Criminal practitioners are divided over the implications of the Court of Appeal’s decision to allow a judge alone to hear the retrial of a robbery case.

Last week the lord chief justice ruled that the risk of jury tampering was sufficient to allow the trial of four men accused of an armed robbery at Heathrow Airport in 2004 to be heard without a jury. This is the first time the power, contained in section 44 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, has been used.

Ian Kelcey, chairman of the Law Society’s criminal law committee, said the decision was not surprising, despite the fact that the presiding judge, Mr Justice Calvert Smith, felt a jury trial could go ahead with suitable protection. ‘It may be that this was a decision borne of pragmatism in the light of the fact that the protective measures would be expensive, involve considerable disruption to the jury, and could result in prejudice to the defendants.’

He said the Society had opposed the introduction of section 44 and is against the erosion of jury trials. ‘We very much hope that this won’t open the floodgates,’ he said.

Peter Lodder QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, said: ‘The principle that all serious criminal offences should be tried by juries is not affected by this decision, which is based on highly unusual circumstances.’

But Raj Chada, criminal partner at London firm Hodge Jones & Allen, warned of ‘a slippery slope’. ‘To use expense as an excuse is not justifiable,’ he said.