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Monday, 21 January, 2002, 12:11 GMT
Ministers rethink jury plans
Plans to restrict jury trial met with strong opposition
Plans to restrict the right to trial by jury could be dropped by the government because of opposition from cabinet ministers.

Home Office sources have confirmed ministers are considering dropping the proposals, which have already come under fire in both Houses of Parliament.

There is a really strong coalition building up ... so there is a real feeling they would never get this through

Lady Kennedy
Labour peer
Home Secretary David Blunkett, Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine of Lairg and the Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith, are reported to have come out against the proposals.

Earlier plans to limit the right to jury trial, put forward by former Home Secretary Jack Straw, were twice defeated in the Lords.

Home Secretary David Blunkett is understood to have questioned the principle behind reforms proposed by his predecessor.

No final decision is expected from the government is expected before Easter, when it will give its response to Lord Justice Auld's report on reforming the criminal justice system.

Cost worries

The Auld proposals would have involved creating a new middle tier of courts where judges would sit alongside two lay magistrates, are now considered too expensive, the Times and the Guardian report.

Under original government plans, "either way" offences, such as burglary, theft and assault, would have been heard in magistrates courts rather than defendants having the option of jury trial.

Baroness Kennedy
Kennedy says the plans became too costly
But Lord Justice Auld recommended a middle tier of courts be set up to deal with those offences.

Leading barrister Baroness Kennedy, who led the House of Lords opposition to the restricting jury trial, was pleased the government was rethinking its plans.

"I think they realise actually this is going to be very costly - all the things about streamlining and simplifying is not fitting in very well," Lady Kennedy told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

'No popular support'

While ministers had thought the plans would be a popular measure to stop expensive abuse of the jury system, they had instead been met with a groundswell of opposition, argued the Labour peer.

"There is a really strong coalition building up of people not just in the Labour Party but on the opposition benches, both Liberal and Conservative.

"A lot of senior retired judges are completely against this so there is a real feeling they would never get this through," Lady Kennedy added.

'No election mandate'

David Bean QC, chairman of the Bar Council, said his organisation would welcome a government retreat on the plans.

"The idea that people voted for the plans on the basis of the Labour manifesto is completely false," said Mr Bean.

"The proposals were always conditional on the Auld inquiry, and no-one in the government even mentioned them during the general election campaign."

Mr Bean said the Bar Council would carefully examine any further plans and would continue to fight for the right to jury trial.

Public consultation on the Auld Report proposals closes at the end of this month but there are reports that another of its ideas - for a new right of appeal against "perverse" jury verdicts - has also been rejected by ministers.

David Bean QC, chairman of the Bar council
"There's a problem with people pleading guilty at the last moment"
Labour peer, Baroness Kennedy
"A powerful coalition has really been building up on this issue"
Labour MP and QC Bob Marshall-Andrews
"It is difficult to conceive of anything more authoritarian than to abolish trial by jury"
See also:

29 Sep 00 | UK Politics
Labour presses on with jury reform
19 Sep 00 | Liberal Democrats
Trial by jury bill faces defeat
08 Mar 00 | UK Politics
Straw unmoved by Commons rebellion
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