Howard's political posturing over justice

Rather than trying to score points over Jack Straw, Bruce Houlder thinks it's time Home Secretary Michael Howard took a far more responsible approach towards jury trials>

The Home Secretary's reforming zeal appears all too often to be motivated by considerations which have little to do with justice, but all to do with being seen to be prepared to do more about Law and Order than Jack Straw.

His record is not impressive. A period of careful reflection is needed before we once more plunge headlong into further legislative change. Changes in policy and failed attempts at overhauling the criminal justice system have littered the statute books in recent years.

Once again we have returned to the old chestnut of jury trial and to whom it should be extended. It is something that is spoken of as a privilege rather than a right. I suppose this is to prevent us from recalling that it has been part of our unwritten constitution since the reign of Henry II.

If the Daily Mail sees it as its task to move into position as the highest court in the land, we better ensure that Howard does not succeed in diminishing the role of the jury. A jury hears evidence, judges on the evidence, and (usually) returns a verdict on the evidence. A magistrate may do the same, but the business of justice is as much about public confidence as it is in seeing the guilty punished and the innocent set free.

The participation of all of us in the decision-making process usually achieves a result that an accused can bear to live with and the public recognises it as the best and fairest system.

It is argued that there are many offences which can be taken out of the Crown Court because the powers of punishment there have not proved necessary in many cases. In this way, it is said money will be saved and delay diminished.

But this last argument, certainly in London, does not appear to be sustainable, as many Crown Courts are catching up with their caseloads and lawyers are seeking further time in which to prepare. Magistrates may not be as overburdened as they were, but the suggested increased caseload of 35,000 cases would surely strain their resources.

In renewing his proposals on jury trial, it is said that Howard is responding to the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice. In part, his proposals bear some similarity to these suggestions on limiting jury trial. They are proposals that the Criminal Bar Association has always opposed, as did Lord Taylor who was Lord Chief Justice when they were last debated. They were fully debated three years ago, and Howard backed away from these proposals then.

Once jury trial is diminished, it is unlikely ever to be returned to the public. We are not talking here about lengthy trials which impose burdens on jurors, but quite the opposite. We are referring to the very kinds of trials which enable the general public, who are those most affected by crime, to participate in the delivery of justice.

It is the people's decision, based on properly-presented evidence that is the strength of the system. Politicians, more than any other group, should appreciate this. Juries do justice in particular cases which the rigours of the law can never cater for.

Professional or part-time judicial figures, whether trained or not, can never improve on the verdict of a jury in the hearts and minds of those who have suffered at the hands of criminals, or in the opinions of those convicted by them. Juries, too, stand for the victims of crime in a far better way than any magistrate or judge can ever do.

The argument is obvious to anyone involved in law that a small crime is rarely petty to the accused person, particularly the innocent. Those who should know better, argue that petty criminals should not have the benefit of an expensive justice system. They forget that the system is there only because justice demands proof. The reward of public confidence and public involvement is the added value that a jury provides at a time when the criminal justice system is under increasing attack.

If it is not the penalty, but the prize which should be the determining factor in jury trial, why are we debating this again? Sexual assault, unlawful possession of drugs, dangerous driving and theft are all regarded as serious misdemeanors, however minor the offence in the scale of such crimes. Mr Howard employs these very examples when he makes his public speeches, yet when it suits, he describes such offences as petty.

They are be no means minor, in our world, nor are they, I believe, in the minds of those that hold our jury system dear. We should fight with every argument we have to see that no further dilution of such a tried and tested system takes place.