Cut jury trials, says victims' champion Louise Casey
The right to trial by jury for many lesser offences should be ended in England and Wales, the Commissioner for Victims of Crime has proposed.
Louise Casey said almost 70,000 Crown Court cases each year could be heard in magistrates' courts, saving £30m.
Ms Casey said the move would benefit victims of serious crime who suffer due to delays in "clogged up" Crown Courts.
The pressure group Liberty stressed that the coalition government had promised to protect juries.
Ms Casey's call comes as the Ministry of Justice cuts the budget for courts and prisons.
She said a jury trial should not be viewed as a right for crimes known as "either-way" offences, which can be heard by magistrates or sent to trial in Crown Court.
"We should not view the right to a jury trial as being so sacrosanct that its exercise should be at the cost of victims of serious crimes," Ms Casey said.
"It is known that waiting for a criminal trial often means that victims put their lives on hold; bereaved families of murder victims cannot grieve until the trial is over," she said.
"Defendants should not have the right to choose to be tried by a jury over something such as the theft of a bicycle or stealing from a parking meter."
BBC legal affairs analyst Clive Coleman said the call was radical and designed to save money which could be spent on helping victims of serious crime.
The right to jury trial traces its roots back to Magna Carta in 1215 and is regarded as a key constitutional right. The late judge Lord Devlin described it as "the lamp that shows that freedom lives".
When charged with an "either way" offence and given the choice between trial by jury and trial in a magistrates' court, many people will elect for jury trial. The reasons vary, but some feel that magistrates are more likely to be "case hardened" than juries. Others will say that magistrates cannot be as representative of the community as a jury of 12 randomly selected individuals.
Louise Casey is keen to stress that trial in a magistrates' court is not second-class justice. It is, though, a different form of justice. There is no question that trial in the magistrates' court is cheaper, at around half the cost of jury trial.
Debate will rage as to whether the saving is worth the sacrifice of the right in some "either way" offences.
What was likely to prove controversial with civil liberties groups was that while the value of a stolen bicycle may be very small, the consequences of a conviction for an individual were very significant, he said.
Eight out of 10 of these cases are dealt with by magistrates. But the lower court sends 60,000 of them to Crown Court every year with a further 9,000 defendants also asking for jury trial.
Ms Casey, who took up her role in March, said the figures showed that very often this was a massive waste of time and money and trials of serious crimes were being "stacked up waiting for court time".
In 50,000 of the cases sent to Crown Courts, defendants eventually plead guilty, wasting £15m of the Crown Prosecution Service's money, she said.
She said if just half of either-way cases remained in the lower courts, some £30m would be saved straight away.
Ms Casey also criticised defendants who "hold out to see if witnesses turn up" before pleading guilty at the last minute.
"It is an abuse of the system, and puts an intolerable pressure on victims and witnesses that could be called a form of witness intimidation.
"We need to stop the abuse of the process which allows defendants and their solicitors to string out a case at the expense of victims and the public."
She said she had full confidence in magistrates to properly dispense justice.
Ms Casey also backed calls for magistrates' sentencing powers to be doubled from six months to one year per offence, so they could avoid referring more borderline cases to the crown court.
Isabella Sankey, director of policy at civil rights group Liberty, said the coalition had pledged to protect juries, which "ensure one class doesn't sit in permanent judgement over another".
"Ms Casey was a political appointment of the last government and has a long record of hostility to Britain's fair trial traditions," she said.
"But victims, witnesses and defendants are all disregarded if no-one gets a fair hearing before their peers."
End Quote Louise Casey Victims' Commissioner
We need to stop the abuse of the process which allows defendants and their solicitors to string out a case at the expense of victims”
Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, Christopher Kinch QC said society should be wary of eroding the right to trial by jury simply because it took time to resolve the case.
"We live in an age when vetting and other checks that throw up minor convictions in the past can have long-lasting and disproportionate effect on someone's ability to work and travel," he said.
"By all means let us have a sensible debate about "minor offences" as part of an overall look at the way such offences are treated but let us not get rid of fundamental protections for the citizen simply because they are inconvenient."
Mr Kinch added that he was worried the issue was linked to late guilty pleas, saying there were already incentives to encourage people to plead guilty at an early stage.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "We are considering how best to encourage guilty pleas at an earlier stage, while preserving a person's long-standing right to have their case heard before a jury.
"We are committed to ensuring that every victim can access the support they need to help cope with the consequences of crime, and we are working to improve the help available during the investigation and court hearings process."
In a separate report, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary estimated that better management of prosecution casework could save £40m a year alone.
It said it found an example of a shoplifter who was caught by police and sentenced in court two hours later. But it also said that it could take 1,000 steps to deal with a simple domestic burglary.