanctity of the jury," adding that peers had to face the issues of jurors having their lives "overtaken" for months if they sat on protracted cases. A Home Office spokesman said after the defeat: "This is a bad day for jury members who will continue to be intimidated by dangerous criminals. We will seek to reverse it at the highest level."
The depth of opposition in the Lords was underlined as almost every speaker during the debate in the committee stage of the Bill denounced the proposals.
Lord Ackner, a retired law lord, said: "This is the beginning of creating exceptions that will ultimately do the whole jury system down." The Labour peer Lord Brennan QC said: "If this fundamental value is to be altered it must be justified by serious and convincing evidence and argument."
Lord Donaldson of Lymington, a former master of the rolls, said: "The public has great confidence in jury trials. But I am not sure it follows from that that they would have no confidence in trial by a judge alone or a judge sitting with two magistrates."Reuse content