Limit jury trials says victims' champion

LONDON (Reuters) - The right to trial by jury in many cases involving lesser offences should be stopped in England and Wales as it is slowing down the prosecution of more serious crimes, the Victims’ Commissioner said on Wednesday.

Louise Casey told the BBC that 50,000 minor offence cases sent to Crown Court for trial with a judge and jury rather than heard in a magistrates’ court had cost the Crown Prosecutor’s office 15 million pounds a year.

When a person has been charged with an “either-way” offence, such as theft, which means the case can be heard in either type of court, magistrates first decide whether the case is suitable to be heard by them. If it is, the defendant can either consent or opt for a trial at Crown Court.

Casey said victims of more serious crimes were suffering due to long delays at the Crown Court because the process was being slowed down by cases involving either-way offences.

“We should not view the right to a jury trial as being so sacrosanct that its exercise should be at the cost of victims of serious crimes,” she said.

“Defendants should not have the right to choose to be tried by a jury over something such as the theft of a bicycle or stealing from a parking metre.”

The Justice Ministry is being forced to tighten its belt under the government’s spending cuts programme. The ministry will have its annual budget cut to 7.3 billion pounds by 2014/15 from 8.9 billion this year.

Casey was appointed the first independent Victim’s Commissioner in March, following on the work by Sara Payne, the mother of murdered schoolgirl Sarah Payne, who was the government’s Victim’s Champion.

Her job includes to improve victim and witness support.

Reporting by Karen Foster; Editing by Steve Addison