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Jack Straw
"I have always been interested in the spirit of discussion"
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Friday, 19 November, 1999, 15:55 GMT
Straw on trial over jury reform
Jack Straw: Promising measures he opposed in the past

The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, has rejected criticism by lawyers and civil rights groups over his plans to remove the option of jury trial for some defendants.

The Queen's Speech
The Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill unveiled in the Queen's Speech this week axes the ancient right of defendants to elect for trial by jury in some cases.

Instead, magistrates would decide which court so-called "either-way" offences should be heard in. At present the defendant picks.

Mr Straw said changing the system would save 105m a year and claimed the Law Society and Bar Council opposed the move because it could hurt their members, not on principle.

"Trial by jury is a key freedom in our democracy," the home secretary said.

"But giving defendants a choice of courts is not. It is frankly eccentric, which is why we in England and Wales are almost alone in allowing this arrangement to continue."

Fierce opposition

But the bill is expected to meet fierce opposition as it passes through Parliament and could face a significant rebellion on Labour's side.

Mr Straw promised to listen to objections raised. "I have always been interested in the spirit of discussion on issues and continue to discuss them. Parliament has an important role in this," he said.

Lawyers and civil rights campaigners have already roundly condemned the plans. The home secretary himself spoke out against it when the move was suggested while Labour was still in opposition.

The director of civil rights group Liberty, John Wadham, said: "If these proposals are enacted, it'll be a disaster for our criminal justice system. There will be more wrongful convictions, less confidence in criminal justice, and more widespread perceptions of unfairness."

Stand up for justice

A spokesman for the Bar Council rejected Mr Straw's accusation that his organisation was acting like a trade union.

"Mr Straw is clearly panicking about his dangerous bill," he said. "Lawyers could make plenty of money from the endless appeals and twists and turns that will arise from his proposal.

"Jack Straw should reflect on government research which shows that black Britons don't trust the overwhelmingly white magistracy. The Bar is right to stand up for justice and for people's juries."

Crown Court appeals

At the moment, many middle-ranking offences, such as assault, theft and some drug crimes, can be tried at the court of the defendants' choice - either before magistrates or in front of a judge and jury at the Crown Court.

Under the bill, that decision will be made by magistrates, who will be allowed to take into account whether the defendant has previous convictions and the effect of a conviction on his or her reputation and livelihood.

Defendants will be allowed to appeal against a decision to the Crown Court.

The Law Society has also said the proposals would favour middle-class, white-collar people, clog up the courts with appeals and penalise ethnic minorities who opt for a jury trial more often, because they have less confidence in magistrates and the police

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