Jury trials could be temporarily abolished within a matter of weeks under new legislation, according to suggestions from Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland QC.
The Lord Chancellor told MPs on the justice select committee that the measure was under ‘serious consideration’ as a potential solution to address the mounting backlog in criminal cases.
All jury trials in England and Wales have been stopped due to the Coronavirus lockdown.
The proposed change would come under new legislation and would affect the use of juries in ‘either way’ cases – trials that could be heard in either the Magistrates or Crown court, depending on the severity of the alleged crime.
Trials where the maximum sentence is two years’ imprisonment would be heard with just a judge and two magistrates, resulting in an extra 40% capacity.
Buckland stressed this would be a measure of last resort and would only be temporary in effect.
He also noted that his preferred approach would be to reduce the number of jurors to seven, but that this would provide only a 5-10% increase in capacity.
According to Buckland, the extent of the need was “at least 100% capacity not just to manage the case load but to get ahead of it as well”. The committee heard that the number of outstanding more serious cases has only increased slightly since the start of lockdown, from 39,214 in the Crown court in March to 40,526 on 24 May. But the number of cases waiting in the magistrates’ courts has risen over that period from 406,610 to almost 484,000.
The Government is expected to implement one of the two options by September. Legislation would therefore need to be passed before Parliament’s summer recess begins on 21 July.
Alternative options also being considered include implementing longer operating hours and opening courts at weekends.
Buckland also confirmed that 200 extra sites would be required to deal with the rising number of cases waiting to be heard, with ten alternative venues signed off this week.
In response to the proposal, concerns have been raised across the legal industry, including the Criminal Bar Association and the Law Society of England and Wales, that trial by jury was now under “imminent threat”, and that to “interfere with such a bedrock of the criminal justice system was an extreme measure that required extreme justification”.