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Wednesday, May 19, 1999 Published at 10:10 GMT 11:10 UK

UK Politics

Trial reforms to 'hit black defendants'

The move could set back progress following the Lawrence report

Black defendants could be the hardest hit by the Home Office proposals to restrict trial by jury, civil liberties groups have warned.

The government is expected to shift the final say on whether some defendants have a trial by jury from the accused to magistrates.

The plans would affect the cases of around 22,000 people who, at the moment, can choose between trials in a magistrate or crown court.

[ image: Magistrates can try
Magistrates can try "minor" crimes
The proposals have already been attacked by legal groups and civil liberties organisations for infringing the rights of the defendant.

But there is increasing concern that the restrictions would be particularly unfair to black defendants.

A spokesman for the Bar Council said: "Magistrates are good at dealing with minor cases but the question is whether black defendants have confidence in them to deal with serious offences.

"The answer to that is, no."

Courtenay Griffiths, a leading black QC, has been at the forefront of the Bar Council's campaign against the Home Office's plans.

Mr Griffiths, a member of the Society for Black Lawyers, points to research which suggests black defendants prefer jury trials and are better treated by juries than magistrates when it comes to conviction and sentencing.

A report published by the Runnymede Trust in 1990 suggested 45% of Afro-Caribbean defendants opt for trial by jury as compared with 30% of white and Asian defendants.

And a report published by the Lord Chancellor's Department in 1997, based on monitoring of ethnic defendants at Leicester Crown Court in 1995, suggested 13% of black defendants were sentenced to immediate custody compared with just 5% of white defendants.

[ image: Stephen Lawrence was murdered in 1993]
Stephen Lawrence was murdered in 1993
Mr Griffiths believes the plans to end the right to choose trial by jury will not only hit black defendants hardest but will also undermine future efforts to improve the relationship of the black community with the criminal justice system.

The Macpherson report into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence has already served to highlight the "serious and widespread" lack of confidence among the black community in UK justice, Mr Griffiths argues.

He said: "Black defendants, community groups and lawyers feel that the problem of juries is only the end of a long line of racism connected to police attitudes, the attitudes of some white defence solicitors, barristers and judges.

"The government has clearly lost sight of its overall strategy on criminal justice.

"On the one hand, we have the imminent enactment of the Human Rights Act 1998, and on the other the curtailment of the role of one of the main agents in the criminal justice system which could give real meaning to such legislation."

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