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Joshua Rozenberg reports for BBC News
"The Home Office said it would be reintroducing the Bill"
 real 28k

Thursday, 20 January, 2000, 21:15 GMT
Peers 'kill' trial reform bill

The bill would have restricted the right to jury trial


The government has withdrawn its controversial bill to restrict the right to trial by jury after a defeat in the House of Lords.

However, Home Secretary Jack Straw said that another bill containing the proposals would be introduced in the House of Commons later in the Parliamentary session.

straw Jack Straw: Pressing ahead with reforms


An all-party alliance of peers passed an amendment to the Criminal Justice Mode of Trial) Bill by 222 votes to 126.

They included eight Labour peers who defied the party whip to support the amendment which preserved the right to jury trial.

It was the first defeat for the government in the Lords since the majority of hereditary peers were removed and also, coincidentally, came on the same day as plans were published for long-term reform of the upper chamber.
Lords Reform


Following the vote Mr Straw rejected calls to drop the reforms and he accused peers of opposing the will of the elected house.

He remained adamant that the proposals would speed up justice and help victims, while ensuring defendants received a "full and fair" trial.

"It is now crystal clear that a majority in the House of Lords is determined to prevent the elected House of Commons from making timely decisions on this measure," he said.

"We are therefore introducing a number two in the House of Commons as soon as possible in this session of Parliament."


This is the House of Lords doing what it does best - standing up for people's most fundamental constitutional rights
Bar Council chairman Jonathan Hirst


The bill would have allowed magistrates to decide where certain cases should be heard, either in the magistrates court or in a Crown Court.

It would have given defendants a right of appeal to the Crown Court against a magistrate's decision to try a case themselves.

The government has argued that some defendants abuse the current system to delay their trial by pleading not guilty in order to get a trial by jury, then changing their plea at the last moment in order to get a more lenient sentence.

Trial by jury is also a more expensive process than a hearing by magistrates.

Opponents of the bill believe it would have restricted a fundamental right to jury trial by one's peers and would erode public confidence in the criminal justice system.

They also attacked the government for introducing the contentious bill in the Lords.

Minsters now intend to drive the legislation through Parliament even if the second bill is rejected, by using the Parliament Acts.

The acts do not apply to the present bill as it started life in the Lords.

'Hugely embarrassing defeat'

Shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe urged Mr Straw to abandon the reforms in the wake of the "hugely embarrassing defeat."

widecombe Ann Widdecombe: Attacked 'half-baked bill'


"How many more people have to oppose his plan to reform trial by jury before he drops the whole ill-thought out idea?

"The legal profession, civil liberties groups, opposition parties and now the Lords - among them his own peers - have rejected Jack Straw's policy."

The amendment which scuppered the bill was proposed by her Conservative colleague Lord Cope.

Speaking during the debate he told peers that "Labour were elected to oppose this bill".

He said the government believed the bill would save 105m.

Labour peers who supported the amendment
Lord Bruce of Donington
Lord Desai
Baroness Jeger
Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws
Earl of Longford
Baroness Mallalieu
Lord Stallard
Lord Stoddart of Swindon


But the argument on cost, he said, did not take into account defendants' right to appeal against his or her case not going to trial - thereby costing the prison service money for prisoner's accommodation.

Lord Cope also dismissed arguments that defendants would receive better treatment by magistrates.

He said: "If the jury system is so fallible we shouldn't use it for important cases, for murder. I don't think anyone argues that."

Lord Cope said attacks by Mr Straw on those who opposed the bill, as "woolly Hampstead liberals" did him the home secretary no justice.

'Ill-conceived'

He was neither woolly, a Liberal or lived in Hampstead, but added: "I want our criminal justice system to have acceptance of support from the whole of our population."

Anyone who had read the Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence "should want that", he told peers.

Former Home Secretary Lord Jenkins described the measure as an ill-conceived, little bill, directly contrary to every thing the home secretary and his spokesman had said in opposition.

Lord Chief Justice Lord Bingham of Cornhill urged peers to support the bill as he believed many judges accepted it was the right thing to do now there was a right of appeal built into the legislation.

"There does seem to be a considerable unanimity of opinion on this topic."

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See also:
19 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Straw's nightmare fortnight
13 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Lords threaten jury reform rebellion

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