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Nicola Laver

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Law leaders refuse to support 'any steps to remove the right to jury trials'

Law leaders refuse to support 'any steps to remove the right to jury trials'


The leaders of the solicitors' and barristers' professions have stated they will not support "any steps to remove the right to jury trials"

The leaders of the solicitors’ and barristers’ professions in England and Wales have stated they will not support "any steps to remove the right to jury trials".

In a joint statement, the Law Society president and the chair of the Bar Council expressed alarm at the case backlog in the criminal justice system and said the rule of law must "not be undermined" in the attempts to keep the justice system afloat.

The Society’s president Simon Davis and Bar Council chair Amanda Pinto QC said: “Justice is being delayed for victims and defendants, who have proceedings hanging over them for months, if not years.”

They acknowledge that these problems are not new but are exacerbated by Covid-19 and, despite judges being available, the government “did not fund the judicial time needed”.

There are now more than a half million criminal cases in the backlog including more than 41,000 Crown Court cases.

The backlog could take more than a decade to clear.

“Some of the options the government is currently considering present a threat to the credibility of our justice system”, the statement warned, “including interfering with jury trials and opening courts for extended hours, including Saturdays and Sundays.”

It goes on: “Jury trial is at the heart of our criminal justice system.

“It is vital to the rule of law because, as jurors, ordinary people are directly involved in judging trials, giving confidence in the justice system.

“It is the collective life experience and expertise of members of a jury that ensures evidence is tested robustly and the public can be confident that justice is delivered.

“Eroding the right to jury trial is an extreme measure that requires complete justification.

“We have seen no government modelling that supports such a move, let alone a justification for removing the right to trial by jury.

“If this is ever to be considered, the foundation for it must be unassailable.”

“Extending court hours comes at a big financial cost to the taxpayer: who else will pay for the court staff, judges, probation officers and security staff to attend court?

“Such a move will make it even more difficult for those parties, victims and witnesses depending on public transport to get to court on time or get home safely. 

“It will be impossible for many solicitors to service this work on top of being on call to police stations out of hours and with swathes of them furloughed with no income to pay their salaries.

“This move will undoubtedly adversely affect many advocates: women (mainly) with caring responsibilities and those at greater risk from Covid-19 such as BAME practitioners (forced to travel in rush hour when they are more exposed).”

But there is a better way, commented Davis and Pinto, who said they “endorse the multi-faceted approach to increasing capacity".

“We are actively engaged in driving it forward”, said their statement, “more efficient use of the current court estate, greater use of part-time judges, better and greater use of robust technology and additional court buildings, similar to the Nightingale hospitals.

“These 'Blackstone' courts would use public or private buildings currently lying idle. “Local barristers and solicitors are identifying suitable buildings to add to the court.

“This combination of solutions would allow safe distancing in existing buildings, add overall capacity to the number of court rooms, and be convenient for participants.

“We urge the Ministry of Justice to work at pace with us to find practical and sensible ways to address the volume of cases being heard.

“It is only if or when this multi-faceted exercise has been shown not to address the volume of outstanding cases that the government should even consider tampering with constitutional and established methods of determining justice.”

They said barristers and solicitors will continue to play their fundamental part in keeping the justice system afloat.

“We are already adopting new ways of working successfully to drive justice forward but the rule of law must not be undermined.

“We will not support any steps to remove the right to jury trials.”