The lord chancellor said that the legislative changes would only be for the short term
Legislation to allow trials without juries could be passed within weeks in the UK, reported the Law Society Gazette.
The case backlog that has accumulated over the past few months as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the justice system to consider a number of measures, including the use of temporary venues for proceedings.
Speaking to MPs on the justice select committee on Wednesday, Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland QC said that 10 alternative venues had been approved last week; however, 200 additional sites would be necessary to address the backlog. Thus, moving forward with hearings for either-way cases without a jury present is an option “under serious discussion,” the Gazette wrote.
While Buckland prefers the option of reducing the number of jurors to seven, he said that it would boost capacity by only 5%-10%. However, if trials were held with only a judge and two magistrates, it would increase capacity by 40%.
Nonetheless, Buckland said that this option was a last resort, and suggested that this option would only be applied to cases that call for a maximum sentence of two years’ jail time.
“If it is done it would be temporary and not be the basis for a permanent change,” Buckland said.
The government aims to implement one of the two options by September, which means that primary legislation must be presented to parliament prior to its recess on 21 July. Other backlog reduction options being considered are extending operating hours and holding proceedings on the weekends.
“I am absolutely duty-bound to look at measures that deliver the capacity we need. Two-thirds capacity isn’t going to cut it—I am going to need at least 100% capacity not just to manage the case load but to get ahead of it as well,” Buckland said.
Legislation faces backlash
The announcement has faced backlash from UK legal bodies, with the Criminal Bar Association voicing its opinion that the process of jury trials was being threatened.
The Law Society of England and Wales also argued against the judge-led trial option in a statement to the Gazette on Wednesday.
“There was a substantial backlog in existence at the time jury trials were suspended, contributed to by restrictions in sitting days, but not one which was seen as justifying moving away from jury trials themselves,” Law Society President Simon Davis said. “Reducing jury numbers and using non-court buildings for additional court rooms are preferable solutions to tackling the backlog than restricting jury trials, especially given the reduction in social distancing measures announced today.”
Davis said that making changes to the jury trial process, which is crucial to the criminal justice system, was “an extreme measure that required extreme justification.”