Jury trials face the axe in thousands of cases each year under reforms being drawn up to cut the costs of court cases, it was revealed today.
The changes could save in excess of £30million per year but will meet fierce opposition from civil liberties campaigners.
Juries in minor theft cases, assaults, burglaries, some drug offences, criminal damage cases and some driving cases will be scrapped under the reforms, The Times reported.
Currently these offences are ‘triable either way’ and can be heard either by magistrates or by a judge sitting with a jury in the Crown Court.
The least serious offences are already heard only by magistrates.
The proposals will be contained in a White Paper to be published next month.
As well as saving money, by sending more cases to magistrates’ courts it will enable judges to hear murder trials, rape cases and serious frauds more quickly.
Civil liberties campaigners and criminal law barristers are opposing the reforms and say the right to be tried by 12 ordinary men and women is sacrosanct in the English legal system.
The right to a jury trial dates back to the Magna Carta in 1215 and the principle was famously described by the late Lord Devlin as ‘the lamp that shows that freedom lives’.
Opposition: Civil liberties campaigners say the right to trial by jury – which has existed since 1215 – is sacrosanct in English law
However, it costs the taxpayer £3,000 per day to send a case to the Crown Court – but just £900 if it is heard by Magistrates.
Currently two thirds of the triable either way offences are sent to the Crown Court. Many of these result in guilty pleas just before the trials start.
In 80 per cent of theft cases the items involved are worth less than £200 in total.
The Magistrates’ Association are backing the proposals and Louise Casey, a Government adviser appointed to lead the response to the riots, said she was in favour of the reforms.
Backdown: Jack Straw tried to cut the number of jury trials a decade ago but the reforms were killed off amid widespread opposition
She told The Times: ‘We should not view the right to a jury trial as being so sacrosanct that its exercise should be at the cost of victims of serious crime.
‘It is known that waiting for a criminal trial often means that victims put their lives on hold; bereaved families of murder victims cannot grieve until the trial is over.
‘Defendants should not have the right to choose to be tried by a jury over something such as the theft of a bicycle or stealing from a parking meter.’
Under the proposed changes, Magistrates may be allowed to order a trial by jury.
It takes an average of 22 weeks for cases to be heard in the Crown Courts, and a year for the most serious cases.
Opponents say that in a low-value theft case although the value of a stolen item may be small, the impact of a conviction will be very large – especially if the defendant has never been before the courts before.
Four men who carried out a £1.75million hold-up at Heathrow Airport became the first people to be found guilty by a judge sitting alone in march 2010.
Juries can be removed from serious criminal trials if there is a serious risk of jury tampering.
Jack Straw tried to reduce the number of cases that go before juries more than 10 years ago although the proposals were dropped following widespread opposition.
David Blunkett also tried to introduce judge-only trials in complex fraud cases but the proposals were later dropped after they ran into opposition in the House of Lords.
Trial by jury faces axe in up to 70,000 cases per year to cut costs
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