09 July, 2009
The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge made legal history recently when he approved a Criminal trial proceeding in the absence of a jury. The landmark judgement in the Court of Appeal will result in a defendant's guilt being decided for the first time by a judge sitting alone rather than a jury made up of ordinary men and women.
The principle of a judge deciding upon the guilt of a defendant is not altogether foreign. In fact 'Diplock' Courts have been taking place in Northern Ireland since 1973 in an attempt to avoid jury tampering and intimidation that were associated with the troubles. The non-jury trials in which thousands of Northern Ireland terrorist suspects have been tried have only been abolished as recently as 2007 although there is some indication that these trials will still be used in 'exceptional' circumstances.
The decision of the Lord Chief Justice which derives its authority from the Criminal Justice Act 2003 will mean the principle of being tried in the absence of a jury will soon be used for the first time in England and Wales. The legislation is however restricted for use in circumstances when there is a real and present danger that jury tampering would take place. The judge must also be satisfied that likelihood of tampering taking place would be so substantial as to make it necessary in the interests of justice for the trial to be conducted without a jury.
This recent judgement by Lord Judge arises out of a case of 4 men accused of an armed robbery that took place at London's Heathrow Airport in 2004. The plot is said to have involved the robbery of up to £10m although the final amount stolen was reported to be closer to £1.75m. The case has been brought to trial on two previous occasions and on both those occasions the jury had to be discharged after member s came forward to report approaches that had been made to them by unknown persons.
There are obvious implications in having to protect a jury involved in a crime on this scale. The cost and practicalities of ensuring both the members and their families come to no harm had a strong bearing on the decision of Lord Judge in this case. However some Human Rights groups have voiced their concerns over the moves. The right to a trial by jury is largely regarded as a fundamental principle of English Law and the fact a defendant is being refused this right causes obvious concern and potentially sets a dangerous precedent.
It is clear that only in the most exceptional of circumstances will the powers under the 2003 Act be triggered. Although some may take the view that a jury member and their families should not have to absorb the pressures and worries associated with being involved in such a high profile case, the deprivation of a jury trial might be seen by many as the loss of a right that has been considered as fundamental under English Law since the signing of the Magna Carta.