Government Unveils Plans to Re-introduce Trials by Jury

Proposals to bring back the regular right to trial by jury were unveiled by the Government today – although Ministers plan to keep the option of having a judge decide some cases alone. Last year the Government agreed to get rid of Diplock courts – introduced in 1973 to combat intimidation of jurors by paramilitary groups – in response to the IRA declaration that it would end all activity.

Ministers published their proposals for the change today, to give them room to bring forward legislation in the autumn. The changes are expected to be introduced by the end of next July.

The Government is also planning to let magistrates grant bail in serious cases, another practice that was dropped because of fears of terrorist intimidation.

And defendants will lose the right to remove a potential juror from their trial for no apparent reason – a practice that effectively could allow defendants to stack juries with people of a particular religion in the hope that they would be more sympathetic to them.

But the main thrust of the proposals is to reverse the circumstances in which jury trials take place for serious offences now.

Currently serious cases like murder are automatically put before a judge without a jury. But the Attorney General can allow a jury trial if he believes a case is not connected to the Troubles.

Under the new arrangements, all cases will be automatically scheduled for trial by jury – unless the Director of Public Prosecutions decides there is a risk of intimidation or other circumstances that would pervert justice.

The Government says the jury will only be dropped in exceptional and narrowly defined circumstances. Defendants will also be able to judicially review the DPP’s decision.

Ministers say the climate is right for the change.

According to police figures, there have been four cases of jury tampering in the last seven years, even with the procedures for trials without a jury in place.

The Government is not planning to drop restrictions on jury service, even though an independent advisor has recommended it.

Currently lawyers, police, soldiers and judges are automatically excluded from juries and clergy, teachers and doctors are allowed to excuse themselves.

Lord Carlile, the government’s reviewer of terrorism legislation, said that dropping those exclusions would “dilute the risk of perverse verdicts”.

But the Government says that allowing some of those groups onto juries could raise “perception issues”, especially at a time when defendants are losing the right to throw out potential jurors.

Secretary of State Peter Hain said today’s proposals are a “significant step” towards returning to jury trials in all cases.

The Government is asking for views on the proposals before October 6.