English legal system: First juryless trial in 350 years

In the UK, the notion of trial by jury can be traced back to 1215 when Article 39 of the Magna Carta came into force. The article states that “No freeman shall be arrested or imprisoned or deprived of his freehold or outlawed or banished or in any way ruined, nor will we take or order action against him, except by the lawful judgment of his equals and according to the law of the land”[1]

However, when the Criminal Justice Act of 2003 came into force in July 2007, it gave the possibility for trials in England and Wales to be heard without a jury for the first time in over 350 years.  

Section 44 and 46 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 allow for the absence of a jury if firstly, there is a “real and present danger that jury tampering would take place”. Secondly, it needs to be shown that the possibility of jury tampering “would be so substantial as to make it necessary in the interests of justice for the trial to be conducted without a jury”[2]

On this basis, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, agreed to a juryless trial and is the first to use this power since the Act came into force. The trial began this week and has been widely reported in the media. 

The case concerns an armed robbery of £1.75m, allegedly carried out by four men in Heathrow in 2004.  This week is “the fourth time the case has come before the court”[3]. During the third hearing it was abandoned due to fears of jury tampering. 

The case has inevitably stirred much debate. The BBC reported that the Crown Prosecution Service state that “Rather than the case not proceeding at all this decision enables these defendants, who we allege are involved in serious criminal activity, to be tried and brought to justice.”[4] 

However a representative from the human rights group Liberty stated that it “is a dangerous precedent. The right to jury trial isn’t just a hallowed principle but a practice that ensures that one class of people don’t sit in judgement over another and the public have confidence in an open and representative justice system”[5]

It should be noted that trial without jury is known in other parts of the UK with Diplock courts taking place in Northern Ireland between 1973 and 2007 and cases in Scotland being heard by a Sheriff without a  the presence of a jury.  

[1] Magna Carta 1215, section 39. Available at: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/magnacarta.html 

[2] Criminal Justice Act 2003, section 44. Available at: http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts2003/ukpga_20030044_en_1 

[3] Hughes, Mark., 2010. Focus: No angry men: first trial without jury begins. Independent Online, [internet] 13 January. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/no-angry-men-first-trial-without-jury-begins-1866124.html 

[4] Anon, 2010. Focus: First trial without jury approved. BBC News Online, [internet] 18 June. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/8106590.stm 

[5] Ibidem.

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