Labour is calling for juries to be cut from 12 members to seven, to stem the “gravest crisis” in the justice system since World War Two.
Shadow justice secretary David Lammy said action was needed to clear the backlog of thousands of cases. He argued that smaller juries and the use of more temporary courts would allow socially distanced trials. The government has not ruled out such a move but insists measures it is taking to clear the backlog are working. Last week four criminal justice watchdogs warned that courts in England and Wales were straining under pressure from the coronavirus pandemic.
Jury trials ground to a halt at the start of the first lockdown, when people were advised to stay at home except in limited circumstances.
When they resumed, there were severe delays and numerous cancellations due to social-distancing requirements.
Recent figures revealed that the number of unheard cases in crown courts had reached a record 54,000.
The backlog means some from last year may not go before a jury until 2022, and it could be years before the courts get back on track.
The move has received a cool response however, the legal profession has failed to back the proposal. Responding to Labour’s call, Law Society president David Greene said: ‘We recognise this is a crisis, but before we agree to anything like reducing jury sizes, we would need to understand how much of a contribution it would actually make towards solving the problems facing the criminal justice system.’
Meanwhile, the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) said a jury of 12 ‘must continue to be the means by which serious criminal allegations are determined’.
‘In the last week, the challenges we face have, once again, formed a basis for arguing the dismantling of an institution which determines who we are and for what we stand as a society. That must not be allowed to happen,’ CBA chair James Mulholland QC said.