In a recent speech to launch the 2014 - 2016 strategy for the pressure group Justice, the Lord Chief Justice suggested scrapping the right to trial by jury for minor offences and complex frauds. The proposal was made amidst other radical suggestions by Lord Thomas and raises serious concerns for the future of the criminal justice system in the UK.
In respect of his proposals for reform of trial by jury he suggested that these would result in a cost saving, something of a theme in relation to the criminal justice system lately. The speech was made shortly before a second historic strike by criminal lawyers in protest at the drastic legal aid cuts proposed by the Government. The legal aid budget has been slashed in recent years and last month Justice Secretary Chris Grayling confirmed his plans for further cuts of £200 million to criminal legal aid spending. The Law Society and the Bar Council, amongst many others, have repeatedly warned that these cuts will severely reduce access to justice and almost certainly result in miscarriages of justice with innocent people being sent to jail and guilty people walking free. In light of this, Lord Thomas’ comments are controversial as he proposes a further and dramatic erosion of one of the most fundamental cornerstones of our justice system.
Protecting the role of the jury can be seen as protecting a vital tool of any democratic society. The strength of the jury partly lies in the fact that its independence from the state prosecution, legislature and judiciary helps legitimate the criminal justice system as a whole. Having a legal system that has the support of society is essential in ensuring that the the criminal justice system is respected. Research shows that there are high levels of public confidence in the jury system – surveys suggest that over 80% of the public trust the jury to come to the right decision and believe that it is fairer than trial by judge alone.
The deliberation process ensures that jurors are accountable to each other. The system facilitates debate between the jurors to ensure a reasoned verdict, by people who have no preconceived opinions of any of the lawyers involved in the case or of the defendant. A range of values are reflected amongst the varied group of jurors who are more likely to be able to understand the social circumstances surrounding the offence, defendant and victim better than a single judge alone might. The length of time juries often spend deliberating is testimony to the care with which they approach their task.
Other proposals from the Lord Chief Justice included a move to an inquisitorial civil system and the creation of a two-track Crown court. One wonders how such a fundamental overhaul of the entire justice system sits with the current drive to cut costs and reduce expenditure.
Sadly there is little wider public interest in the issues arising from the proposed spending cuts. The reality is that unless one has had personal experience of the criminal justice system one is unlikely to appreciate how significant the changes proposed by The Lord Chief Justice are or how destructive the cuts proposed by the Justice Secretary will be. It does though beg the question just how far the Government are willing to go in their effort to save precious pennies and, more importantly, what price a society is willing to pay for a safe, robust, and fair criminal justice system.