No justice in limiting right to jury

John Cooper argues the case for maintaining the right to jury trials, as the Government shows its determination to pass new laws on the criminal justice system. John Cooper is a barrister at 3 Gray’s Inn Square and a TV scriptwriter.

I have it on good authority that the Home Office does not want it, and that Jack Straw would certainly like to see the back of it. But I also know for a fact that it is Tony Blair’s baby and he is determined to see it through. But Blair will fail.

The Prime Minister’s Office has been told by its advisers that the limiting of a person’s right to jury trial is very popular with the general public.

As such this Prime Minister – so driven by public opinion – is determined to push this measure through. But Jack Straw and the Home Office think differently, and for once they may be right.

But that did not stop Mr Straw once again becoming the whipping boy in the House of Lords when the curtailing of the right to a jury trial was resoundingly defeated by the Upper House.

Whoever these people are who advise the Prime Minister on legal issues, they may be able to do their master a better service if they spent a little time in the courts and speaking to real people rather than cosseting themselves with various focus groups.

The fundamental advantage of the jury system is that there is an absence of cynicism and bias, which can subconsciously seep into the minds and judgement of those who regularly appear in court.

All the defendant wants and demands is a panel of people with an open mind who will hear the case and decide it, uninfluenced by any other trial they may have previously sat upon. The big advantage of the jury is that it sits on one case and one case only.

The public recognise this fact and the Prime Minister is wrong to force Jack Straw to the point of humiliation before the Lords.

The Government declared upon defeat that it would bring the bill back again – we may yet find that this pledge was borne more from petulance than reality.

Who knows what questions Tony Blair’s advisers asked their focus group? But if these groups had been asked whether they were prepared to lose a fundamental protection from wrongful conviction, I would hazard a guess that Jack Straw’s instincts would be right and the Prime Minister’s wrong.

While the Government aims for fast-track disposal of criminal cases, note not justice, I find its continued enthusiasm for the introduction of “double jeopardy” quite perplexing.

If the recommendations currenttly before the Government are adopted by the Prime Minister, a person acquitted of a charge can be tried again if the Crown comes up with other evidence.

If ever there was a policy designed to clog up the courts, this is the one – not only do we have a backlog of cases not yet tried, but added to this will be a whole raft of cases the Government wants to try all over again.

Further confusion arises when this new double jeopardy rule is put alongside the Government’s declared aim to improve policing and detection.

What sort of message will double jeopardy send to the police? – “If you get it wrong first time around don’t worry as you will get another chance to get it right.”

But the most important point of all is the basic civil liberty of the citizen to know with finality when a case has been dealt with and if possible dealt with before an unbiased, open-minded tribunal.