Howard wants to curtail right to elect trial by jury

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL HOWARD is considering ending the right to trial by jury for theft and other categories of crime in order to stop criminals dodging tougher sentences. Millions of pounds could be saved by abolishing the right to elect for trial by jury, according to the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice. It would also relieve pressure on the High Court allowing it to concentrate on more serious cases.

The commission, chaired by Lord Runciman, warned that the present courts system 'does not work as it is intended'. Research showed that in 70 per cent of the cases where defendants had opted for jury trials they pleaded guilty.

The Runciman report said one of the three main objectives for opting for trial by jury was to put off the trial. This was sometimes to enable defendants to have part of their sentence counted while they were on remand in a softer prison regime, including the right to wear their own clothes.

The Home Secretary is expected to announce tougher prison regimes at the Conservative Party conference next week to head off criticism from rank-and-file Tories over lax discipline in jails.

Mr Howard promised an 'austere' regime in prisons at last year's Conservative Party conference in his list of 27 measures to combat crime. There were calls for his resignation last month after the discovery of Semtex among IRA prisoners' belongings at Whitemoor jail, Cambridgeshire.

The Home Secretary will use his set-piece platform speech in an attempt to shore-up his reputation, which has been damaged by the defeats in the House of Lords on the Criminal Justice Bill. The package included the removal of the 'right to silence', against the advice of the majority report by the Royal Commission.

Sources close to the Home Secretary confirmed that Mr Howard was studying the proposal to limit the option for jury trial. The commission said 35,000 cases went to trial. It cost pounds 13,500 to hold a trial compared with pounds 1,500 in a magistrates court.

It found that many defendants thought they would stand a better chance of acquittal by a jury. They also thought they would get lighter sentences from judges, which was shown to be untrue.

Charles Elly, president of the Law Society, representing 76,000 solicitors in England and Wales, said yesterday that he would only support the abolition of the right for a jury trial in a limited number of cases. 'I would not think it is right to reduce the right for a defendant to be tried by a jury where dishonesty is an issue . . . '

However, he argued that in cases involving alleged motoring offences, such as dangerous driving, a jury was unnecessary.

The Law Society is also keenly awaiting his response to the commission's suggestion that the right to refer cases to the Court of Appeal, following a spate of miscarriages of justice, should be taken out of the hands of the Home Secretary and given to a new body.

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