Straw silent on right to jury trial

HOME Secretary Jack Straw's speech to the Labour Party conference last week has given fresh hope to legal groups fighting to save defendants' right to opt for trial in the crown court.

Straw left out any mention of his July consultation paper proposals to strip defendants accused of theft, including shoplifting, and some sexual and drug offences from choosing trial in the crown court.

The July paper prompted a campaign by the Bar Council, Law Society, Liberty, Justice and Legal Action Group (LAG).

LAG policy director Vicki Chapman said Straw's omission was “significant” and “encouraging” because the consultation period ended last week, making it a “timely issue”.

Bar Council public affairs committee chairman Bruce Houlder QC said: “We take it as a positive sign that the Home Secretary chose not to mention this most controversial of proposals.”

Ironically, in opposition Labour had strongly opposed the Conservative government's plan to do away with the right of some defendants to opt for trial by jury.

In February 1997 Straw argued in the House of Commons that the proposal was “not only wrong but short-sighted, and likely to prove ineffective”.

Defendants have a greater chance of acquittal in the crown court than in a magistrates' court.