Rape juries to be told of previous convictions

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The Independent Online

Judges will be allowed for the first time to tell rape trial jurors about a defendant's previous convictions if they involve similar sex attacks.

Judges will be allowed for the first time to tell rape trial jurors about a defendant's previous convictions if they involve similar sex attacks.

This is expected to anger civil liberties campaigners on the grounds that it undermines a defendant's right to a fair trial.

"If there is a previous conviction for rape and you are up before a judge again [for rape] then this would be an example of where it may be relevant to the case," said a Home Office source.

"Of course this may be prejudicial to a case, so it would be up to the judge to decide whether the jury should be allowed to know."

This radical change to the way trials are conducted is just one reform that is expected to be outlined in the Government's White Paper on criminal justice reform.

Magistrates will also have their powers increased. At present, they can only pass a maximum sentence of six months: this will be doubled.

Other proposals include clamping down on middle-class jurors who attempt to shirk jury service. They will be asked to come back in a few months if they try and excuse themselves on the grounds of other commitments.

Critics say the reforms will put further pressure on the probation service, increase the jail population and undermine a defendant's right to a fair trial.

Baroness Helena Kennedy said the proposals would lead to miscarriages of justice. She accused the Government of creating a policy of "justice for sale". "I think it is the Government's knee-jerk response to concerns about crime," she told the Today programme yesterday.

"Instead of actually addressing their own policy failures and problems around policing and the causes of crime, they are directing their concerns to the judicial system in ways which I think will lead to miscarriages of justice and an erosion of the system."

John Wadham, the director of the civil rights group Liberty, said: "They're playing fast and loose with the basic protections for fairness in the criminal justice system."