LONDON (AFP) — The British government has sparked a backlash for considering suspending jury trials for some crimes because of a huge backlog of cases caused in part by the coronavirus pandemic.
Some 484,000 cases were waiting to be heard in the first-tier magistrates courts in England and Wales up to May 17, with 41,000 outstanding in the higher crown courts.
Justice minister Robert Buckland this week said that hearing certain cases with only a judge and two lay magistrates could be “a way forward” as a “last resort” to clear the caseload.
He said he was “extremely reluctant” to make the temporary change for cases that can be heard either by a magistrate or a crown court judge and jury, such as theft and burglary.
But he told lawmakers the coronavirus outbreak had thrown up “an unprecedented challenge” and he was “duty-bound” to examine all options.
But that the move was even being considered has outraged some lawmakers and many in the legal community, who argue government funding cuts rather than the impact of the virus were to blame.
Caroline Goodwin, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, penned an open letter saying such a move would “transform the face of justice for the worse”.
“The right to a jury trial is not some elitist privilege. It is where the common man, an ordinary member of the public, can have justice decided by his peers,” she wrote.
“The jury system is not broken, it does not require fixing, it is the government will to invest that needs resuscitating.”
‘Get the balance right’
According to the Ministry of Justice, most of the outstanding criminal court cases predate the outbreak.
The most senior judge in England and Wales, Lord Chief Justice Ian Burnett, has agreed with critics that “years and years” of underfunding was now “coming home to roost”.
The situation has worsened during the outbreak, as trials were postponed after courts were shut, staff illness shot up, and social distancing rules required massive reorganization.
Buckland told parliament’s justice committee watchdog that the situation was “rapidly improving”, as most court sites had now reopened after months of online hearings.
But Susan Acland-Hood, the chief executive of the Courts and Tribunals Service, conceded jury trials were proving the “hardest” part to restart.
“It remains constrained by social distancing,” she said.
Buckland said some buildings were being repurposed as temporary courts, and he may move to allow smaller juries of seven instead of 12 in some cases, as was done during World War II.
But he added that may not be enough to clear the backlog by his target of Easter next year, prompting the need for the possible scrapping of jury trials for “either-way” offences.
“I’ve got to get the balance right between making sure we have a fair system of justice that everybody recognizes is free and fair, and one also that has managed its way through this particular crisis,” he said.
Judges not ‘representative’
Former Supreme Court president, judge Brenda Hale, was among some senior figures to back the move, telling a BBC news podcast there may be a need to “rethink why and when we need a jury trial” because of the pandemic.
Burnett also said it was “worthy of consideration.”
“(It) would retain the lay public involvement in trials, but give rise to none of the difficulties of social distancing that attach to having a jury involved in a trial,” he said.
But opponents including lawyer Joanna Hardy said judges and magistrates fail to be “representative of the diverse communities they serve.”
She pointed to a 2019 survey that showed just four percent of crown court judges who responded identified as Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME).
Among magistrates, 84% were aged over 50.
“The random selection of 12 citizens will never be the perfect representative mix but it will always be the better one,” she told AFP.
Scotland, which has its own legal system, previously announced the suspension of jury trials for up to 18 months but then dropped the plan after an outcry.
South of the border, Buckland’s Conservative colleague David Davis called the proposal “unwise.”
David Lammy, the main opposition Labour Party’s justice spokesman, said it would “damage our democracy.”
Labour has called for university lecture halls, schools and leisure centers to be used for trials.
But Acland-Hood noted some 200 additional venues would be needed to adequately tackle the backlog while virus restrictions remain.
© Agence France-Presse
by Joe JACKSON