For what is possibly the very first time, I find myself in both lockstep and agreement with David Lammy; an MP whose statements I have commented upon once or twice before. I recall the time of Grenfell when he tried to start a riot with a Tweet, and then when he reckoned the London knife crime epidemic was caused by an £11 billion cocaine industry, and because of “Lack of Resources” (A.K.A. giving people less benefit money).
But, just for a change, Lammy has stuck with the facts; and, it must be granted, he makes a compelling case. He writes of the ‘fundamental right’ of an individual, (Paywalled £ ) to be tried by a ‘jury of his peers’ within the Judicial System of England and Wales; and of how this hard-won process is in danger of removal because of the CoronaVirus epidemic. A jury trial gives people the final say on the guilt or innocence of their fellow citizens, and that one ideal, that ordinary people, not judicially-trained and tasked individuals, are asked to evaluate the evidence, as presented in Court, and then are asked to decide whether the Crown has made its case, or that the suspect can walk free.
The idea, as many of you will know, descends from Runnymede. That amazing time when the most powerful Barons forced a confrontation after a penniless King John’s return to England after the devastating defeat by the French in the Battle of Bouvines. The original document, as signed by the King, almost at swordpoint; was changed, and modified, and further modified, but the result was the Magna Carta: in 1215: possibly the most important document in existence from the Norman invasion and down through the Plantagenets, the Tudors, the Stuarts: even the Commonwealth, Lancaster, Hanover and the Windsors. The Magna Carta was not, as many think, the first, the preliminary to Parliamentary Democracy. Instead, it was an admission that the King could not rule by whim or decree, but instead by a set of rules agreed by the Barons and King John. But the one Article which could be said to be possibly the forerunner of the Jury system was Article 39, which promulgated :- Those who have been outside the forest are not to come before the forest justices on the grounds of common summonses, unless they are involved in pleadings or [are] pledges. And the evil customs of forests and foresters, of warrens, and sheriffs, and rivers, are to be put right by twelve knights of each county, who should be chosen by the good men of that county. The ‘twelve knights’ over the centuries has morphed into ‘A jury of Twelve adults’, all of whom have been selected at random from the Electoral Register.
But enough minutiae; I digress. As is self-evident, the whole Majesty of the Law has been placed in stasis, because of the CoronaVirus which has killed over 40,000 of our inhabitants. The number of postponed Jury trials has increased the backlog from 37,000 to 41,000: and, primarily because of the need for ‘Social distancing’, that figure is destined to increase. The problem is that no-one seems to have made up their minds as to how to begin to unravel the knots which have tangled the whole process. In a normal Crown court, there are one hell of a lot of people, all working in comparative close quarters, because thats the way things have worked out. The Judge is the only one who isn’t seated next to four others, there are the lawyers, or barristers, clerks, solicitors, witnesses who have given evidence; and possibly the most important group; members of the public. With the way things have developed, Jurors are seated in two rows of six, and swinging a dead cat isn’t in the scheme of things!
So the present Lord Chief Justice has mooted the notion that, in certain categories of trials, if the numbers (backlog) become unmanageable, limiting the possibility of Jury Trials is “Worthy of consideration by Policymakers”. This ‘suggestion’, by the most senior Judge on the Supreme Court, a decision possibly taken by MPs who also bowed to ‘Circumstances’ by the acceptance of ‘Diplock’ trials in Northern Ireland during the Terror onslaught by the IRA. Trials with a Judge alone, it was thought, removed the distinct possibility, in Northern Ireland, of either biased or perverse acquittals, or of the worse danger of ‘Jury Tampering’, where family members of jury members were routinely threatened by, truth be told, both sides of the Terror Gangs in that bloody time.
The problem is, as Mr. Lammy suggests, is that once a decision to remove a Jury, a centuries-old tradition of Jurisprudence can be routinely overruled as a matter of course, the fact is quite likely that they will never return. He further argues that serious thought be given instead to the expansion of redundant buildings and underused areas to allow for more expansive courts, where the still-needed ‘distancing factor’ can be controlled and eliminated. He also points to the systematic closure of Courts, and states that, instead of continuing with the closing programme, the Government should provide the investment to increase Court sitting days when the crisis is eventually over.
He ends by starting that Jury trials are fundamental to our Democracy, and they must be protected.
I would however make one point upon Jury Trials. It is still a fact that Magistrates have the power to send any offence triable either way to the Crown Court but, even if they elect to try the case themselves, the accused retains the right to elect for a Crown Court trial with a jury. Which is why Tommy Robinson’s many court cases and appeals have always been downgraded so that he does not have that right to a jury; mainly because this perverse system of Justice is rigged against a man whom the jury would have a natural sympathy for his cause or pleading!