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Thursday, September 17, 1998 Published at 09:08 GMT 10:08 UK


Straw defends trial by jury review

No justice in trial without a jury, say lawyers

Home Secretary Jack Straw has defended plans to curtail the right to trial by jury in the face of criticism from the legal profession.

Bruce Holder and Jack Straw on speeding up justice
A coalition of five legal bodies, including the Law Society and Bar Council, wrote to The Times newspaper to say it fears a defendant's fundamental right to be tried in a Crown Court will be scrapped at the expense of dispensing fair justice.

Mr Straw said the proposals were worth considering in an attempt to improve efficiency.

"There is a need to raise the efficiency and effectiveness of the system at the same time as maintaining the essential element of a high quality of justice," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"We need to look carefully at whether it's possible to introduce this, which is a way of speeding up justice, but at the same time accommodate the major concerns of the Bar Council and the other people who have written to The Times."

[ image: Jack Straw: Seeking a public debate]
Jack Straw: Seeking a public debate
Mr Straw admitted that he had opposed a similar plan to do away with jury trials for minor offences put forward by his predecessor Tory Home Secretary Michael Howard, but said he had been influenced by consultation to look again at the idea.

"One of the things that persuaded me that we ought at least to begin a public debate about this was the situation in Scotland.

"Now Scotland is generally regarded as having a very good system of justice.

"In Scotland, defendants have no right of election to for trial before a jury.

"That is principally a matter for the procurator fiscal, the prosecutor, with the agreement of the court and it seems to work."

Fair trial

The alliance of professional organisations and campaigning groups says such a move would badly damage the integrity of the courts system.

The letter reads: "Of course jury trials cost more - but the public put a value on justice and delivering the right result.

"The financial impact of injustice on wrecked lives and careers is far more costly, and near impossible to remedy."

The letter, signed by the heads of all five organisations, continues: "Having a professional judge to oversee the case is as important as having the facts decided by a jury.

The lawyers - Chairman of the Bar Council Heather Hallett; Legal Action Group's Head of Policy Vicki Chapman; Law Society President Michael Mathews; and Directors of the groups Justice and Liberty Anne Owers and John Wadham - say: "Electing jury trial brings with it important safeguards for defendants."

Far from making the justice system more efficient, the lawyers argue that increasing the number of summary trials could lead to multiple delays with wrangles over court venues.

Costly and time-consuming judicial reviews against a decision to refuse trial jury are possible, according to the coalition.

Two-tier justice

Bruce Holder of the Bar Council said that the Home Secretary was suggesting that offences such as burglaries should be tried by magistrates "at their will rather than the will of the person most seriously affected," Mr Holder added.

Under Mr Straw's proposals, a person with no previous convictions would have the right to remain in a Crown Court, while someone with previous offences would be denied the opportunity, creating a "two-tier system of justice", Mr Holder said.

"What sort of a system of justice is that?" he asked.

But Mr Straw denied that the removal of a right to jury trial automatically led to injustice.

"Overwhelmingly, it is actually the magistrates themselves who decline jurisdiction and automatically pass cases to the Crown Court for trial by jury, and not the defendants who elect for trial, and that procedure would continue whatever we did," the Home Secretary added.

Mr Straw said he was seeking a public debate to accommodate "the people with a view about the need to raise the efficiency and effectiveness of the system at the same time as maintaining the central element - that of a high quality of justice".

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