This year, the British legal system entered its newest and one of its most controversial chapters; a criminal trial without a jury. This trial is the first Crown Court case in England and Wales to be heard by a judge alone using powers under Sections 44 and 46 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which came into force in July 2007. It allows for a trial without a jury when there is evidence of “a real and present danger that jury tampering would take place” and where additional measures to prevent it would not fully succeed.
It is the first time a major criminal trial has been heard without a jury in a British court in 400 years. The case in question is, of course, that of a £1.75m armed robbery alleged to have been carried out by John Twomey, Peter Blake, Barry Hibberd and Glen Cameron at a warehouse at Heathrow in February 2004. This came to public attention last week, more because one of the defendants left the court over lunch, not to return and thus breached the terms of his bail for which an order for his arrest was made by the judge – than because of its legal novelty.
It is the fourth time the case has come before the court, costing the taxpayer an estimated £24m. Last year the Court of Appeal ruled that it should now be heard by a judge alone because of the danger of jury tampering. The last trial had to be abandoned over those fears.
Dispensing with the jury meant that the formality of selecting and swearing in 12 jurors would not need to happen. And time-consuming legal arguments, deciding what those jurors should and should not hear about the defendants, would also be rendered irrelevant.
But that is not to say things were straightforward. The initial legal argument centred on the judge, Mr Justice Treacy, who pondered aloud whether, by looking at information which would he would rule should not be introduced as evidence, the defence teams would then request that he did not try the case. They would not, he was assured and yet surely there is the nub – is it humanly possible to put completely out of mind something that has been seen and considered even if discounted?
Amid the discussion over what could and should happen, barrister Sam Stein QC summed up the apparent confusion surrounding the situation at the start of the trial by saying: “We are breaking history. This is the first time a court has started a juryless trial.”
As the debate continued in Court 35, so did a small protest outside the building. Protesters stood with banners bearing messages such as: “No Jury, No Justice” and “Secret evidence = secret injustice”. The jury system may be, as the late Lord Denning once remarked “the worst system possible – apart from all the others”, but it does have the advantages of perceived independence and fairness. It is to be hoped that the current trial remains what it is meant to be, an exceptional case, rather than a Trojan horse leading to more and more trials in front of increasingly battle hardened judges sitting alone with that horse being sprung more by financial needs than those of justice.