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Wednesday, May 19, 1999 Published at 12:57 GMT 13:57 UK


Jury system in the dock

The right to a trial by jury is a tradition that goes right to the heart of the British legal system.

It is a right fiercely fought for, and fiercely defended at those times when its powers have been seen to be under threat - as those backing reforms are finding.

[ image: The Magna Carta established the right to a jury of peers]
The Magna Carta established the right to a jury of peers
The tradition of being "tried by a jury of ones peers" probably has its origins in Anglo Saxon custom, which dictated that an accused man could be acquitted if enough people came forward to swear his innocence.

Trial by jury was first enshrined in law in what has been seen as the world's first proclamation of human rights - the Magna Carta.

The document, decreed in 1215 by King John after a rebellion by his barons, stated that a "freeman shall not be... imprisoned... unless by the judgement of his peers".

The right to trial by jury was finally established absolutely in the legal system following the trial of William Penn in 1670.

A jury of 12 randomly chosen citizens of London refused to convict the Quaker of "leading a dissident form of worship", despite being directed to by the judge and subjected to imprisonment and starvation in a bid to force their hand.

[ image: William Penn: His case reinforced the right to a jury]
William Penn: His case reinforced the right to a jury
The latest government proposals are seen by some as a direct attack on the traditions established in the Maga Carta and confirmed in the Penn trial.

The government wants some defendants to lose the right to choose trial by jury over magistrates' hearing.

Supporters say reform is practical for an overburdened modern legal system.

The proposed changes affect an Act of 1855 allowing some crimes to be tried by magistrates instead of a higher court if the defendant agreed.

The act was designed - like the new proposals that would supersede it - to speed up the legal process.

The offences covered included theft, burglary, actual bodily harm and criminal damage.

Minor offences, such as drunkenness, could only be tried by magistrates, and major offences, such as murder and rape, only by jury.

The government now wants to limit the number of cases which are "triable either way".

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