Top judge attacks Howard's jury plan

Click to follow
Indy Politics
A new battlefront opened up yesterday in the war of words between the judiciary and the Home Secretary, as the country's most senior judge attacked proposals by Michael Howard to abolish the right to elect trial by jury.

Lord Bingham of Cornhill, the Lord Chief Justice, said the right was a "valuable principle" and vital if the public was to believe in the fairness of the court system. He also warned that it could lead to injustice.

Mr Howard has clashed repeatedly with the judiciary during his controversial four year tenure at the Home Office.

Lord Bingham's latest criticism follow proposals by Mr Howard to speed up the criminal justice system. Lord Bingham, said that some of the changes "seem wrong in principle" and that he feared the reforms "might lead to error".

Among the most controversial suggestions is the removal of a defendants' automatic right to have a case dealt with by a jury for a series of offences that currently can be heard either by magistrates or in the Crown Court.

Among offences that can be heard by magistrates or at a Crown Court are theft, possession of an offensive weapon and gross indecency.

An estimated 35,000 cases a year would be affected by the move, which is intended to result in more cases being dealt with by magistrates to avoid delays and extra expense. The plan was condemned by the Law Society and the Bar Council, who believe it is a fundamental right.

Lord Bingham, speaking to magistrates in Gloucester last night, said: "I ... consider that it is an important guarantee of public acceptance of that unique role and function that a defendant, accused of other than minor crime, is not obliged against his will to be tied by justices [magistrates].

"It is not a question of crown court trial being fairer than trials in magistrates' court, or jurors being more open-minded than justices. It is a question of public perception.

"I think it an important and valuable principle that those liable to conviction of serious crime by justices should voluntarily accept the justices' exercise of jurisdiction."

He argued that the move could also cause "far reaching problems" and delays with defendants appealing to the High Court to challenge their right for a jury trial. Magistrates may also be prejudice against a defendant who attempted, but failed, to have their case heard in the Crown Court.

Lord Bingham went on to say that elements of the Home Office document, Review of Delay in the Criminal Justice System, troubled him. Plans to speed up the justice system could erode defendants' rights, he argued.

The independence of the Crown Prosecution Service could be damaged by proposals to bring them into police stations, he warned.

Plans to let staff with no legal qualifications present uncontested cases were also flawed, said Lord Bingham.

He added that the report needed further research and wider public consultation.

Vicki Chapman, policy officer of the Legal Action Group, a pressure group, welcomed Lord Bingham's comments, and added: "A defendant right to elect their trial by jury is a fundamental right and should be protected."

In January Lord Bingham condemned key parts of Mr Howard's tough sentencing plans as "irremediably

flawed" and would lead to injustice.

The Crime Bill proposes automatic life sentences for second serious violent and sexual offenders and minimum sentences for repeat buglars and drug dealers. The judges are angry that it removes some of their discretion in sentencing.

In the dock

Examples of Mr Howard's clashes witht he judiciary:

tMinimum sentences for repeat burglars and drug dealers and life sentences for twice- convicted serious violent offenders

t In July 1996 the Court of Appeal ruled he acted unfairly in taking into account public petitions when imposing a 15-year sentence on the two boys convicted of killing James Bulger.

t A judge in March 1996 blocked Home Office moves to expel leading Saudi dissident Mohamed al-Masari.

t In 1995 the House of Lords decided he had acted outside his powers in introducing a new tariff based criminal injuries compensation scheme.

In November 1995 the High Court accused Mr Howard of unlawfully barring Unification Church leader Sun Myung Moon from entering Britain.