Pubdate: Thurs, 20 May 1999
Source: Independent, The (UK)
Copyright: 1999 Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd.
Contact:  1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL
Author: (1) Dr Chris Payne; (2) Dr Gary Slapper


Sir: Anyone who has ever attended a magistrates' court will have seen the
magistrates suspiciously and aggressively question the defendant while
falling over themselves to defer to the police before invariably finding for
the prosecution ("Thousands lose right to jury trial", 19 May). To allow
magistrates to try summarily many more of those offences which now go before
a jury will, without doubt, lead to a much higher conviction rate -
possibly, I would guess, as high as 100 per cent.

The Home Secretary's measure is half baked. If it is implemented, it will
soon become obvious that much time and money will be saved if the formality
of an appearance before the magistrates, with its inevitable conclusion,
were to be dispensed with completely.

If Mr Straw were to think the measure through, he would surely come to the
conclusion that it would be much more efficient if convictions could proceed
automatically on the word of a single police officer.

Dr Chris Payne, Uxbridge, Middlesex

Sir: If, for serious crimes, you support the rigmarole of jury trials
because so much is at stake for the defendant, how then can you justify
removal of the defendant's right to a jury trial in cases which manifestly
threaten a life-ruining outcome for a defendant? Offences involving sex and
dishonesty are cases in point.

Currently, criminal offences are divided into three sorts: minor offences
only triable by magistrates; offences which can be tried by magistrates or
juries; and serious offences which only be tried by juries. The rationale is
that the jury trial is a better, safer way to try the more serious cases,
and a way that bolsters public confidence in the criminal justice system.

In earlier times, judges would often fine or imprison jurors who persisted
in returning verdicts at variance with the preference of the bench. In 1671
a case established that juries should be immune from punishment for their
verdicts. Trial judges meddling with jury verdicts, however, was nothing
compared with the Government's plan to rule out jury trials for whole
categories of serious offence.

And for what justification? The price of a few rooms in the ostentatious new
palace of MPs offices.

The Law Programme
The Open University,
Milton Keynes,

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