The Coronavirus pandemic has led the Government to consider doing away with jury trials.
According to the Times, ‘sources’ suggest the Ministry of Justice in considering bringing in a law when Parliament reconvenes next month that would allow Judge only trials ‘in some circumstances’.
The change is being considered as a solution to the huge backlog of cases, which has been exacerbated by the coronavirus. Some criminal trials are being set for two years’ time.
Ann Crighton, a local barrister who has written for The Chiswick Calendar before about the deterioration of the court services, argues that it will lead to miscarriages of justice and we must not allow it.
Legal system in a perilous state
Coronavirus is being used as an excuse for all sorts of things, in particular, to cover up the state of the legal system in this country, which has gone from bad to worse because of austerity.
There is a huge backlog of cases. Last year about 12,000 jury trials were completed. Crown courts (which only see the serious offences, as lesser crimes are dealt with by Magistrates courts) currently have some 30,000 pending.
Virtually all cases start in the Magistrates Court and the most serious are sent to the Crown Court. Over 90% of cases are dealt with in the Magistrates Court, so if 30,000 cases are waiting to be dealt with in the Crown Court how many are waiting in the Magistrates Court?
The waiting list for trials just grew longer and longer because there were not enough Courts to hear the trials.
The attempts to save money have resulted in interpreters who cannot interpret properly so trials have had to be abandoned, tags that are not attached to offenders, prisoners who are not delivered to the Court on time so trials cannot start, and miscarriages of justice. All things which I have seen in courts myself, at first hand.
The Ministry of Justice has sold off hundreds of Courts, including Feltham, Brentford, Richmond and Hammersmith in west London. The sale of Hammersmith Court was particularly crazy – it was a busy purpose-built Court opened only about 20 years ago.
Long before Coronavirus there were tens of thousands of trials waiting months (or sometimes years) to be heard in both the Magistrates and Crown Court. The waiting list for trials just grew longer and longer because there were not enough Courts to hear the trials. Also because the Ministry of Justice would only pay for a certain number of Judges to sit, so even where court rooms remained open, they were often empty.
Coronavirus just an excuse
Since the courts reopened ten weeks ago, according to figures from the Criminal Bar Association, only 250 trials have been heard in England and Wales. Courts, like everyone else, have been acclimatising to the necessity for social distancing.
‘At that rate, even if courts sat every week of the year only 1,300 trials would be completed in 12 months’ writes Jonathan Ames in the Times.
Some trials are being set for two years’ time (and who is to say a date in two years’ time will be adhered to?) In that time, it is argued, witnesses will forget what it is they’re supposed to be testifying to, defendents, who may be innocent, will be under enormous stress and violent criminals will have to be freed because they’ve waited in jail for the full time they are legally allowed to be detained without trial.
So goes the argument, and the country’s most prominent retired judge, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, a former Lord Chief Justice and the first President of the Supreme Court, has spoken out in favour of judge only trials to solve the problem “because the alternative of rising delays to trials is horrible”.
My understanding is that this would in reality be in all cases and what the Times refers to as ‘in some circumstances’ just means during the pandemic.
Trials without juries more of a threat than coronavirus
Those in charge of the Ministry of Justice must be jumping for joy because now they have coronavirus as an excuse for the huge waiting lists, when in reality it has only made worse a situation that was already bad.
I believe that coronavirus is being used as the excuse to do away with juries. If you believe it’s necessary because of the virus, then you are gullible.
The attempt to do away with juries is a way of saving money and it will deny justice. Obviously it would be far cheaper to have trials with a Judge and no jury but we all know that we are far safer if our guilt or innocence is decided by ’12 good men/women’ because Judges do not live in the same world as the rest of us.
The Ministry of Justice are not interested in whether you have been unfairly dismissed, accused of a crime you have not committed, or even whether you have been a victim of a horrific crime. They are only interested in statistics, employing consultants, and saving costs.
Imagine how delighted those automatons in charge of the Ministry of Justice are at the thought they can use coronavirus as an excuse to do away with Juries. We must not allow it.
The coronavirus is a concern, but your chances of dying if you are under 80 and not vulnerable are 0.3%. As far as I am concerned, most of us should be much more afraid of the State doing away with Jury trials – because the chance of you, or someone you care about, being wrongly convicted is, in my opinion, more likely than dying because of coronavirus.
The irony is that it is the coronavirus which may enable it to happen.
Ann Crighton is a barrister and has her own law practice – Crighton Chambers at 11 Ravenscourt Pl, Hammersmith, London W6 0UN
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See also: Shocking misuse of police time