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Whether you want to be a criminal lawyer or not, details of last week’s landmark case involving the first trial without a jury in 400 years shouldn’t be ignored.
Jury trial is the age-old method of boosting confidence and legitimacy in the criminal justice system but now legal professionals believe that a precedent has been set to limit the use of juries.
John Twomey, Peter Blake, Barry Hibberd and Glenn Cameron were all found guilty by a single judge for carrying out a £1.75m armed robbery at Heathrow airport in 2004. The gang were tried and convicted by Mr Justice Treacy after the three previous trials collapsed, the last two amid allegations that the jury had been threatened.
The Court of Appeal then had to decide whether to offer a jury round-the-clock protection or agree to a trial without them. But with predicted costs of around £6m to bring in the heavies, a single jury trial was considered more preferable.
An option that just happened to be lawful because of controversial provisions set out in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which allow for trial by a judge sitting alone when there’s a danger of jury tampering.
Kirsty Brimelow, who was the leading counsel defending Cameron at the Old Bailey last week, is against the decision to trial without jury.
“I think in general terms that a basic problem with a judge only conviction is that the convicted will never consider it to be fair (even if it’s completely fair and just and a jury would’ve reached the same verdict in half the time) because it isn’t a finding of guilt by peers,” she explains.
One leading fraud lawyer even labelled the move a “grave mistake” saying that if the excuse for axing juries is witness intimidation, you might as well wave a white flag at violent criminals.
He also hits back at the suggestion that trial without jury should also be used on complex cases. “In some of the most complex cases I’ve worked on the juries have understood what was going on and asked intelligent questions. You don’t get that level of scrutiny with a single person,” he insists.
But fears expressed by the legal profession over whether trial without jury will become the norm can be completely understood if you look to Northern Ireland for example.
The Diplock courts were first established in 1972 in an attempt to overcome widespread jury intimidation associated with terrorists. The right to trial by jury was suspended for certain “scheduled offences” and the court consisted of a single judge.
But even though the courts were abolished in 2007, trials without jury still go on and have been extended to some criminal cases.
Whatever happens here, I think director of Liberty Shami Chakrabarti hit the nail on the head when she said: “How will you persuade witnesses and victims to come forward if you can’t even protect your jurors?”