ONE of the region’s most senior barristers has spoken out after the Justice Secretary raised the prospect of court cases being decided by a judge and two magistrates – and not a jury.

MP Robert Buckland told MPs on the House of Commons’ justice select committee that the government was in serious discussions over axing jury trials in either-way cases, such as theft or GBH.

Judge-led trials would be a “last resort”, he said, in order to shift the backlog of cases before the crown courts. “If it is done it would be temporary and not be the basis for a permanent change.”

The lockdown has exacerbated the problem, with jury trials temporarily halted as many courts lack the space to accommodate 12 jurors and comply with social distancing rules.

And although Winchester Crown Court has begun hearing jury trials it is at a hugely reduced capacity, with only one trial court rather than five or six, and there is no capacity yet for trials involving more than one defendant.

Mr Buckland’s comments have drawn criticism from Kate Brunner QC, leader of the Western Circuit, which represents barristers in the region, who said: “The suggestion by the government that we need to get rid of juries for some cases because there’s a huge backlog of trials is alarming.

“The public have a right to choose jury trials in many cases and often do so because it’s seen as fairer to be tried by other members of the public. What’s being suggested now is removing that right and instead being tried by a judge with 2 magistrates.

“Governments have been trying to limit the right to trial for decades because it’s an expensive process: although we don’t pay juries the trials take longer and cost more.”

She claimed: “This government is trying to use Covid-19 as an excuse to get rid of the right to a jury.”

Ms Brunner called on the government to set up a network of temporary courts, similar to the Nightingale hospitals, to host jury trials.

A new report has warned that the backlog of court cases could take up to 10 years to clear.

Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSI) carried out an inspection to look at the Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) handling of the pandemic after lockdown measures were imposed in March.

In a report published on Tuesday, it warned there were challenges to come with the backlog of cases which are increasing daily, with some estimates indicating that it could take up to a decade to clear.

By the end of May, the increase in backlogs was 41 per cent in the magistrates’ courts and 53 per cent in the crown court.