Profession unites against Howard's latest reforms

The legal profession has attacked Home Secretary Michael Howard's proposed reform of the criminal justice system, accusing him of political posturing at the expense of the interests of justice.

A report on delays in the criminal justice system published by Howard last week made 33 recommendations for “the biggest speed up in the criminal justice process in living memory”.

The controversial proposals include abolishing the right to jury trial in “minor criminal cases” including theft and burglary, trying 17-year-olds in adult courts rather than youth courts, allowing non-qualified CPS staff to present uncontested cases in magistrates' courts and allowing court clerks to manage pre-trial preparation of all cases.

Robert Roscoe, chair of the criminal law committee at the Law Society, said the proposed restriction of the right to jury trial was “clearly an attack on people's right to restore their good name and should never be implemented”.

He added: “The interests of the bureaucracy in the criminal justice system should never come before the interests of justice.”

Paul Cavadino, chair of the penal affairs consortium, condemned the proposal to deal with 17-year-olds in adult courts, saying it was an illogical and punitive measure that would put England out of line with other West European countries.

The Magistrates' Association is angry about the proposal to allow justices' clerks to deal with direction hearings, saying it would undermine public confidence, and Kevin Goodwin, convenor of the CPS section of the Association of First Division Civil Servants, called for a full public debate on the issue of non-qualified staff prosecuting in Magistrates' courts.

Vicki Chapman, policy officer at the Legal Action Group, said: “The pre-election period is not the time to be putting out consultation documents which raise such fundamental issues. In view of the impending elections it seems unlikely that these proposals will see the light of day.”