Trying to restrict jury trials has diverted from essential reform

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The Independent Online

Welcome the sinner that repenteth, by all means. Tony Blair and his legal mentor Derry Irvine should be applauded for coming to their senses if the Lord Chancellor announces today that he is scrapping the plan to restrict trial by jury. But we are entitled to ask what on earth led to the waste of time and breach of trust between New Labour and the defenders of civil liberty?

No intelligent person denies that the court system in this country needs to change. It is slow, inefficient and tends to work against joined-up policies to tackle the causes of crime. More specifically, some defendants do manipulate the right to a jury trial as a device to delay, with expensive consequences for taxpayers. But removing defendants' rights altogether simply because they are sometimes abused is to start reform from the wrong end.

The purpose of the criminal justice system is not to process cases quickly and cheaply. It would of course be much better at achieving its real objectives – rehabilitation, deterrence and punishment – if it were quicker. Equally, public money ought to be spent efficiently. But the pressure to restrict the right to jury trial has always, since it was first proposed by Michael Howard, the former home secretary, seemed to come first from the simple desire to save money. That motive cannot be allowed precedence over the right to a fair trial. Where the right is being abused, the abuses should be dealt with and the incentives to delay minimised.

It has taken a long time for the Government to come to the conclusion it should have first thought of. Indeed, when Jack Straw was shadow Home Secretary, he opposed the idea.

"Government decides not to do something it should not do" may not seem much of a story. But this is no trivial policy failure. Despite the proliferation of ministers, ministerial time is not so abundant a resource that any government can waste it. Who knows how many person-years have been wasted at the Home Office and Lord Chancellor's Department working on this scheme, which could have been devoted to making our courts more efficient and, therefore, more effective?