Practitioner groups representing black, Asian, minority ethnic and junior lawyers have united to declare that they will fight any plans to demolish or alter the jury system.
After ruling out judge-only trials in April as a solution to the Crown court backlog that has worsened as a result of Covid-19, lord chancellor Robert Buckland indicated last week that legislation to allow trial without jury could be passed within weeks.
Today, Young Legal Aid Lawyers, Young Barristers Committee, Black Protest Legal Support, Black Barristers Network, the Society of Black Lawyers, BAME Lawyers for Justice and Society of Asian Lawyers issued a statement saying they ‘unequivocally disagree’ with any proposal to change the current jury system, whether that be reducing the number of jurors or replacing it with a judge and two magistrates.
The groups say the backlog of criminal cases was caused by criminal legal aid cuts and decades of underfunding.
The statement says: ‘It is our position that abolishing juries for either-way offences under the guise of a Covid-19 emergency response is disingenuous and a threat to the integrity of our criminal justice system. The principle that a person who is facing a life-changing judgment, and risks losing their freedom, has the right to have their case heard and judged by people representative of their community – of different ages, ethnicities and professional and educational backgrounds – is a fundamental aspect of the criminal justice system in England and Wales.’
The groups point out that in 2019, 4% of Crown court judges identified as being from a BAME background. Three Crown court judges said they were black. By contrast, 20% of Crown court defendants are are black, Asian or minority ethnic.
They add that the average age of a Crown court judge is 52. Over 40% of Crown court judges are over 60. Eight in 10 magistrates are over 50. The groups also highlight the lack of socio-economic diversity - 71% of senior judges attended Oxford or Cambridge university.
The statement says: ‘What all these statistics mean in real life is that a randomly selected jury of 12 will bring to the criminal trial and their decision of guilt or innocence, the diversity and variety of the community from which they are selected. The experience of the judiciary and magistracy on the other hand is far removed from the defendants who appear before them. The fairness and efficiency of juries has been well documented, and so it is particularly concerning that a vital safeguard from a system heavily weighted against BAME defendants, is currently being threatened.’
The groups say they will 'wholeheartedly oppose' any proposal that seeks to demolish the protection provided by jury trials.
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.