11:58, June 19 261 0 theguardian.com

2020-06-19 11:58:04
Reviewing the case for trials without a jury

It is clear that the judiciary is more concerned about the inconvenience of the case backlog than defendants’ rights (Drop juries for less serious crimes in England and Wales, judges say, 16 June). The proposal to try “either-way” offences in crown courts without a jury removes the defendant’s right to elect to plead guilty in the magistrates court and thereby reduce their sentence, or to choose a trial by jury in the crown court. Would the judiciary treat those who lose the right to jury trial as if they were convicted in the magistrates court for sentencing purposes? If not, then any defendant is clearly disadvantaged by this proposal.

There is a steady creep towards the loss of trial by jury. We hear all too often that juries cannot understand complex fraud cases. Doubtless if the backlog proposals are implemented we will find that it works so well that the judiciary are happy not to go back to the previous “either-way” norms.

No-jury Diplock courts in Northern Ireland resulted in substantial prejudice to defendants. Diplock acquittals decreased from 53% in 1984 to 29% in 1993. Acquittal rates for criminal trials by jury remained steady, at 49% in 1984 and 48% in 1993.

The point of trial by jury is to protect defendants from judges who bring the prejudices of their class to court and who are aware of the political context in which they decide cases. To suggest that the judiciary can somehow “play fair” when they are reacting to the pressure of a backlog is nonsense.

Nick Moss


Even before lockdown there was a backlog of cases in the crown courts of England and Wales. Except in a handful of courts, no trials are taking place. The answer is simple: suspend trial by jury on a temporary basis. During the suspension, all cases in the crown court should be tried by a judge sitting alone. Judges should have to give written reasons for their verdicts. The court of appeal would scrutinise these when considering an appeal. Many years ago, the distinguished jurist Lord Devlin said trial by jury is the lamp that shows that freedom lives. It has been the cornerstone of our criminal justice system, but we live in exceptional times. Exceptional remedies are needed. If nothing is done soon our criminal justice system will implode.

Michael Heath

Retired circuit judge, Scothern, Lincolnshire

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