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Labour's ASBO apparatchik warned to keep her hands off trial by jury

3 November 2010

Calls from the victims' commissioner to save cash by blocking jury trials for either way offences have been ridiculed as "disjointed and haphazard".

In a blunt report criticising both lawyers’ and criminals’ “inefficient” attitudes to trials, the commissioner for victims and witnesses, Louise Casey, stated: “The right to trial by jury is regarded as a sacred cow, but if two thirds of those who do elect for one then plead guilty instead, we have to ask if this is a waiting game.”

Roger Smith, director of civil rights campaign group JUSTICE, is among a host of lawyers to object to the report. Smith told Solicitors Journal: “Louise Casey is a great champion for victims but she should save us her more general thoughts on the criminal justice system.

“Jury trial may seem a waste of time and money to bureaucrats: to defendants it is a valuable and historic right. And the established fact that defendants often plead guilty late in the day is the result of a considerably more complicated set of circumstances than she appears to be aware of.”

Conceding that fewer than 20 per cent of either way cases currently reach the Crown Court, Casey continued: “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. 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.”

Her report, entitled Ending the justice waiting game: a plea for common sense, states that reducing the number of either way offences that can be sent up to crown court to ten per cent would save £30m a year in CPS preparation costs alone.

Reacting to Casey’s four-page report, Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson said: “Today’s proposal is one more example of disjointed and haphazard attempts to save money with apparently no guiding intelligence to safeguard justice.

“There are some values that are above the issue of mere accounting and budgets.”

Casey also recommended preventing defendants from putting in eleventh hour guilty pleas, estimating that the CPS loses £15m per year from preparing cases which are then cancelled on the first day of the trial because of a last minute admittance of guilt.

She accused defence solicitors of seeing this tactic as “in their interests as they are being funded by legal aid for case preparation”.

Casey added that she hopes the legal aid cuts will limit this “abuse” of the system via fixed fees for guilty pleas, stating: “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.”

Casey, who describes herself as an “informed outsider”, replaced victims’ champion Sarah Payne when appointed to the newly created role in March 2010 by the former Labour government’s justice secretary Jack Straw. The civil servant and former Shelter director was nicknamed ‘the ASBO queen’ having been an adviser on anti-social behaviour, and hit headlines when she suggested criminals should wear orange bibs.

She concluded: “The spending review has focused minds on saving money within the system and any money saved will have many calls upon its use. But it is hard to look victims in the eye and say we must spend money preserving sacred cows such as trial by jury for petty offences when, for example, victims of child abuse are not getting dedicated help in court, or families of loved ones murdered are waiting years to see justice done.”

Daniel Godden, an associate solicitor who practises criminal law at Hodge Jones and Allen, said: "Despite Ms Casey's report being partly entitled a plea for common sense her contribution to the debate on the criminal justice system seems to be everything but this.

"There is no evidence that making offences summary only and removing trial by jury for some offences will change defendant behaviour and this will only lead to witnesses waiting in a magistrates court to give evidence rather than a crown court. The cost savings of this are not easily measured against the cost of those who, presumed innocent,with potentially their good character and career at stake desire a jury trial to receive a more impartial audience rather than potentially case hardened magistrates.

"Ms Casey assumes, without evidence, a lack of professionalism on behalf of solicitors by implying that we advise clients to change their plea for our own finacial gain without realising that we can only advise not force a defendant to plead in a certain way."

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