This week: abolishing jury trials. Sigh. As journalists covering the legal sector there are times when, paradoxically, even we wish there was less to write about.
It is a characteristic of small-state, authoritarian governments. Starve the public realm of resources for a prolonged period and then, when atrophy sets in, degrade or abolish the rump of whatever is left on the grounds it is no longer ‘sustainable’.
A conspiracy theory? Certainly – please don’t write in. But many lawyers are not setting much store by the lord chancellor’s assurances. Why should they?
Less than two months ago justice minister Chris Philp gravely reassured the nation that: ‘There is categorically no question at all, under any circumstances, of the right to jury trial being removed. It is a fundamental right. It goes back centuries in our history, and it will never be removed at all.’
Perhaps Philp should have had a word with his boss before climbing on his high horse. Is he now considering his position?
As many have rushed to point out, the proposal (and it is still a proposal as a write) is an unintended consequence of avowedly political choices. Specifically, a decade of chronic underfunding and the unseemly fire sale of our court estate. Covid-19 is but a terrible convenience. The government’s apologia puts me in mind of the boy who murders his parents and then pleads for understanding as he is an orphan.
Critics have also pointed out that the plan is painfully ill-timed. To paraphrase David Lammy, shadow justice secretary, replacing juries with a judge and two magistrates would reduce the diversity of those making life-changing decisions about guilt, ignoring the reality of unconscious bias in our justice system.
Elsewhere in today’s Gazette, and in a related vein, you can read a powerful interview with Leslie Thomas QC, newly installed Gresham professor of law. Thomas has much to say about enduring racism in society and the law, and believes lawyers can do more to combat it. We agree.