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Another step toward the abyss

Heathrow robbery trial breaks with 400-year tradition of trial by jury | UK news | The Guardian.

I despair. The right to trial by jury has protected Englishmen from an over-mighty state since long before democracy was born. Combined with the Great Writ of habeas corpus, it meant you could not be detained without trial and that your trial must be by 12 independent jurors. For most of the last 400 years, those jurors were required to decide unanimously that you were guilty. If they couldn't, you were acquitted. The odds were loaded against the state and in favour of the citizen. Guilty men went free, that's true. But (though nothing human is perfect) the odds of an innocent man being convicted were reassuringly small.

In the last century, in the wake of jury-nobbling scandals, majority verdicts were introduced. Even then, some thought that the state should do more to protect jurors, rather than implicitly accept that criminals could intimidate them. The efficiency of the justice system was put before the ancient rights of free Englishmen. Those who saw it as "a slippery slope" were dismissed as old fashioned.

Now, jury nobbling is again the excuse, but this time to hold trials with no jury at all. Again, those who object are dismissed either as friends of organised crime or as old buffers. Let's not forget however that the jury was designed to prevent it from being nobbled - by the state. The odds of 12 good men and true all being subverted by plain bribery, or by nods and winks or hopes of preferment from the government, were calculated as being too small to worry about. To put it at its lowest, it was assumed that a random sample of 12 Englishmen would contain at least one who couldn't be bought. It's not the highest of national praise, but it's practical.

As for criminals doing the nobbling, that is clearly a smaller problem. Even the mightiest of them does not have anything like the state's resources for corruption or intimidation. That's not to say the problem should not be addressed. Such conduct undermines justice and should therefore be a very serious crime. I suggest that jury-nobbling should carry double the combined maximum sentences for the offences under trial. Even a crime lord will find it a big ask to get men not themselves on trial to risk that.

What are the odds of a fair trial after repeated mistrials for alleged jury-nobbling? The judge hearing the case without a jury, so far from knowing nothing of their criminal history, knows full well that they are considered to be dangerous organised criminals capable of bribing or intimidating a jury. Is he likely to approach the case with an open mind?

Once one such trial has ended in a successful conviction (and the convicted men prove to have been just such thugs) how often will it be argued that there is a risk of the jury being nobbled? After all, there is always such a risk. When Mrs P. served as a juror, the accused's family hung about in the court car park smirking meaningfully as they noted jurors' car registration numbers. The jurors simply decided to arrive by public transport. They went on to convict. I would not be surprised if the family's conduct helped the prosecution. Nobbling is often as likely to misfire as not.

We can be sure that this current trial has been hand-picked to support the government's view that jury trial is not an essential right. I will be astonished if it ends in an acquittal. Then we will proceed yet further down that slippery slope. Such trials will become more and more frequent. One day a future Home Secretary will stand smilingly to tell the Commons that so many trials are conducted "efficiently" without a jury that the cost can be saved for all trials.

Personally, if forced to the choice, I would prefer the right to trial by jury to the right to vote. My lone voice against the pathetic multitudes who cling to Nanny's teat is as nothing. 400 years of history have proved, however, that when the state has the wrong victim in its sights (intentionally or otherwise) a jury is a free man's best hope. One day my dissent from the consensus that economic value grows on state trees will, I am sure, become a crime. At my trial, I would like a jury of my fellow citizens to look me in the eye before condemning me.

Never forget which political party brought you this tragic day. If the next Conservative government does not immediately restore your absolute right to jury trial, never forget that either.