Top judge questions the right to silence: More balanced criminal trials urged

POLICE and prosecutors who argue that criminal trials are weighted too heavily in favour of defendants were given the support of the country's most senior judge yesterday.

Lord Taylor of Gosforth, the Lord Chief Justice, said he believed that the defence should be compelled to disclose its case before trial and that the unqualified right to silence should be amended. Speaking at a press conference to mark his first year in office, he said he hoped the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, due to report next month, would recommend ways of making the trial process more balanced.

Sir Hugh Annesley, Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, said on Thursday that the justice system was 'heavily loaded' in favour of defendants. He suggested that, in certain circumstances, a defendant's refusal to answer questions should be made an offence.

However, Lord Taylor defended the right of defendants to choose trial by jury - rejecting calls from Barbara Mills QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, and magistrates, who want greater restrictions in order to prevent trials being aborted because of a late plea of guilty, and to ease pressures on court time.

Lord Taylor said the citizen's right to be tried by his peers went back to the Magna Carta and although removing that right might be more convenient for those managing the courts, 'I simply don't think it is in the interests of justice to do it'.

Lord Taylor welcomed the recent changes to the 1991 Criminal Justice Act - which restored sentencing powers to the courts and abolished the unit fines system. He was one of the prime movers in the changes, having labelled the Act an 'ill-fitting strait-jacket'.

However, he emphasised that he still supported the original philosophy behind the Act that people should only be jailed in the most serious cases when other alternatives to custody had failed.

His influence - in contrast to his predecessor, Lord Lane - at a time of deep unease in the criminal justice system has clearly been recognised by the new Home Secretary, Michael Howard, who asked to see the Lord Chief Justice on his first day.

However, despite their close relationship, the Lord Chief Justice remains an outspoken critic of some government policy - particularly the proposed restrictions on legal aid eligibility.

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