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Right to jury trial for theft, burglaries and minor assaults under review

Last month Lord Justice Fulford told the Commons Justice Committee that senior judges back a review of the right to jury trial for thefts, burglaries and minor assaults. The purpose would in fact be to reserve the right to jury trial for the most serious cases, such as sex crimes, terrorism and homicide.

"We need to look again at these cases. We think there is a strong argument for reviewing the right to jury trial with some low-end offences."   Fulford, LJ

Currently, any offence which has a maximum sentence of six months' imprisonment or lower cannot be tried by a jury.  It is tried by either lay magistrates (guided by a legal advisor) or a District Judge sitting alone. The most serious offences can only be tried in the Crown Court (judge and jury).  All "either-way" offences (including assault ABH [assault occasioning actual bodily harm], burglary, theft and many drugs offences) allow the defendant the choice of a jury trial or a trial by magistrates. In most instances a defendant pleading ‘not guilty’ will choose a jury although the backlog in waiting for trial can be off-putting.

The idea of reducing the right to jury trial is not a new one, and is rooted in the need to control the workloads of over-stretched Crown Courts during times of (a) austerity (b) more sex and terrorism trials and (c) longer trials involving electronic data.  Last year Lord Justice Leveson proposed a review of the right to jury trial, and former Home Secretary Jack Straw proposed a similar change to remove the right to jury trial for ‘middle-ranking’ offences. Such ideas have been repeatedly defeated, and the caution with which they are now being re-hashed suggests that once again, the dusty shelf awaits. The more serious the charge, the more important the jury becomes to ‘validate’ both the state prosecution and the verdict within the public’s perception. You also get people misusing phrases like ‘Police State’ whenever the slightest change to the jury system is mooted.

Post-referendum, just under half the country are decrying the public’s tendency to make bad decisions or ignore expert warnings.  However, when it comes to deciding on their own guilt or innocence, there seems to be an overwhelming preference for randomly-selected members of that same public above an expert judge.  Perhaps the key difference is that the information to which the jury are exposed is tightly controlled.  Any outside impact from family, the media or politicians must be ignored.  Although that very issue is of course ruled on and overseen by an expert judge!

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Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice.