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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 November 2006, 20:06 GMT
Commons passes jury-less trials
Judges
Trials without a jury were opposed in the House of Lords
A bill which would end trial by jury in complex fraud cases has cleared its first parliamentary hurdle, despite opposition.

Tories, Lib Dems and some Labour backbenchers opposed the Fraud (Trials Without a Jury) bill on its second reading in the Commons.

The bill will now be debated in the Lords, where it is expected to face further opposition.

The Tories say it could set a precedent for a wider attack on jury trials.

Solicitor General Mike O'Brien said major fraud trials lasting months put an intolerable pressure on jurors.

Trial collapse

Several high-profile fraud trials have collapsed, such as the 60m Jubilee Line case, which lasted 21 months.

The government tried to introduce measures allowing trials without jury in the Criminal Justice Act 2003.

But it met so much opposition, it was agreed the move would have to be agreed by both Houses of Parliament before taking effect.

By supporting this kind of measure we add nothing to reducing crime, we undermine the criminal justice system and confidence in it
Dominic Grieve

When the attorney general tried to bring in the measure in 2005, peers said they would oppose it.

So ministers are trying to push through measures to allow trials without juries in a stand-alone Fraud (Trials without a jury) Bill.

Mr O'Brien said the bill met opposition MPs' concerns by including an extra safeguard.

"It is that a High Court judge should hear both applications for a non-jury trial, and a High Court judge should conduct the trial itself," he said.

'Awful bill'

It would also have to be approved by the Lord Chief Justice.

Mr O'Brien told the Commons that some defendants ended up being tried on lesser charges, because of the need to limit the amount of evidence put before jurors.

But shadow attorney general Dominic Grieve said the government simply did not like juries or the present criminal justice system.

"By supporting this kind of measure we add nothing to reducing crime, we undermine the criminal justice system and confidence in it," he said.

"And we open the door to getting rid of the jury system, which I profoundly believe is one of the absolute underpinnings of our civil liberties in this country," he said.

For the Liberal Democrats, Simon Hughes said a jury verdict was more likely to stand and not be the subject of an appeal than a judge's verdict.

"It is highly unacceptable that professionals are going to be tried by the professionals, that the white-collar offender is going to be tried by the white collar professional judge," he said.

The bill was given a second reading by 289 to 219, a government majority of 70.

Labour rebel Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway), a QC, said: "This awful bill deserves short shrift.

"It's a serious attack on civil liberties, which have been our heritage for 800 years.

Opponents argue that the right to trial by jury is a cornerstone of British justice.

Between 2002 and 2005 there were 26 fraud trials that each lasted for more than six months and eight which lasted more than a year.

The Home Office said that in the financial year 2003/04 the average cost of legal aid for the 20 most expensive trials prosecuted by the Serious Fraud Office was 540,000.




SEE ALSO
Reform planned for fraud trials
15 Nov 06 |  Business
No-jury trial plan 'presses on'
26 Nov 05 |  UK Politics
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

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