Tackling the backlog of court cases and speeding up justice must be the priority
There's no reason why a defendant should be deprived of the opportunity for a speedy trial before a judge and two magistrates if he/she wishes.
As a criminal law practitioner for over 40 years, I yield to no one in my concern and respect for Jury Trials composed of 12 members. My experience is that whatever their age, sex or race, they are the most reliable arbitrators of facts in our criminal courts.
We are promised legislation to deal, on a temporary basis I hope, with the enormous backlog of cases in our criminal courts, in part from the pandemic crisis. Apparently, the backlog is now about 30,000 cases in England and Wales.
There are two principles to consider. The eminent Sir William Blackstone, in his commentaries emphasises the temptation of tinkering with juries and at the same time, highlights the principle that justice delayed is justice denied.
I welcome the efforts that have been made at the Old Bailey in holding trials spread out in three courts, though I am concerned at reports of the practical arrangements whereby the back row of the jury abuts the dock. If this is correct, there may be danger of jury tampering.
To oppose all changes to trials to deal with the present crisis is not persuasive.
In wartime jury numbers were reduced from 12 to 7. In Northern Ireland I believe there are still some criminal trials where the judge sits alone without a jury. Inevitably, there could be a problem where a judge has ruled on admissibility and procedures before the main trial. My understanding is that despite the smallness of the judiciary, by careful allocation of judges, the “contamination” of a trial by the previous involvement of a judge was avoided.
It was for the Attorney General to determine whether a “Diplock” trial was appropriate for terrorist offences. I took the view as the Attorney General in a period of a diminishing number of such cases, that only in the most obvious of terrorist related cases that Diplock trials were appropriate. I have no recollection of any complaint. To the contrary, the judiciary coped wisely with their new roles.
The victim, particularly in rape cases...deserves to have the trauma of a trial removed at the earliest possible time
I cannot see any reason why a defendant should be deprived of the opportunity for a speedy trial before a judge and two magistrates if he/she wishes. In my experience, sitting many times as a recorder in Knightsbridge Crown Court with magistrates, justice was delivered speedily in such a court.
There is, however, a more fundamental problem which should never have been allowed to exist. So many crown buildings have been sold, and a drastic reduction in the number of court sittings. The root lies in the unfortunate earlier settlement by the Ministry of Justice at the beginning of the austerity cuts.
If ever there was a need for close scrutiny by the Justice Committee of the House of Commons, this is it.
I return to the dangers of “justice delayed is justice denied”. Memories of witnesses do not improve with time. The victim, particularly in rape cases, where I fear I have indulged in long cross-examinations, deserves to have the trauma of a trial removed at the earliest possible time and they are not the only parties with an interest in the speedy resolution of cases.
When the legislation is produced, I will look at it fairly, bearing in mind that for the duration, tackling the backlog and speeding up justice, both for defendants and victims, should loom large in our minds.
Lord Morris is a Labour member of the House of Lords and former Attorney General for England and Wales and Northern Ireland, 1997-1999.