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Wednesday, May 19, 1999 Published at 17:10 GMT 18:10 UK

UK Politics

Straw criticised for 'contempt' of Commons

Mike O'Brien: Election to trial has existed since 1855

MPs from all sides of the house have accused the Home Secretary Jack Straw of treating Parliament with contempt by not announcing restrictions on trial by jury to MPs.

Instead Mr Straw unveiled the proposals to end the right of a defendant's choice of where he is tried for "each way" offences at a conference for police officers.

Former Tory Cabinet minister Douglas Hogg, who tabled a question about the proposals, criticised Mr Straw for discussing the proposals on the radio earlier in the day.

[ image: Sir Norman Fowler: Public confidence in system]
Sir Norman Fowler: Public confidence in system
His anger was shared by shadow home affairs spokesman Sir Norman Fowler who also protested at the way the announcement had been made.

The old system had worked well and had the confidence of the public, he added.

But defending Mr Straw Home Office Minister Mike O'Brien said that it had became clear the press had been alerted by a question in Tuesday's order paper.

The home secretary was clarifying matters on the radio, he continued.

He admitted Mr Straw had changed his mind on the proposals but the new system would have safeguards for those of good character and magistrates would have to regard the gravity of case and complexity of legislation.

'Synthetic anger'

Mr O'Brien attacked the "synthetic anger" of the Conservatives over the issue.

He told MPs: "Some believe that to remove a defendants veto on the magistrates decision whether they would hear a case would erode fundamental civil liberties established in the middle ages, if not by the Magna Carta itself.

"However, whilst trial by duty is indeed ancient a defendants ability to chose to be tried by jury - rather than justices - was brought in in 1855."

Mr O'Brien pointed out that in Scotland there was no ability to elect for trial as there the prosecution decided the venue.

Home Office research also indicated that nine out of 10 people who elected to be tried in a crown court had previous criminal convictions.

Labour's Chris Mullin pointed out that some defendants elect crown court trial for all sorts of reason.

Mr O'Brien responded by saying they also did it to apply pressure on the Crown Prosecution Service to seek to reduce seriousness of the charges.

It was also less likely witnesses would attend jury trials because of the time lapse, their memories may be more vague and the system would put off the day of sentence so they could be held in local prisons.

[ image: Alan Beith: Concern for ethnic minorities]
Alan Beith: Concern for ethnic minorities
Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Alan Beith said Scottish cases were tried before professional judges and not magistrates.

He voiced his concern about ethnic minorities, what the grounds for appeal would be and whether legal aid would be available.

Mr O'Brien said ethnic minorities tended to get longer sentences because they disproportionately elected to be tried in a crown court which could give higher sentences.

Additional safeguards, such as appointing more magistrates from minorities, would be put in place to build confidence in the legal system, he continued.

Labour's Robert Marshall-Andrews agreed with Mr Hogg, saying: "The way this absolutely fundamental manner has been brought before this House is a disgrace and is a contempt of members of this House on both sides."

In his experience, the vast majority of defendants elected for a trial by jury because they believed it offered a better standard of justice, he said.

Mr Marshall-Andrews, a barrister, said: "Those of bad character are now to be rewarded with the loss of their rights in perpetuity to a jury trial."

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