Should we limit right to jury trial to save cash?

Image caption, The right to a jury trial has its roots in the 1215 Magna Carta

The BBC's Clive Coleman examines proposals to save money in the legal system in England and Wales, including limiting the right to jury trial.

Theft of a bicycle might seem like a minor crime in terms of the monetary value of the bicycle but it is likely to be regarded as highly important to the accused.

If they are convicted and get a criminal record for an offence of dishonesty, it could affect their life in a major way. Job applications, foreign travel, university applications and a host of other things could be adversely affected by having to declare the conviction.

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 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.

The Commissioner for Victims of Crime Louise Casey said almost 70,000 Crown Court cases each year could be heard in magistrates' courts, saving £30m.

She 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 about 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.

Ms Casey's other proposal to save money which could then go to support the victims of serious crime, is to prevent late guilty pleas which, she says, allow criminals to string out their cases at public expense.

Fixed fees

There are existing sanctions to discourage late guilty pleas. Any lawyer who is tempted to stretch a case out can be penalised with a "wasted costs" order. Defendants will get a reduction in the discount on any sentence if they plead "at the doors of the court".

The current guideline provides for a one-third discount if a guilty plea is entered at the first reasonable opportunity. That reduces down to a 10th if the plea is entered at or near to the trial.

Louise Casey refers to the possibility of a fixed fee for lawyers in a case where a defendant pleads guilty. The fee would be paid irrespective of when the guilty plea is entered.

That raises the worry that some lawyers might be tempted to pressurise defendants to plead guilty early and before a full assessment of the evidence has taken place.

There will be a variety of reasons why. In nearly 50,000 cases defendants change their plea to guilty on the day of the trial.

Defence lawyers maintain that it is sometimes because the Crown Prosecution Service have charged the accused incorrectly, or that case papers have been delivered late.

Some defendants will undoubtedly delay pleading guilty to see if the prosecution can produce the victim and witnesses at court. That may be seen as a cynical gaming of the system, or simply putting the state to proof of the offence.

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