Forget scrapping jury trials, warns Law Society
By Nicola Laver
There should be no restriction on jury trials, the Law Society warned, and proposals to extend court sitting hours requires "extreme caution”
There should be no restriction on jury trials, the Law Society has warned, and proposals to extend court sitting hours “must be approached with extreme caution”.
It said solicitors with caring responsibilities as well as religious groups could be disadvantaged by longer court opening hours; and called for proper consultation with the legal profession before going ahead.
The Society’s disquiet comes after Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland this week told the justice select committee of plans for a range of short-term measures to tackle the backlog of cases in the criminal justice system.
The backlog that already existed before the pandemic has been significantly exacerbated by covid-19 crisis, with outstanding court cases numbering more than 524,000.
But Mr Buckland told the committee that though the headline numbers reflect an increase it does not look “alarming”.
He told the committee he was looking at maximising the court sitting day, staggering appearances by practitioners and court users, and sitting as long as possible – perhaps on even more days of the week to manage the backlog.
He also controversially mooted the temporary option of trials without jury and to reduce the jury number, measures which have been strongly criticised.
Primary legislation would need to be passed and this could happen within weeks.
Law Society president Simon Davis warned: “Going straight to extended working hours for already beleaguered judges, court staff and legal practitioners needs to be treated with utmost caution and, worse still, we should not be thinking about scrapping jury trials, even if only for some cases and on a temporary basis.”
But he conceded that the numbers of jurors could be reduced “if absolutely necessary”.
In response to the Mr Buckland’s comments in front of the justice committee, Davis stressed that “jury trial is the bedrock of our criminal justice system”.
“To interfere with it even for a limited time due to an emergency situation is an extreme measure that would require extreme justification.”
He said the starting point must be to “make proper and full use of our existing judges and courts, added to by part time judges and increased court space”.
“Extended hours create both financial and practical difficulties and pose risks for the parties and professionals involved,” he warned.
Particular concerns relate to the safety of court users on leaving buildings at night; negative diversity impacts; and the further “unaffordable burdens” on struggling law firms.
Davis commented: “If the government is determined to press ahead with extended hours, there should be meaningful consultation with solicitors and barristers, and proper remuneration for practitioners should be ensured, with the focus being on keeping any extended hours within a tight, narrow and temporary remit.”