Juryless trial plans pass first hurdle

Proposals to remove juries in complex fraud trials passed their first Commons test yesterday, despite opposition from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

The second reading of the fraud (trial without jury) bill, which would allow a single judge to oversee certain fraud cases provided the lord chief justice agreed, was approved by a vote of 289 to 219.

However, both main opposition parties condemned the legislation, saying it was unnecessary and illiberal and threatened a key principle of British justice. This suggests the bill will not have an easy ride when it heads to the House of Lords.

Two reports in the last 20 years have looked into how complex fraud trials can be improved, and both concluded that a jury should be replaced by a tribunal, either made up of a judge and specially qualified lay members, or a panel of business and finance experts.

The government tried to introduce changes to serious fraud trials under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, but a compromise had to be struck in the form of section 43, allowing juryless trials only if both Houses of Parliament agreed. Today’s bill would remove this section.

Ministers argue this would stop lengthy trials being disrupted by jurors who became sick or had to leave during long trials, and ensure defendants are properly charged – currently evidence often has to be limited in the interests of time and complexity.

Solicitor general Mike O’Brien told MPs yesterday: “We cannot accept a double standard whereby petty frauds are easy to prosecute and frauds on a grand scale which, although small in number, can have an impact on many victims are too difficult to prosecute.”

He added: “We want to ensure that 99.9 per cent, or 48,000, cases tried in the crown court will continue to be tried by a jury.”

Calls for a change in the law followed the collapse of the Jubilee line fraud case in March 2005, after 18 months and about £60 million spent. The jury had to be discharged after it was decided that lengthy delays and other problems made a fair trial impossible.

However, critics of the new bill point out the Wooler report into the trial cited the lack of a clear strategy by the prosecution as the main reason for its collapse, not the jury.

Yesterday, shadow attorney general Dominic Grieve warned that beyond the decision to ensure that the judge in question was from the high court – an improvement on previous proposals – he could “welcome nothing in the bill in any shape or form”.

“The risk that the House runs is that supporting this measure will not reduce crime – which we should prioritise – but will undermine the criminal justice system and confidence in it,” he said.

“We would also open the door to getting rid of the jury system that, I and many other honourable members profoundly believe, is one of the absolute underpinnings of our civil liberties. On that basis, there is no possibility of our supporting the measure and we will vote against it.”

Lib Dem president Simon Hughes added: “The burden of all the evidence is that what we need to change is the process and the procedure – the organisation, management and investigation of cases of serious fraud, not the way in which they are tried.”

He said: “On these benches and elsewhere, we will defend the jury system. We believe that it works well, and with the new procedural changes it will work even better.”