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First trial without a jury puts judge in spotlight

12 January 2010

The first trial without a jury in England and Wales is set to start today, 12 January, in London.

The case, involving four men accused of a robbery at the Menzies World Cargo warehouse at Heathrow airport in 2004, is scheduled to run for three months and will be heard by Mr Justice Treacy sitting alone.

It will be the fourth trial in the case after the previous three collapsed following allegations or fear of jury tampering.

The costs of the case had reached £22m by December 2008. The judge in charge at the time, Mr Roberts QC, estimated that running a further trial with a jury would cost £6m and 82 police officers to ensure the jurors’ protection.

Last March Mr Justice Calvert-Smith estimated that the costs of a further trial would be around £1.5m.

The Lord Chief Justice put an end to the controversy in June when he said a new trial should proceed without a jury.

The only other trials to have proceeded without a jury were the Diplock trials in Northern Ireland. The option of holding a trial without a jury in England and Wales was introduced by the Criminal Justice Act 2003. There are no specific procedural rules in the new legislation, leaving the judge and the lawyers involved in the case to devise their own.

As with the Diplock trials, the main rules of evidence are expected to apply but other procedural rules will probably develop organically in the course of the proceedings.

Observers also say it is likely that the absence of a jury will lead to more direct interaction between the judge and the lawyers, resulting in more pared down proceedings. Some envisage that the judge may ask questions that would not normally stand in front of a jury, the opening by the prosecution is likely to be shorter, and closing speeches will probably be more discursive.

One greater uncertainty is the extent to which the judge will be able to insulate himself from evidence that he will be aware of but would not have been admissible to be put to a jury.

It is also not clear whether the judge will give reasons for his decision. It was a statutory requirement with the Diplock trials but there is no such obligation under the 2003 Act. If he chooses to, this will provide the parties with further grounds for appeals.

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