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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 November 2005, 22:11 GMT
Talks promised on non-jury trials
Judges
Critics do not want judges alone to decide people's guilt
Ministers are to enter talks on re-thinking plans to allow judges to sit alone in complex fraud trials.

Parliament approved the plans in principle in 2003 and they were meant to come into force in January.

But opposition peers threatened to block them next week and the government has decided to seek a compromise.

Critics say juries remain a central plank of the UK justice system, but ministers want to tackle problems in prosecuting complex fraud cases.

Vote postponed

The plans were part of the Criminal Justice Act in 2003, when the government shunned the alternative of judges sitting alongside panels of experts or people with financial experience to decide cases.

Because the Lords opposed the move, a deal was done so the whole bill became law - but the fraud trial plan can only be implemented after separate votes in both Houses of Parliament.

The measure was approved by MPs on Wednesday.

Lord Goldsmith
Lord Goldsmith says he wants to try for consensus

But Conservative and Lib Dem peers were primed to vote it down next week and threatening to amend another piece of legislation - the Fraud Bill - to block the measure.

The government has now postponed the vote to allow for negotiations with the opposition parties.

Government sources ministers are not backing down on the principle of holding fraud trials without juries but are willing to look at alternatives to a judge sitting alone.

'Double standard'

Attorney General Lord Goldsmith said the key aim was to ensure multi-million pound fraudsters did not go unpunished.

"I am determined to see serious fraudsters brought to justice," he said.

"We cannot have unprosecutable white collar crime and easy to prosecute blue collar crime.

We will work to see if we can find the solution but it's far from ideal
Dominic Grieve
Shadow attorney general

"I believe the best way to achieve this is through a trial without a jury so the whole case can be presented in a speedy and effective way.

"I'm pleased the opposition has expressed a willingness to engage with constructive discussion, as we have been trying to do since January this year, to see if we can find a consensus."

Rush?

In return, the Tories and Lib Dems have shelved their amendment to the Fraud Bill.

The new court rules were due to take effect on 1 January, but officials said the delay in the vote did not necessarily mean whatever changes emerged from the talks would be delayed.

Conservative shadow attorney general Dominic Grieve said he was happy to move forward with talks with the government.

"We will work to see if we can find the solution but it's far from ideal," he said, voicing fears that consultations could be rushed.

Mr Grieve said he was ready to look at alternatives to a judge deciding complex fraud trials alone.

But they would have to have to include some kind of independent assessment panel, perhaps experts or a smaller jury, who would sit and decide separately from the judge, he said.

Deal broken?

When the original plans went through Parliament in 2003, then Home Secretary David Blunkett said the plans would not be introduced until opposition parties had been consulted.

The government says that consultation has taken place - in letters and in a seminar held by Attorney General Lord Goldsmith earlier this year.

But the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are accusing ministers of reneging on the undertaking given by Mr Blunkett two years ago.

The government insists the measure is not aimed at cutting costs and says some fraud charges have to be dropped because they are too complicated for juries.

It says some trials are currently too lengthy, too expensive and the jurors available for them are not representative of the population.

But critics say juries are able to understand fraud trials.

And they argue decisions on people's guilt should not be made by a "branch of the state".




SEE ALSO:
Non-jury trial plans under fire
21 Nov 05 |  UK Politics
Juries face axe in fraud trials
21 Jun 05 |  UK Politics
60m fraud case collapse probed
23 Mar 05 |  London
Profile: Lord Goldsmith
24 Mar 05 |  UK Politics


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