Right to jury trial set to end

The Government set itself on a collision course with civil rights campaigners and lawyers today, confirming its intention to scrap the right of defendants to elect trial by jury.

The Government set itself on a collision course with civil rights campaigners and lawyers today, confirming its intention to scrap the right of defendants to elect trial by jury.

Under the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill, it will be left to magistrates in England and Wales to decide where middle-ranking offences, which can currently be heard either before magistrates or at crown court, should be tried.

So-called "triable either way" cases at the moment include theft, assault and some drug offences.

Magistrates will be able to take into account whether the defendant has previous convictions, and will be told to take account of the effect of convictions on a defendant's reputation and livelihood.

Defendants would have a right of appeal to the crown court against any decision to try the case themselves.

Figures published this week showed eliminating the right to choose jury trial could save millions of pounds a year.

Many defendants who choose jury trial end up pleading guilty. Processing a defendant who pleaded guilty in the magistrates court costs £450, as opposed to £3,650 at crown court.

Lawyers immediately condemned the Bill, which is expected to affect around 18,000 defendants a year, as an attack on justice which was likely to hit black people in particular, many of whom had little confidence of getting a fair hearing before magistrates.

Chairman of the Bar Council Dan Brennan said Home Secretary Jack Straw had got it right in opposition when he condemned any restriction on the right to trial by jury as "wrong, short-sighted and likely to prove ineffective".

Mr Brennan said: "It will create a two-tier system of justice with middle-class defendants given privileged access to the crown courts if magistrates decide they have a reputation to defend.

"It is a disturbing threat to our ancient liberties which date back to Magna Carta and before."

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