Impressed with speedy post-riots justice, ministers consider cash-saving measure, according to Magistrates' Association
Ministers are considering restricting defendants' ability to choose jury trial in less serious offences, according to the Magistrates' Association.
The proposal, supported by magistrates, is being advocated as one element in the Ministry of Justice's cash-saving drive, building on lessons learned from processing offenders following last summer's riots.
Cases known as "either way offences", where the accused can opt for trial in a magistrates court or in front of a jury at crown court, are most likely to be affected.
Such cases usually involve relatively low-value thefts, such as shoplifting, or minor cases of criminal damage.
Ministers have been impressed with the speed with which justice was dispensed after August's riots. A white paper on developments to be adopted following the riots is being drawn up by the Ministry of Justice; its contents have not yet been finalised.
The attorney general, Dominic Grieve, has suggested that magistrates might be given greater sentencing powers, increasing the maximum term they might be able to impose from six to 12 months for a single offence.
But the Ministry of Justice played down reports of a review of trial procedures, saying: "There are no plans to remove trial by jury. We are looking at ways of improving how courts respond quickly and efficiently to crime and disorder. No ministerial decisions have been made. However we are clear that trial by jury will stay."
Trials at crown court cost more than three times as much as in the lower courts.
Criminal barristers and human rights groups are likely to be worried by an erosion of what is seen as a fundamental liberty.
John Fassenfelt JP, chairman of the Magistrates Association, said that he believes ministers are actively considering how to reduce the number of "either way offences". He said: "It's one we have suggested they could save an awful lot of money on."
The Magistrates' Association added: "It's being considered in the light of the riots. It's something we have been concerned about for a while. Particularly for theft where someone might nick a bottle of wine and then elect to go for crown court trial. That costs a lot of money."
David Cameron has been an enthusiastic supporter of the right to trial by jury. In 2007, he even suggested that it might formally be incorporated into legislation. "Things like the right to trial by jury, that's not actually in the European Convention, but maybe that's something we should have in a British Bill of Rights," he said in a radio interview.