Trial by jury is “the lamp that shows that freedom lives.” But what happens when freedom is sacrificed?by Kirsty Brimelow / June 29, 2020 / Leave a comment
On the 19th of June the Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland, announced that he is considering the introduction of trials without juries for “either way” offences with a maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment. “Either way” refers to the current right for those in moderately serious cases to elect a jury rather than be tried in the magistrates’ court. It may be replaced by the right to elect a judge and two magistrates. The lord chancellor stresses that this would be a “last resort.”
The justification is that there is a backlog of cases due to the lockdown. But this is a fallacy, or what government lawyers are fond of calling a “strawman.” According to recent evidence before the House of Commons Justice Committee, figures published on 24th May show that there were 39,214 cases waiting to be heard by a Crown Court before the coronavirus crisis. There now are 40,526. This amounts to an additional 3 per cent. The 39,214 cases bearing on the lives of defendants, complainants, witnesses and police had already been shovelled high in the Ministry of Justice’s legal rights warehouse.
The majority of the backlog is not caused by the coronavirus pandemic but by government funding cuts. As court centres were being sold off, and legal aid slashed, for good measure the number of court sitting days also was reduced. Since 2018 alone, these have been cut from 97,400 to 82,300.
Coronavirus may have exposed a gutted criminal justice system but it certainly did not cause it. The solution is to spend money on the courts and legal resources; not now to move to crudely hacking their constitutional underpinnings.
The legal history of juries inspire deeply-felt emotions, with roots in Magna Carta and more tangibly in the Habeas Corpus Act of 1640, which abolished the Star Chamber. But it was the willingness of Edward Bushel and his fellow jurors to be locked up, rather than obey the judge and convict Quakers Penn and Mead of unlawful assembly, that sealed the importance of juries in criminal justice. This act of defiance in 1670 was an extraordinary stance by disinterested property owners who refused to return a verdict contrary to their consciences.
From my experience , clients and complainants trust juries and are more able to…