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Tuesday, 16 April, 2002, 16:33 GMT 17:33 UK
Jury trials 'facing fresh threat'
Plans to restrict jury trial met with strong opposition
Government plans to increase magistrates' sentencing powers are an attempt to restrict the right to jury trial, says a Labour peer and leading lawyer.

Helena Kennedy QC said providing incentives for people to plead guilty was a far better way of cutting the cost of jury trials.

Her comments come after the lord chancellor hinted that ministers had abandoned their plans to remove the right to trial by jury for offences like theft, criminal damage, burglary and assault.

Instead, Lord Irvine suggested the maximum jail sentence magistrates can impose would be increased from six to 12 or even 24, months.

New incentives

Baroness Kennedy told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Changing the powers of magistrates might be a way by stealth of reducing the number of jury trials.

"I am all for reducing the number of peole who go for jury trial who are guilty but you do that by creating incentives to plead guilty."

Magistrates were a vital part of the British justice system because of their work with less serious cases, said Lady Kennedy.

Louis Blom Cooper QC
Louis Blom Cooper questions the use of juries
But she continued: "Increasing, doubling indeed, their sentencing powers is about really giving to people who are not qualified in the law a rather important power over very ordinary people's lives."

Louis Blom-Cooper QC argued defendants should also have the right to be tried by a panel of experts instead of a jury.

"The question of evaluating evidence in the courtroom is a professional job, it's not for amateurs."

In a series of press interviews this week, Lord Irvine gave strong indications magistrates' powers would be increased in proposals due in July.

New tier proposed

That White Paper comes in response to Lord Auld's review of the criminal justice system last year.

Lord Auld's 700-page report, published last October, suggested the scrapping of jury trials for so-called "either way" cases such as burglary, theft and assault - they account for up to two-thirds of cases heard in crown courts.

Such cases could instead be heard in a middle tier of a new court system in which two magistrates sit with a district judge, Lord Justice Auld suggested.

But critics say that would prove exhorbitant.

Doubling magistrates' sentencing powers would reduce the number of cases committed to crown courts by an estimated 6,000 a year.

"The right to elect trial would be offset by the lesser numbers of committals for trial that the magistrates would make," Lord Irvine explained.


But he also suggested defendants in complex fraud cases be tried by a judge and two expert assessors rather than a jury.

He told the Financial Times: "There are very serious fraud cases, which - without being in the least patronising about juries - are really beyond their technical competence.

"As a result, serious fraudsters go free."

Labour's 2001 election manifesto committed the party to removing the "widely-abused right" of defendants to opt for jury trial.

But earlier plans to limit the right to jury trial, put forward by former home secretary Jack Straw, were twice defeated in the Lords after massive opposition from the legal profession and civil rights campaigners.

A spokesman for civil rights group Liberty, Roger Bingham, said: "We welcome the apparent acceptance that the government should not limit trial by jury."

The Lord Chancellor's Department has stressed all options were open and no decisions would be made until July.

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
21 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Ministers rethink jury plans
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