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Wednesday, May 19, 1999 Published at 18:38 GMT 19:38 UK


Top QC attacks jury reform

Trial by jury: "a contract between the public and the state"

Senior barrister Michael Mansfield QC tells BBC News Online why he opposes Jack Straw's changes to the jury system.

The hallmark of the Thatcher years was a steadfast adherence to dogma, never changing or veering away from the principles that underlay it.

Now, it appears, we have a government of the opposite calibre, that, as soon as it achieves power, turns its back on most of the principles it espoused while in opposition.

[ image: Michael Mansfield QC:
Michael Mansfield QC: "Whole framework is a nonsense"
In particular recently, there are some glaring examples. Asylum and immigration; disability; and now the right to choose jury trial.

Even more ironically, it was Jack Straw, as well as the shadow Attorney General, who were calling these same propositions, when put forward by Michael Howard, "short sighted" and "ineffective".

If it is to be said this is to save money, one hardly needs to remind everyone that this government has already spent £80m on a war in Kosovo that has not been sanctioned by the United Nations, still less by a vote in the House of Commons.

Either way cases

These propositions are likely to affect up to 20,000 people. These are people involved in cases classified as hybrid, or "triable either way" cases, and involve allegations of dishonesty, assault, child cruelty, drugs, and so on.

They are all serious allegations, which, were they to be proved against an individual, not only may cause serious harm to reputation and career, but also may result in a prison sentence.

[ image:
"The fairest form of trial"
The fairest form of trial has always been considered to be that of trial by jury. This dates back, it is said by some, to the Magna Carta.

All research, particularly that carried out by the Home Office itself, and by the Runciman Commission, shows that the public would overwhelmingly prefer to be tried by 12 ordinary people than by a professional judge or magistrate.

Democratic rights

One of the obvious reasons is that ordinary people introduce an element of democracy into the judicial process, and it is one of the few ways in which citizens can participate and exercise democratic rights in an effective way.

Social historian EP Thompson once described it as a contract between the public and the state, in which the jury provides a protection against abuse and arbitrary exercise of power.

[ image: Clive Ponting: result
Clive Ponting: result "poses real threat"
Juries have always approached their task conscientiously and diligently, and several notable trials are evidence to this - William Penn and the Quakers, and more recently, Randle and Pottle, and Clive Ponting - all trials at the Old Bailey.

It is the results of these trials which pose the real threat and not the idea that money may be saved.


Furthermore, the actual proposals are quite unworkable. If the right to choose is to be given to a magistrate, how is he to do it?

How is he to assess whether one defendant, as opposed to another, deserves a trial by jury, particularly if both defendants are facing the same charge?

Is it the amount of money that's involved? Or is it the character of the defendant? In any event, it is all arbitrary and subjective.

What if the defendant feels aggrieved, and wishes to appeal against a decision to refuse a jury trial? Apparently, he will be allowed to go to the Crown Court.

No doubt this would have to happen before any actual trial of the issues. If this is the case, there will be delay and further expense, the very things which, it is said, these proposals will avoid.

In short, the whole legislative framework is a nonsense, and it hardly behoves Jack Straw to wear the same mantle as Michael Howard, when these matters were shown to have been quite unacceptable then.

No doubt the next target is going to be the presumption of innocence, and they will argue it is quicker to assume guilt and pass straight to summary execution.

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