The proposals have had the legal profession up in arms, as it claims that any move away from a jury process will damage an incorruptible system that has served our country well for more than 800 years. Financial evidence can be fiendishly complicated and involve trials that last for months if not years. So who is right?
A statement issued by the Home Office claims any changes will deal ‘with the very real difficulties of a very small number of fraud and complex financial trials where the burden on the jury would be excessive’.
It is at pains to point out that it is not saying juries do not understand the issues, but that the time burdens involved put ‘excessive and unreasonable’ demands on jury members.
It claims that to deal with the situation in the past, complex cases would often be pared down in both evidence and the resulting charges in order to make the length more manageable. It is an argument refuted by criminal barrister Kirsty Brimelow. ‘I don’t see any logic in it,’ she says. ‘It will lead to a lot of discontent, and a two-tier system.’
But Robert Wardle, who recently took over as director of the Serious Fraud Office, is a staunch supporter of the proposals, as is his predecessor Ros Wright, now head of the ICAEW’s Fraud Advisory Panel. Their argument, to the layman at least, is compelling: it seems unreasonable to expect ordinary members of the public to sit through a court hearing of a complex fraud case.
‘We argue in the belief that the system of jury trial was not designed to cope with the type of allegations and the amount of evidence now needed to show the overall case picture and the true extent of the criminal conduct alleged,’ says an SFO spokesman.
Such cases usually involve huge amounts of paperwork and reams of complex financial and business evidence. Should the ordinary man on the street be expected to digest this information, and reach decisions on cases that usually involve hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds?
The Law Society certainly thinks so. ‘In our experience,’ the lawyers’ professional body says, ‘issues that are relevant to guilt or innocence – such as honesty – are generally well understood by the jury members.’ It asks instead for the government to ‘seek means of easing the burden on jurors (or their employers) through improved arrangements for meeting lost earnings, rather than restricting jury trial’.
The arguments for and against are compelling, but it seems that Blunkett and Tony Blair are determined to push the proposals through. Things will become far clearer in the autumn when the legislation comes before the House of Commons. Blunkett is willing to risk the entire criminal justice bill to get his way, and wait for a year to use the Parliament Act to push it through the upper house.
If this is the case, the legal profession may have a bitter pill to swallow.