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Tuesday, 9 October, 2001, 10:04 GMT 11:04 UK
Justice reforms target jury trials
Sweeping changes to the way courts operate have been recommended in a report on the criminal justice system in England and Wales.

One suggestion in the study, by Lord Justice Auld, says juries should be required to explain their decisions to trial judges so "perverse" verdicts can be filtered out.

The most extensive review of the criminal courts system for 30 years also proposes a restriction on the right to be tried by a jury.

Civil liberties campaigners argue that the right to a trial by one's peers is an ancient liberty, and fear that its curtailment could lead to miscarriages of justice.

Main proposals
Ask juries to explain verdicts
Restrict right to jury trial
Restrict jury duty exemption
Unify magistrates and crown courts
Remove minor offences from court system
Create appraisal system for judges
Include ethnic minorities on relevant juries

The government will seek the views of the public, political parties, and those working in the criminal justice system until the end of January, and then publish a White Paper on the reforms.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, asked senior appeal court judge Sir Robin Auld to conduct the independent review in 1999.

Public answers

The report recommends trial judges "fashion factual questions" when summing up a case to the jury.

It says that where appropriate, the judge should ask the jury publicly to answer question and declare a verdict "in accordance with those answers".

This would mean juries could no longer "acquit defendants in defiance of the law or in disregard of the evidence", it adds.

The report also says the defence and the prosecution should be allowed to appeal against "perverse" verdicts.

Jury duty

Sir Robin also suggests restricting the right to a jury trial.

Under Sir Robin's proposals, juries would still try the most serious cases, such as murder, rape and armed robbery.

But offences carrying up to two years' imprisonment would instead be heard by a hybrid court led by a District Judge and two Justices of the Peace.

The Bar Council condemned Sir Robin's report as "a major assault on jury trial" that "places little trust in ordinary citizens".

The fundamental right to a fair trial must be maintained at all costs

Simon Hughes
Lib Dem shadow home secretary

The Bar chairman, Roy Amlot QC, said: "In dangerous times, our basic freedoms need protection more than ever before, and ministers would be well advised to steer clear of such controversy."

The Liberal Democrat shadow home secretary Simon Hughes said the fundamental right to a fair trial must be maintained at all costs.

"Proposals for change must be judged on whether they improve the quality and consistency of our justice system, not whether they save money for the Treasury."

The director of civil rights group Liberty, John Wadham, condemned Sir Robin's report as "a huge attack on fairness in the criminal justice system - particularly trial by jury, which is its cornerstone."

"There should be no right of appeal when a jury of 12 ordinary people has found a person innocent."

Relatively minor offences can have a devastating impact on someone's life - by losing them their job, for example

Una Padel
King's College, London

Una Padel, of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College, London, said: "It seems unfair that the best quality justice is reserved for the most serious offences.

"Relatively minor offences can have a devastating impact on someone's life - by losing them their job, for example."

Other proposals include scrapping the exemption from jury duty for MPs, police officers, lawyers, dentists, doctors, vets, nurses and members of the clergy and the military.

Only criminals and the mentally ill should be automatically disqualified, the report states.

Other recommendations include:

  • Minor offences such as non-payment of television licences and certain driving offences should be removed from the court system.
  • Appraisal systems should be brought in for part-time judges, and a similar system should be considered for full-time judges.
  • The systems of charges, summonses and indictments in public prosecutions should be replaced by a single form of charge issued by the prosecutor.
  • The law should "move away" from technical rules for inadmissibility of evidence and trust judges and new lay "fact finders" should attach weight to evidence.
  • Creation of a Criminal Justice Board to keep the criminal justice system under review and oversee creation of new criminal law.
  • Introduction of an integrated computer system for the whole criminal justice system.

See also:

26 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Crime crackdown comes under fire
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