Never mind a week being a long time in politics, a day seems long enough. We started by mourning the one hundred thousand Covid related deaths (yes, Dan Hannan it really does kill you), saw the loonies howling at the full moon over deep state conspiracy theories, looked on in slow motion horror at Keir Starmer’s cunning plan to dismantle juries and finally despaired at the European Commission’s tin eared, flat footed attempt to flex muscles they eventually realised they didn’t have.
Let’s start with the lunardicks. You really don’t get much more floridly Psychotic than dear old Desi Swayne, who makes Jacob Rees Mogg seem a model of compassion and common sense. I am sure Moggy’s certificate of sanity proudly hangs on his office wall.
Desi doesn’t have a short fuse, he doesn’t have a fuse at all; he is a miracle of self combustion. One day on the floor of the Commons in mid rant, accusing the PM of allowing the Chinese to control our thoughts through a conspiracy of fiendish takeaways and 5G there will be a bright blue flame, a puff of acrid smoke and all that would be left of him would be a pair of smouldering Church’s brogues and and the embers of a white stiff collar. But we need people like Desi. Who else would talk to Julia Hartley Brewer at breakfast time, apart from James Delingpole, Nigel Farage and various inmates of the Rampton wing of the Conservative party. But I am being a little unkind to Julia who is an old friend. She is a bit like a Wagner opera; not as bad as she sounds. Thank heavens then for the straight talking, no nonsense, housewives choice, Johnathan Van Tam on the podium. A Pearl amongst the Swayne.
I used to have constituents visit me who seemed perfectly normal until they revealed that Margaret Thatcher was controlling their thoughts via radio beams. I had a very effective way of dealing with them. I agreed. That it was a monstrous intrusion. That she had to be stopped. Then I would write them a note. ‘ Margaret Thatcher is hereby forbidden to interfere with the thoughts of ....’ I would then tell them to place this on their mantelpiece. It never failed. Perhaps I should drop Desi a note.....
What really turned my stomach was Keir Starmer suggesting that the backlog of Crown Court cases, now over fifty thousand, could be ameliorated by cutting juries to seven. Not Sir Keir Starmer QC, the former human rights lawyer and DPP? Starmer isn’t ‘captain hindsight’, he’s captain ‘how can I be more Boris than Boris’. That’s not leadership. It’s second guessing whatever the PM will probably have to do and get there first. That may have been a successful ploy with some of the gross mismanagement and mixed messaging during the pandemic. But playing politics with the cornerstone of our freedoms? It is a betrayal of everything he believes in. All politicians have to compromise from time to time. And sometimes they have to make tough, painful but necessary decisions. Interference with the jury system is not one of those. It is a litmus test for whether you want to have the public to have confidence in our system of justice or you don’t. What Starmer should be saying is that governments have been underinvesting in our criminal justice system for years and now it is no longer fit for purpose. The answer to the crisis is not cutting jurors it’s reinvesting in the courts and allowing judges to judge.
This crisis is not caused by the pandemic, it simply makes the horror of it all more visible. In 2020 the backlog in the Crown Court was about 37,000 and in the magistrates court about 200,000. The backlog in the magistrates court is now over 400,000. In the Crown Court the backlog is an eye watering 50,000 and rising. Some of us have been banging on about this for years.
Over the past few months a number of kites have been flown by the MOJ. Temporarily suspend jury trials and have judges sitting alone or with two magistrates. For obvious reasons this went down very badly indeed. Then the next toe in the water was ‘let’s reduce jury numbers to seven. After all it was done in the war’. The first question is ‘how on earth is reducing the number jurors to seven is going to clear the backlog?’. The answer is that it won’t. All court centres now have Covid protected jury boxes and retiring rooms. But on average because of the lack of ventilated space they can only do a couple of trials. So the answer is more ventilated space. More Nightingale Courts and more recorders sitting as judges. To be fair Robert Buckland is doing his best. But we still have a very long way to go. For serious, really serious cases where bail has to be refused people are waiting for up to a year for their trials. Sometimes longer. And what about the accusers, the complainants? It really tough for them too.
The reason the jury system is so precious is because most people have confidence in it particularly the BAME communities. Many don’t feel they get justice from the magistrates courts as most JPs tend to be white and over fifty. But people trust juries because they are not weighted. They are chosen entirely at random. And remember people have chosen (unless it is a serious offence where there is no choice but to send it to the Crown Court) trial by jury. To deny them that is a terrible breach of trust.
I can hear some of you saying, ‘well, as most of them are guilty why waste time and money on them. As soon as they see a tough judge they’ll soon plead guilty’. The answer is because even the most wicked, the most guilty and those who deserve to languish in the flames of hell for eternity are entitled to due process and a fair trial. And that is not at the mercy of a case hardened judge who just wants ‘to get on with it’.
Supporting any change to our jury system will be ratcheting it to its eventual abolition. Come on Keir it’s time for you to make a U turn now.