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From The Socialist newspaper, 19 January 2010

Non jury trials undermine democratic rights

THE FIRST crown court non-jury criminal trial in England and Wales has begun, marking a serious departure from a fundamental principle of justice.

Ray Burr

The case concerns the trial of four men over a robbery that took place at the Menzies World Cargo warehouse at Heathrow airport, in February 2004.

Isabella Sankey, from Liberty, warned that the non-jury trial is a "dangerous precedent" and that trial by jury is "a practice that ensures that one class of people don't sit in judgement over another."

Trial by jury is a principle that traces its roots back to the Magna Carta in 1215. Not since 1641 and the abolition of the Court of the Star Chamber, have citizens faced trial for serious criminal offences without a jury. The principle, however, was limited in New Labour's Criminal Justice Act in 2003, and this came into force in 2007.

Following the third collapse of the trial arising from the Heathrow robbery, the Lord Chief Justice allowed the Crown's appeal for a new non jury trial. He tried to justify his decision by stating that the financial costs of a jury trial are too high. In response, the Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association said: "Some principles of justice are beyond price. Trial by your peers is one of them."

Non-jury trials have actually long been a feature of the legal system in Northern Ireland. The infamous 'Diplock Courts', were introduced in 1972 following a review by the then Law Lord, Lord Kenneth Diplock. Supposedly in response to witness intimidation by paramilitary groups, Diplock courts were condemned by civil liberty organisations and reviled by working class communities in Northern Ireland, particularly in Catholic areas.

Diplock courts marked an attempt at 'criminalisation' of the conflict. At their height, over 300 trials per year were held in Diplock courts, with many people found 'guilty' and imprisoned on the decision of judges alone.

Although legislation concerning Diplock courts was eventually repealed in 2007, as a result of their general discrediting and the wider 'peace process', provision remains in place in Northern Ireland for such trials to take place in "exceptional cases". In 2009, it was decided to hold a trial of a Derry solicitor in a Diplock court, for alleged involvement with loyalist paramilitaries.

Under New Labour, civil liberties and human rights have come under relentless attack and have been seriously eroded. While government ministers claim they only have serious criminal and 'complex' fraud cases in mind for non jury trials, how long will it be before non jury trials are used in cases involving anti-capitalist activists, anti-climate change protesters and workers in industrial struggles?

These new Diplock courts must be opposed not only in the interests of justice but also from the point of view of the wider working class.

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