Trials under threat in criminal proceedings

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Most people think that it is your right if you choose when charged with a criminal offence to have the matter heard by a judge and jury at the Crown Court.

I am worried that there is a growing trend within the government to prevent this.

John Ellwood, of Tilly Bailey & Irvine.

John Ellwood, of Tilly Bailey & Irvine.

Already some offences cannot be tried by a judge and jury. They are what are called summary only offences.

I am sure that most people will agree that things like speeding matters should not be heard before a judge and jury but some really quite serious offences fall within this category as well.

Offences of assaulting a police officer, driving whilst disqualified, assault by beating and causing suffering to animals are all examples of offences which can only be tried in a magistrates’ court.

Whilst I am a great believer in local justice, I am also a believer in the right to be tried by your peers on a jury.

I will give you examples of what I think are the current trends against jury trials.

If you are unfortunate enough to be charged with a criminal offence and do not qualify for legal aid then you will have to pay your lawyers.

If you elect to be tried at the Crown court and are found not guilty, then with very few exceptions you will get nothing back by way of legal fees.

There is no power for the court to order that you are reimbursed the cost for defending yourself.

If your case is tried in the magistrates’ court you do get some of your fees back.

That can be interpreted as a way of discouraging people going to the Crown court.

Until recently the Government imposed very harsh court charges on people who went to the Crown court.

This was the fee to be paid to the court if you were found guilty.

In addition the courts required you to pay the cost of the prosecution and obviously if you are paying your own lawyers you had that cost to pay as well.

Recently the Sentencing Guidelines Council has published recommendations to magistrates encouraging them to keep more cases in the magistrates’ court and not send cases to the Crown court.

Again, I repeat, I am in favour of local justice but there are some cases where a crown court trial is the proper place. Magistrates’ court cases are much cheaper.

I am worried that the recent changes are the thin end of the wedge and at some stage in the not too far distant future our right to be tried by a judge and jury at the Crown court will be taken away in more cases.