Robert Verkaik: In the absence of 12 good men and true, the accused made himself scarce

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The most obvious opponents to the Government's controversial plans to introduce judge-only trials were always likely to be the defendants themselves.

Given the choice between a case-hardened judge or a panel of 12 "good men and true", most suspects will opt for trial by jury.

Yesterday it emerged that one of the men at the centre of the first serious criminal case to be tried without a jury in England and Wales for nearly 400 years may have expressed his own disquiet at the controversial change in the law by voting with his feet.

Peter Blake, 57, absconded from the Royal Courts of Justice, in central London, where he was on trial with three others for the alleged £1.75m armed hold-up at Heathrow in 2004. Mr Blake's disappearance left the trial judge, Mr Justice Treacy, no option but to issue a warrant for his arrest.

The Heathrow case is the first to go ahead under new measures designed to stop jury-tampering under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, bringing an end the absolute right to a jury trial for those facing a serious criminal charge. Civil liberties groups and some MPs argued it was an attack on a right which had been enshrined in the Magna Carta in 1215.

The last time suspects were tried without juries in England and Wales was during the 17th century when the state used the notorious Court of the Star Chamber to try political opponents.

But in the 1970s at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland the British Government introduced non-jury trials after a review of the law by the then Law Lord, Lord Kenneth Diplock.

They were a response to witness intimidation by paramilitary groups, but were opposed by civil liberty organisations and both nationalists and republicans.

The reintroduction of judge-only trials provides for trial without jury if there is a "real and present" danger that jury tampering would take place, in circumstances where any measures to protect the jurors are considered to be inadequate. Following the collapse of the third Heathrow trial arising from the robbery, the Crown applied for a "judge-only" trial under the new provisions.

Mr Justice Treacy has the dual role of deciding on both the law and the facts of the case. He also has to put out of his head any evidence which he has previously ruled inadmissible. And then finally he must perform the role of the jury by deciding whether the defendants are innocent or guilty.

At the start of the trial last month supporters of the four defendants unfurled banners reading "kangaroo court". Mr Blake's absence suggests he harbours similar reservations.

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