A ROW has broken out in England after a former judge suggested using non-jury trials to relieve a backlog in the judicial system.
His honour Michael Heath suggested that suspending trial by jury on a temporary basis could help alleviate the problem. Mr Heath said that while jury trials are “the cornerstone of our criminal justice system will implode”. However, while Covid has contributed to the backlog of cases in England and Wales it is certainly not completely responsible. I say England and Wales because that was the jurisdiction that Mr Heath was talking about when he made his ‘radical’ suggestion. His comments drew criticism from a number of quarters. Among them the Secret Barrister, an online cover name for a serving QC responsible for a best selling book about the workings, and at times shambolic, nature of the judicial system (His/her book is very good, I highly recommend it). The Secret Barrister argued that while the backlog of cases is unacceptable, “tearing up the right to jury trial, and replacing it with trial by a single judge and two magistrates” was not the answer. “It would be a disaster. Make no mistake.
“Whatever the arguments for and against jury trial, it is beyond dispute that trial by a single judge and two magistrates is a lesser form of Justice” the Secret Barrister added. There was a flurry of comments agreeing with the online expert about this proposed perversion of justice. Meanwhile in the North of Ireland we’ve had non-jury trials since 1973, and they remain in place 22 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The government technically abolished the old Diplock Courts in 2007. However, it give the Director of Public Prosecutions power to decide when cases should be tried without a jury, particularly if there was a chance of jurors being intimidated. That has to be reviewed every two years with it next under consideration in April 2021. And so if the argument is that dispensing with a jury speeds up the process, then the state of the North of Ireland’s judicial system would suggest that is simply not the case, not the sase
The trial of Colin Duffy (52) and his co-defdants Alex McCory (58) and 51-year-old Harry Fitzsimons is still ongoing in a Diplock Court in Belfast. The three men were arrested after an attack on a police patrol in north Belfast in December 2013.
It is now June 2020, any verdict in that trial is likely to coincide with the seventh anniversary of the gun attack the three men deny taking part in. And so the removal of a jury is certainly not the magic wand to speedy justice, not in the North of Ireland anyway. The underfunding of the legal system over many years has placed enormous stress on the system. But it goes deeper than that as anyone that has ever worked in a court in the North will tell you. The wheels of justice turn painfully slow in this part of the world.
There are plans under way to try and rectify that, to do away with committal hearings in serious cases that spend months bouncing around a Magistrates Court before being sent to the Crown where they were destined for anyway. A consultation is to be carried out to consider a strategic approach to restorative practices for adults in the criminal justice system.
Diversionary orders could be used to deal with less serious cases where there is no risk to the public. But all of this takes time, requires proper funding and a buy-in from all involved agencies. In the interim, victims often drop out of cases or are put through further truma having to live with the anxious anticipation of giving evidence for months, even years – a completely unacceptable situation. A decision on returning to the use of juries for serious or paramilitary trails remains years away. Will we once again have the extension of a ‘lesser form of Justice’ here in the North of Ireland, where there are frequent reminders that despite the words of Margaret Thatcher, when it comes to equality under law we are definitely not “as British as Finchley”.
AWith many thanks to the: Irish News and Allison Morris Security Correspondent for the original story
Follow these links to find out more: https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/courts/alleged-recordings-of-republicans-compared-in-belfast-police-murder-bid-trial-38947538.html