Labour has been accused of undermining the “ancient and fundamental right” of jury trial with proposals to cut the number of jurors to combat a growing backlog of court cases.
David Lammy, the shadow justice secretary, called for the government to temporarily allow panels of seven people, rather than the current 12, to decide innocence or guilt in trials.
Mr Lammy said thousands and victims were waiting too long for justice, blaming “Conservative incompetence”, court closures and cuts to sitting days of worsening the backlog.
“Victims of rape, murder, domestic abuse, robbery and assault are facing delays of up to four years because of the government’s failure to act,” he added.
“Justice cannot be delayed any further. Labour is calling on the government to tackle the backlog by speeding up the roll-out of Nightingale courts and temporarily introducing wartime juries of seven until the pandemic is over.”
Supporters argue that the move, which was previously taken during the Second World War, would allow more trials to be heard in socially-distanced conditions.
Crown courts were initially closed in March, and since they have reopened the requirement for trials to be spread across three courtrooms for safety has slowed the number that can be heard.
Its 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.”
James Mulholland QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said reducing jury numbers would be a “convenient way to avoid the proper solution” of investing in more courtrooms.
“We must retain faith in the processes that have made our criminal justice system one of the fairest in the world,” he added.
“A jury of 12 must continue to be the means by which serious criminal allegations are determined and it must remain a beacon of light amidst the darkness that surrounds us.”
Mr Mulholland said the backlog was not a basis for “dismantling of an institution which determines who we are and for what we stand as a society”.
The Justice charity, which has been conducting pilot remote jury trials, called for the government to seek alternative solutions.
Legal director Jodie Blackstock told The Independent: “We have 12 jurors because it’s a number which reflects a good group discussion, it enables any biases to be balanced and meted out.”
She warned that research has not shown whether seven jurors would produce fair verdicts, and that the comparison to wartime did not take account of technical advances.
“What we would like the government to look into is better use of technology and alternatives and whether that would allow a fair process to take place,” Ms Blackstock said.
Mr Mulholland highlighted the findings of the Lammy Review into the treatment black and ethnic minority people in the justice sytem, which found juries essential to preventing discrimination.
“Now, more than ever, in times of increasing inequality, we need to protect our jury system,” he added.
“We must retain juries comprised of twelve individuals, brought together from different socio-economic backgrounds, which reflect our diverse, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society.”
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Derek Sweeting QC, chair of the Bar Council, said more Nightingale courts and staff were needed, but changes to juries should be a “last resort”.
“It is the collective life experience and diversity of members of a jury that ensures evidence is tested robustly and the public can be confident that justice is delivered fairly,” he added. "Reducing the size of juries risks diluting that experience and denting confidence in our justice system.”
The debate came a week after justice watchdogs warned that the coronavirus pandemic could spark an increase in crime as court cases collapse.
HM chief inspectors of prisons, policing, probation and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said lockdowns and restrictions had had a “ripple effect” across the criminal justice system.
Speaking to MPs following a rare joint report raising “grave concerns”, they said the virus was not only causing delays to justice but the “denial of justice”.
The inspectors said some trials are now being scheduled in 2022 and the delays mean that victims may drop their support for prosecutions, or proceedings may be stopped after reviews.
The government has been increasing capacity by making more courtrooms available for jury trials, installing acrylic glass to enable social distancing and creating makeshift Nightingale courts.
But Labour said the number of Nightingale courts opened so far – 19 – was insufficient and highlighted figures showing that at least 600 judges, barristers, court staff and users had tested positive for coronavirus in the past two months.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said there were no current plans to reduce jury sizes but nothing had been “ruled out”.
“We have prioritised measures that yield the greatest impact and more courtrooms are now open for jury trials than before the pandemic,” a statement added.
“This approach is already delivering results, with magistrates’ backlogs falling significantly and the number of cases being dealt with in the crown courts reaching pre-Covid levels last month.
“But we know more must be done and are investing £110m into a range of measures to drive this recovery further, including opening more Nightingale courts.”