Once again, the right to elect trial by jury in respect of certain offences is under threat. In reform proposals due to be published in a white paper next month, some 70,000 cases involving theft, assault, burglary and drugs offences will have juries axed; saving an estimated Â£30 million.
There are, in essence, three categories of criminal offences: those such as murder and manslaughter which must be heard at Crown Court; those such as motoring offences and less serious assaults which can only be tried by the magistrates; and the middle band of offences, such as theft and burglary, which are so called triable either way, that is triable before the Crown or indeed the Magistrates Court.
It is clearly those which fall within the middle section that will come under scrutiny, particularly the less serious offences in that category.
We are told in the newspapers that not only are the proceedings at the Crown Court far more expensive than those held at the Magistrates Court but also that the number of relatively less serious matters on the Crown Court list delay the trials of more serious offences, such as rape or murder. We are also told that many of the matters that are committed to the Crown Court result in guilty pleas before the trials start. There are in fact many issues raised within the information that we are given that can be addressed in ways other than restriction of the right to jury trial.
For example, if late guilty pleas cause a problem then perhaps better and more effective measures ought to be looked at, case management or greater incentives for a timely or earlier guilty plea might be re-addressed. If a Crown Court is over three times more expensive each day to operate than a Magistrates Court then perhaps again we ought to be told why rather than simply take away something which ought to be sacrosanct’.
It is not to say that a trial by magistrates is any way inferior. Many people indeed opt to be tried at the Magistrates Court where there is a right of election but the point is that the right to decide mode of trial ought to remain and, whatever the potential saving, there can be no price put on justice and the individual’s freedom to choose.
It is not the first time that the matter has raised its head and undoubtedly it won’t be the last but hopefully common sense will prevail and the issues which may lead to financial savings within the Criminal Justice System will be properly identified rather than simply looking again at what is rapidly becoming a perennial review of such a fundamental right of our legal system.