Lords defend right to trial by jury

The House of Lords last night rejected plans to remove trial by jury from complex fraud cases.

Peers voted 216 to 143 to delay a vote on the fraud (trials with a jury) bill for six months, effectively killing it for this parliamentary session.

However, the attorney general Lord Goldsmith warned the government would use the Parliament Act to force the bill through in the next parliamentary session and by voting to delay peers would lose their right to amend the bill.

The government wants judges to try complex fraud cases alone, claiming major trials are too demanding for jurors and past cases have collapsed as a result.

Lord Goldsmith claims the bill will secure criminal justice, arguing it is about “ensuring that those who are responsible for fraud on the grander scale can be brought to account”.

Despite Lord Goldsmith maintaining the act is “not a general assault on the principle of trial by jury”, critics claim it undermines one of the UK’s core principles of criminal justice.

Proposing the delaying motion, Lord Kingsland said: “Jury trial has been the central component in the conduct of all serious criminal trials for about the last 700 years.

“The contribution it has made to the preservation of the liberty of the individual and the legitimacy of government is quite incalculable in particular.”

Liberal Democrat peer Lord Thomas claimed: “If this (Bill) goes through, it won’t be long before there will be pressure to try any case that’s likely to last more than six weeks or three months by a judge alone.”

Opposition peers justified moving to quash the bill, arguing as it was not a manifesto commitment for the government, the House is not bound by any constitutional convention to uphold it.

The attorney general promised the government would move to push the through bill using the Parliament Acts in the next term, despite peers questioning whether a new prime minister would share the same priorities.

The Liberal Democrats welcomed the defeat, describing the government’s plans as “half baked proposals which would have undermined our criminal justice system”.

Lib Dem peer Lord Thomas said “These proposals must have come from a Home Office official who has never set foot in a criminal court, backed by the government legal establishment who regard the participation of ordinary people in the criminal justice system as unhelpful.”