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Yard chief backs right to jury trial: Condon voices reservation over plan for justice system

HOME OFFICE plans to remove the automatic right to trial by jury for certain cases were strongly opposed yesterday by Paul Condon, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner.

Mr Condon backed the overhaul of the criminal justice system, to be announced this week at the Tory Party conference by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary.

But the Commissioner warned: 'The jury trial is really so sacred in this country that to dabble with that is really dabbling with the foundations of the legal system.'

John Morris, the shadow Attorney General, also warned the Home Secretary that he would not get such a change through the Commons. 'Where the issue of dishonesty is involved - for whatever amount - the right of trial by jury must be kept. It is cardinal.'

Mr Howard was expected to include curbs on the right to a jury trial in a package of measures to be announced on Wednesday, which Tory leaders hope will be the centrepiece of a Conservative revival.

John Major said in the Sunday Express it would include new measures against child pornography, and on police powers of seizure, with sentences of up to three months' imprisonment for those found in possession of pornographic material involving children.

The strength of the opposition to removing the right to trial by jury could force the Home Secretary into a partial retreat, but he won Mr Condon's support for other fundamental changes. Mr Condon said on BBC Television's Breakfast with Frost: 'The scales of justice are weighted too heavily in favour of criminals and not enough in terms of society helping itself.'

It needed to be brought back into balance 'so that as well as making sure the innocent go free, we have a reasonable chance of convicting the guilty. We have a criminal justice system that needs a dramatic overhaul.' Mr Condon also favoured ending the so- called right of silence, which was supported at the weekend by Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice.

'We don't want to force people to speak if they don't want to speak, but we would like to be able to comment on the fact that they have not explained their behaviour.

'I think the criminal justice system has overcompensated for some very dramatic miscarriages of justice so that it is far too heavily in favour of the criminal.'

The Metropolitan Commissioner said he respected those who might renew calls for the death penalty at the conference this week, but he did not believe capital punishment was a major deterrent.

Mr Morris yesterday accused the Treasury of forcing courts and the police to cut the number of cases going to court to save costs. There had been an 11 per cent drop in crown court cases in London and a 9 per cent drop in the South-east circuit, undermining police morale, he said.