Mrs Mills wants either prosecutors or magistrates to be given powers to decide whether cases should be heard by jurors. She believes this would cut the number of so-called cracked trials, where defendants plead guilty at the last minute, having previously elected to be tried at Crown Court.
But her comments, echoing a submission made by the Crown Prosecution Service to the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice last year, drew immediate criticism. 'I'm totally against it being in the prosecutor's hands,' John Rowe QC, chairman of the Bar Council, said. 'We would not support any reduction in jury trials.
'If you look through history, serious crime has always been reserved for jury trial and it's serious to say that someone is a thief, even if he's only accused of taking a milk bottle.'
Roger Ede, of the Law Society, said that magistrates or prosecutors would decide the venue for a trial on the basis of the likely sentence. But some defendants could only be assured of a fair trial if their arguments were heard by a jury. 'In some cases, when evidence is from store detectives or police officers, justices could find it difficult to be objective when dealing with witnesses they see every day.'
Equally, it would be difficult for defendants to tell magistrates that they were afraid of bias unless they took the case to a Crown Court. 'The decision about the mode of trial should remain as at present,' Mr Ede said.
However, both barristers and solicitors said Mrs Mills had raised an important question in an interview with the Times newspaper: that of the need to save costs within the criminal justice system. Most of the 35,000 defendants who choose to be tried at Crown Court plead guilty, wasting time and money. Mr Rowe said: 'We must just work together to reduce costs.'
The Bar Council favours the introduction of a system of formal plea bargaining, whereby defendants are told that they will be given a discount on their sentence if they accept guilt at an early stage.
Another proposal aimed at cutting costs has been put forward by the Magistrates' Association, which wants its members to try all cases involving thefts worth less than pounds 200.
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