‘We need to tackle the Court backlog, but keep the right to a jury trial’

Last week, Jeff Smith MP asked the Attorney General to guarantee that the Government would not move to begin conducting trials without juries.

The coronavirus pandemic has significantly slowed down case progression in the Criminal Justice System, with the official inspectorate of the CPS warning that the current backlog of untried cases could take a decade to clear.

Combined, the magistrates’ and crown courts have more than 524,000 cases waiting to be heard, and the number is still rising rapidly.

Even before the coronavirus outbreak, Government cuts meant there was a backlog of more than 37,400 crown court cases.

The Government is now looking at a range of measures which could be introduced to help clear the backlog, including extending court opening hours, and opening emergency ‘Nightingale’ courts.

The Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, the Right Hon Robert Buckland MP, also said he was looking at the possibility of allowing some trials to be conducted temporarily without juries, to get around problems of social distancing.

Labour have joined prominent voices across the criminal justice sector in opposing this option, emphasising the importance of jury as a historic civic duty which ensures fairness and representation, with the public entrusted to make life-changing decisions, rather than everything being in the hands of lawyers. Many fear the inevitable risk that if jury trials are suspended for certain crimes, they might never come back.

Caroline Goodwin QC, the Chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said:

Public confidence in law and order requires the ordinary public’s participation in criminal justice via juries. The notion of scrapping jury trials is an assault on justice, a blow to the common man.”

Jeff Smith raised this with the Attorney General, the Right Hon Suella Braverman MP, commending the work of CPS staff and all those who have kept our justice system running during the pandemic, including jurors. He asked the Attorney General to guarantee that any measures taken to help reduce the backlog in the courts would not include judge-only led trials.

Although she reaffirmed a personal commitment to the right to jury trial, Ms Braverman said that final decisions as to how to address the backlog had not yet been taken. This appears to leave open the possibility that jury trials could be temporarily scrapped for some cases.

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