Straw misled us on trial by jury, says Labour MP

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Indy Politics

Jack Straw came under intense backbench pressure last night over allegations that he seriously misled the House of Commons about the extent of judicial support for the restriction of the right to trial by jury. In a double blow from the back benches, the Home Secretary was also facing a fresh revolt against the controversial legislation.

Jack Straw came under intense backbench pressure last night over allegations that he seriously misled the House of Commons about the extent of judicial support for the restriction of the right to trial by jury. In a double blow from the back benches, the Home Secretary was also facing a fresh revolt against the controversial legislation.

Under the revised Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill, the magistrate, not the defendant, decides whether to allow a trial by jury in some mid-range categories of theft or dishonesty.

The storm centred on Mr Straw's second reading speech of the legislation in March, when he said that his plan "enjoys the active endorsement of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, and the vast majority of the Hhigh Court bench of nearly 100 senior judges".

However, Robert Marshall-Andrews, the MP for Medway, revealed that Lord Bingham of Cornhill, in a private letter, had expressed his "unease" to Mr Straw and warned about the "dangers" of the legislation.

Mr Marshall-Andrews, who led the rebellion against the Bill's third reading, said the exchange of letters proved that Mr Straw's speech had been misleading. "The plain fact is that Lord Bingham put his views to the Home Secretary before the debate in March, saying he had serious reservations about this Bill," he said.

However, Mr Straw dismissed Mr Marshall-Andrews' claims, and the extremely serious charge of misleading the Commons, as "outrageous and incorrect". He made clear that Lord Bingham had given his "active endorsement" to the principles underlying the Bill but was concerned about aspects of it.

Lord Bingham's concern had focused on the criteria with which a magistrate would decide where the trial of a defendant should take place.

Objections centred on the "reputation clause", which would have taken into account the defendant's reputation in deciding whether or not to allow the expense of a full jury trial. Critics have argued that the clause would create a "class justice", with ethnic minorities, the young and the poor more vulnerable to a summary trial than white, middle-class defendants. The Home Secretary stressed he had addressed those concerns by dropping the clause and forbidding magistrates to take into account the circumstances of an accused person when making their decision.

The Bill will now go to the House of Lords where an alliance of Tory and Liberal Democrat peers is expected to oppose it. The Government has already been forced to reintroduce the legislation in the Commons earlier this year after peers took the unusual step of throwing out the whole Bill at second reading.

Earlier, the Tories reacted with fury after the Government imposed a time limit on the third-reading debate. John Redwood, the party's chairman of the campaigns unit and MP for Wokingham, said: "The Government is once again showing its contempt for Parliament. Today it wants to abolish trial by jury in certain cases, destroying a 700-year tradition, but it will only allow timelimited debate."

Outside the Commons, Michael Napier, the Law Society president, said: "The Government's plans are seriously flawed and unpopular. We urge them to reconsider."

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