Scrap the right to trial by jury, says Met chief

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The Independent Online

Plans to scrap the automatic right to trial by jury were backed by Britain's most senior police chief yesterday who said it was "crucial" to prevent nobbling cases and to ensure crime bosses were successfully prosecuted.

Sir John Stevens, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said his force spent £3.2m a year on witness protection in cases involving organised criminals. "We must deal robustly with organised crime and jury intimidation," Sir John told a conference on criminal justice in London. "Organised crime is now very much a feature of criminality in this country.

"This can manifest itself in a sophisticated level of activity to threaten witnesses [and] jurors which is difficult to police. In certain circumstances the most appropriate way to address this is to have the trial without a jury, by judge alone.

"This approach is an exception rather than the rule ... but, I believe, is crucial if the interests of justice are to be upheld. It cost the Met £3.2m to protect juries last year, which would put 75 police officers on the beat."

Sir John's statement is the latest development in a dispute between lawyers and civil liberty groups - who believe the right to trial by jury is a vital part of British justice - and the Government and the police who want to curb it.

The proposed change - which will affect only a small number of cases where jury intimidation is suspected - is contained in the Criminal Justice Bill, but the Bar Council, which represents barristers, and the Law Society, the solicitor's group, are opposed.

The police have been compiling examples of jury intimidation, that include:

In 2002 at Liverpool Crown Court, a trial collapsed because two jurors were threatened and a third was offered £10,000 to return a verdict of not guilty. The trial was in its fifth week and is estimated to have cost more than £1m.

In autumn 2001 at Kingston Crown Court jurors had their cars sprayed with paint stripper. The jury was discharged and special protection was given to the retrial jury.

In autumn last year during a trial at Leeds Crown Court a juror received at telephone call offering him £10,000 to make the "correct" decision and to guarantee his family's safety.

During a case in Surrey in July last year, the jury refused to return to the court after lunch on the first day through fear of intimidation. The jurors were held in contempt of court and the case could not proceed.