Moves are afoot to abolish or limit the right of those facing criminal charges to have their cases tried before a jury of twelve, putting in its place trial by a single judge flanked by a couple of magistrates.
Whilst the professed justification for this move is the need to deal swiftly with a backlog of criminal cases supposedly caused by the covid emergency, closer inspection makes plain that the pandemic is merely a handy smokescreen for a long-planned attack on the jury system.
The fact is that, even before the lockdown, the Ministry of Justice was sitting on a backlog of over 37,000 crown court cases, thanks to austerity-driven underfunding and severe cuts to the number of judicial sitting days.
It also turns out that the number of cases since the lockdown has in fact only shown a slight increase, rising from 39,214 in March to 40,526 in May. (Legislation to abolish some jury trials could be passed within weeks by John Hyde, Law Gazette, 23 June 2021)
It is clear from this that the move to shut down the jury system, in operation since Anglo-Saxon times, has little to do with covid and everything to do with further encroachments on civil liberties, for which the pandemic is providing such excellent cover.
Whilst it may require some expense and ingenuity to make the jury system work properly during lockdown (to maintain social distancing etc), this is no more an insuperable hurdle than are those being faced by schools, public transport, hospitals and businesses.
We have already seen workers’ access to the civil court system all but wiped out by the destruction of legal aid over several decades. Now the criminal system looks set to be abolished in the form we have known it, returning us to something much more akin to the days when landowning magistrates sent impoverished workers to the gallows or banished them to Australia on a whim.
The lord chancellor, Robert Buckland QC, says that he would rather just tamper with the system, reducing the jury count from twelve to seven (yielding between 5 percent and 10 percent extra capacity in the courts), but if necessary would have to scrap the jury altogether (yielding a tempting extra 40 percent capacity).
By presenting the matter as being restricted to a choice between two options (a dilution of the existing trial by jury or its outright scrapping), Buckland is sending a strong signal that, one way or another, the jury system is under attack. He confirmed to the Commons justice select committee that the government intends to get one of the two options operational by September, requiring primary legislation to be rushed through parliament before recess on 21 July – ie, with little or no consultation and no time for meaningful public opposition to be organised.
Claims that this is merely a temporary measure ring hollow. The last time the British state resorted to the widespread imposition of lone judge trials was in the colonised six counties, with the notorious Diplock courts. These ‘temporary’ kangaroo courts were invented to fit up and jail Irish republicans who dared challenge the occupation of their homeland by British imperialism. The ‘temporary’ Diplock courts endured from 1973 to 2007, and even now are still resurrected on occasions.
In 1973, British imperialism feared the wrath of the colonised Irish people fighting for the liberation of their homeland. In 2021, with unemployment, poverty and hunger spiralling out of control, what the state now fears is the possibility of social revolt by the working class.
The attack on the jury system must be seen in the light of a more general bourgeois preparation for the coming class war.