Could ditching jury trials help clear a legal backlog?
By Joe Harker
Due to the coronavirus lockdown a backlog of trials has built up because of closure of the courts.
There are thousands of cases waiting to be heard and verdicts to be delivered, but while they are working on the backlog there will be more getting in the queue.
A proposed solution which the government is considering is the ditching of juries to allow judges and a pair of magistrates to handle the verdict.
Lord Burnett of Maldon, the lord chief justice, suggested less serious crimes could be tried in crown courts and finished much quicker if juries were taken out of the equation.
He spoke of "either way" cases which could be heard in either crown courts or magistrate courts being dealt with as quickly as possible.
There are over 40,000 crown court cases waiting to go to trial in England and Wales, such a large workload to get through inevitably holds up more trials which will be added to the pile as people are prosecuted for crimes.
These are exceptional times and they may require exceptional measures, the alternative might be the criminal justice system getting clogged up as it becomes unable to handle the workload of cases it has to deal with.
Perhaps if judges hand down the verdict and give written reasons for their decisions it would work as a temporary measure to ditch trial by jury.
It would only be for a portion of cases but if it lightens the workload then it could be a huge positive.
The Counter Claim:
However, ditching trial by jury in difficult times is a very bad precedent to set, writes shadow justice secretary David Lammy in the Daily Telegraph.
The Labour MP, who obtained a Masters degree at Harvard Law School and has practiced as a barrister, warned that there is a risk of smaller crimes getting dealt with by a judge for a temporary basis becoming more permanent as there is such a backlog to deal with.
There are thousands of cases to get through and Lammy questions when trial by jury would be reinstated.
He also explains that trial by jury produces fairer results. Smaller groups of people handing out a verdict are more likely to convict a defendant that is "less certain" to be guilty and the larger the pool of people tasked with handing out a verdict the more likely the "correct" decision can be made.
Lawyers have slated the government for considering abandoning trial by jury and for the suggestion that the backlog has been caused by the coronavirus.
Before the pandemic the crown court backlog was around 37,000 cases, now it is 41,000. Government cuts have slowed down the process of justice for years and it's hard to say that the situation is so different now as to necessitate the end of juries at trials.
While there are around 41,000 cases waiting to go to crown court there are about 480,000 cases due to go to magistrates court.
The backlog the justice system faces is massive and was huge before the coronavirus struck, it was growing before the pandemic sent the country into lockdown so it would be wrong to pretend that the large pile of cases to work through is the fault of the coronavirus.