Justice Secretary urged to abandon plan to cut jury trials in bid to deal with coronavirus backlog
London's Central Criminal Court (Credit: PA)
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland has been urged to row back on plans to temporarily cut the number of trials held in front of a jury.
Legislation could be passed within weeks which would allow some criminal cases to be heard in front of a judge and magistrates only, in a bid to deal with the backlog caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Buckland told MPs on the Justice Select Committee that the plans, which would allow judges to hand out prison sentences of up to two years, were under "serious discussion" last month.
Now Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Daisy Cooper has written to the Cabinet minister to warn against the move, claiming it would case “enormous damage” to an individual’s right to a fair trial.
Ms Cooper said Lib Dems MPs expressed “firm opposition” and had asked the Government to find alternative means to deal with the build-up of cases.
The letter refers to “deep and long-standing concerns about racial inequality in the justice system” and suggests “giving a disproportionately white judiciary more power to send people to prison without a jury will only exacerbate these concerns and further undermine confidence in the fairness of the criminal justice system".
Ms Cooper told PoliticsHome: "Jury trials are a cornerstone of our justice system. COVID-19 is an extraordinary crisis, but it must not be used as an excuse to undermine the principles of fairness in our justice system.
“The Conservative Government need to make absolutely clear that they will not take steps to scrap jury trials in any circumstances."
The St Albans MP said a move to judge-only decisions "could worsen concerns about the discrimination BAME people in the criminal justice system already face, especially given the very small number of black judges".
"We need to see urgent reform to ensure our judiciary reflects the society it serves," she added.
Ms Cooper said ministers needed to think "creatively" about getting the justice system up and running safely by setting up temporary 'Nightingale' courts in unused spaces, similar to London's contingency hospital NHS Nightingale.
At his committee appearance in June, Mr Buckland said he was "absolutely duty-bound to look at measures that deliver the capacity we need".
"Two-thirds capacity isn’t going to cut it – I am going to need at least 100% capacity not just to manage the case load but to get ahead of it as well," he added, telling MPs judge-led trials would be a temporary measure rather than "basis for a permanent change".