Threat to jury is a tyrant's charter

Traditionally, the Queen's Speech at this stage of a Parliament is packed with legislation.

However, no one quite imagined that the Gracious Address would be quite so full of complicated measures.

The Home Office alone is responsible for nine new bills which are cascading out of Queen Anne's Gate.

This comes at a time when the legal profession is already enthusiastically accepting the challenge of change in so many directions.

The Woolf reforms have been handled by lawyers with considerable expertise, as have so many of the fundamental changes to our legal system.

The road to mergers is built increasingly on the secure foundations of the best legal advice, while lawyers are regaining the ground lost to accountants and other professions by extending the range of their consultancy services.

So it becomes even more necessary to be vigilant in protecting the rights of the individual under the law. One of the themes of the new session is said, by the Prime Minister, to be "fairness".

Yet one of the new bills goes to the heart of the justice system in England and Wales.

Her Majesty The Queen described the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill as a measure "to give the courts themselves the power to decide whether certain defendants should be tried by jury or by magistrates".

But the bill is more explicit. It "removes the defendant's ability to elect for trial in the Crown Court".

The explanatory notes record that there will be a consequent reduction of 12,000 Crown Court trials every year, saving £105m – this is the price we pay for maintaining the right to trial by jury.

In 1957 Lord Devlin predicted: "The first object of any tyrant in Whitehall would be to make Parliament utterly subservient to his will and the next to overthrow or diminish trial by jury."

He went on to explain that trial by jury is "the lamp that shows that freedom lives".

Although there is to be an appeal to the Crown Court about venue, no wonder politicians from all parties have expressed their opposition to this bill. Lawyers should, however, take the lead.

Jury trial is one of the traditional guarantees of liberty in the judicial system of England and Wales.

There has been evidence of abuse, but the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996 introduced the "plea before venue" procedure which is already having the desired effect.

There is no case for abolishing such a fundamental liberty.

No wonder the Law Society and the Bar Council are jointly campaigning against this bill, and they deserve our support.

Help is, however, at hand. The bill has been introduced in the House of Lords and we start debating it later this week.

The Lords has begun to flex its newly-formed muscles. The Earl of Onslow told Baroness Jay that he was not only reformed, he was now elected, adding it was: "An experience that the noble Leader of the Lords has never had."

Whatever the Royal Commission recommends, this new legitimacy will strengthen the resolve of the Upper House to protect our fundamental freedoms.

I would be surprised if the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill ever makes it to the Statute Book.

The Right Honorable Lord Hunt of Wirral MBE is senior partner at Beachcroft Wansbroughs