Bill to curb trial by jury may be put on hold

By Frances Gibb

Legal Editor

PLANS to curb trial, by jury have been shelved until after the next general election to become part of a much bigger shake-up of the criminal justice system, the Government's senior law officer signalled yesterday.

Lord Williams of Mostyn, the Attorney-General, has broken ranks with fellow ministers by saying that he wants to wait until the outcome of a review of the system by Lord Justice Auld, which is due to report at the end of December.

In an interview with The Times, Lord Williams, who oversees the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), said: "There is no doubt that reform to the jury system will come about one way or another."

But Lord Williams, who has been at the forefront of piloting the controversial plans to cut the right to elect jury trial to 18,500 defendants a year, added: "I personally would like to see what Sir Robin Auld has to say."

Lord Williams's comments may make it impossible for Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, to insist on forcing through such a hotly opposed measure in the face of an already overloaded legislative timetable. The Government's Mode of Trial Bill was thrown out for a second time by the Lords this month, but ministers threatened to use the Parliament Act to force it through.

Lord Williams's comments will also fuel mounting concern that the Auld review will prove far more far-reaching than expected.

Lord Justice Auld indicated on Saturday at the Bar conference in London that he favours reforms that would remove a big swath of cases from the jury system. He is considering a new hybrid court with a judge and two lay magistrates to hear middle-ranking offences carrying up to two years' imprisonment.

Ministers could afford to drop the jury trial plans happy in the knowledge that the Auld report will do the job for them, and more. Ironically, the Bar and the Law Society have been pressing the Government to await the outcome of the Auld review as a means of deferring the proposals.

In his interview Lord Williams also said that reforms to the laws on corporate manslaughter were top of the legislative agenda.

As well as the CPS, Customs and Excise and the Inland Revenue have prosecuting departments. Lord Williams indicated that he favoured bringing all prosecuting authorities under his aegis. He also favour a shake-up of some of the practices which govern the so-called Treasury counsel, lawyers used by the Government to take its cases and prosecute the biggest crimes.

This would include ending their "unfair monopoly" of the big Old Bailey trials, encouraging them to do more circuit work and in turn for prosecutors in the regions to take work at the Old Bailey; devolving more work to the regions and encouraging prosecutors to take defence work.

In a move to relax the traditional six circuit boundaries in England and Wales, he wants an end to trials always being taken by prosecutors from that circuit. 'Too much work goes to London," he said. With the advent of e-mail and videoconferencing, a good and efficient service could be provided in other ways.