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Thursday, 2 December, 1999, 21:13 GMT
Battle ahead on jury reforms
The right to trial by jury is to be restricted

Changes to the trial by jury system in England and Wales may be blocked by Parliament after Tory and Liberal Democrat peers pledged to oppose Home Secretary Jack Straw's reforms.

Tory peer Lord Cope of Berkeley called on ministers to scrap the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill, warning that the opposition was prepared to vote against it in the House of Lords.

Even though the House has recently seen more than 600 hereditary peers removed, the government could still have its plans blocked.

'Bitter' opposition

Lord Thomas of Gresford said the Lib Dems "will oppose it to the bitter end".

The Law Society is also against the changes, which would give courts the power to decide whether certain defendants should be tried by jury or by magistrates.

Opening the bill's second reading debate in the Lords, the Attorney General Lord Williams of Mostyn said the changes would greatly improve the working of the legal system.

He told peers: "I do suggest that in many cases those who elect trial by jury on trivial occasions are distorting the system.

Is it right that someone who has 10 previous convictions for shoplifting a jelly or a banana from Tesco is really entitled automatically to have the right to trial by jury?
Lord Williams
"I don't think the jury system has attached to it any great public support when it discovers that thousands of pounds, hours of scarce court time have been devoted to quite trivial allegations of theft."

But Lord Cope said if the government were to drop the bill: "They would only gain credit for so doing. It is not in the manifesto and they could do it without trouble."

But he added: "If the government still persist with it, we will vote against the bill passing into law at the appropriate stage."

Setting out what he thought was at stake in the bill, Lord Cope said: "English and Welsh people have been taught to expect that if they are in serious difficulty with the law, they will either have automatically or be able to opt for, a trial by jury.

"That is to say, ordinary people deciding one's guilt or innocence. Not clever lawyers or distant judges, but people like themselves and those who practice in the courts often say how seriously, jurors take their duties."

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See also:
19 Nov 99 |  UK Politics
Straw on trial over jury reform

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