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Home Office figures reveal jury trial reforms could produce 3000 miscarriages of justice a year

Professor Lee Bridges

Originally Published 15 March 2000

New research by Professor Lee Bridges, of the Legal Research Institute at the University of Warwick, reveals Home Office projections that up to 3000 defendants, who are currently cleared of criminal charges in the Crown Court, will in future be convicted if Government proposals for jury trial reform go ahead.

Under the Government's plans to restrict the right to jury trial, it is predicted that between 12,000 and 14,000 defendants who currently elect to be tried at Crown Court will be denied this right in future and be forced to have their cases heard by magistrates instead. Home Office figures show, that of those who currently elect jury trial, at least 15% are acquitted in the Crown Court and a further 11% have the charges against them dropped.

The Home Office's "Flows and Costs Model" predicts that 90 per cent of defendants restricted to magistrates' courts in future will plead guilty and only 10% not guilty. Conviction rates at magistrates' courts suggest that only 1 in 3 of this 10 per cent will be acquitted. This means of the 12-14,000 defendants likely to be affected, around 3per cent, (400-500) will be cleared at magistrates' courts, compared with the 3120-3640 currently acquitted or cleared at Crown Court. Professor Bridges comments:

"Either the Home Office believes that many acquittals at Crown Court are unjustified, or the Government is willing to accept several thousand potential miscarriages of justice as the price of its planned reforms, The other possibility is that the assumptions behind the Home Office Flows and Costs Model are so flawed as to render the projected cost savings of this measure, estimated at well over ?100m, simply incredible."

Other key findings of Professor Bridges' analysis are:

  • 75 per cent of defendants who indicate a not guilty plea at magistrates' courts but change their plea to guilty at Crown Court will be unaffected by the Government's plans, because these they are ordered to be tried at Crown Court instead of electing to do so
    Half of those who change their pleas to guilty at Crown Court are likely to have had the charges against them reduced
  • Two-thirds of the projected cost savings are supposed to come from those convicted at magistrates' court, rather than at Crown Court, receiving shorter prison sentences. This is based on ten-year old Home Office research showing defendants convicted of the same offences and with similar criminal records received 7 times as much custody at Crown Court than at magistrates' courts. Not only is this based on questionable research methods, but such wide sentencing differentials between the two levels of court are unjustified on grounds of public policy or equal treatment before the law.
  • Many defendants who currently elect for Crown Court have criminal records that will lead them, if tried and convicted by magistrates, to be sent to the Crown Court for sentence. This will undermine the Government's projected cost savings and create a strong sense of injustice among those denied the right to be tried in the Crown Court

For further information contact:
Professor Lee Bridges, Legal Research Institute
University of Warwick Tel: 024 76 524200
Note for Editors
The research was published in the March 2000 issue of Statewatch