LONDON // Approval has been given for the first serious criminal trial to be heard in England without a jury in almost 400 years. The Court of Appeal made legal history by ruling that the trial of four men, accused of an armed robbery that netted £1.75 million (Dh10.6m) at Heathrow Airport, can start to be heard next month by a judge alone.
Jury trials were introduced as a feature in English law in the Magna Carta in 1215 and permanently enshrined as every person's right in 1641. However, in recent times, fears over jury tampering led, first, to majority verdicts in jury trials being introduced and, in 2007, the enactment of a law enabling serious charges to be heard by a judge only when there was evidence that jurors were being intimidated.
Until now, opposition from civil liberties groups and fears among many lawyers that the principle was being undermined of every individual's right to a trial by a jury of his or her peers, had steered the judiciary away from mounting judge-only trials. Friday's ruling by the Court of Appeal, however, followed the production of secret evidence that three previous trials - staged at a cost of more than £20m - had involved elements of jury "nobbling".
In its judgment, the Court of Appeal accepted that trial by jury was a "hallowed principle" of British justice, but said "the danger of jury tampering and the subversion of the process of trial by jury is very significant" in the Heathrow case. "Where it arises, the judge assimilates all the functions of the jury with his own, unchanged judicial responsibilities," the ruling added. "This function, although new in the context of trial on indictment, is well known in the ordinary operation of the criminal justice system and is exercised for example by district judges [in magistrates' courts] in less serious, summary cases."
However, Isabella Sankey, the director of policy at the civil rights group Liberty, described the no-jury trial as a dangerous potential precedent. "The right to jury trial isn't just a hallowed principle but a practice that ensures that one class of people doesn't sit in judgment over another and that the public have confidence in an open and representative justice system. "What signal do we send to witnesses if the police can't even protect juries?"
During the 2004 robbery, six masked men rounded up members of staff at gunpoint at a depot handling currency shipments at Heathrow and shots were fired at a supervisor. Although a sizeable amount of cash was taken (and most never recovered), the robbers apparently believed that there was 10 times that amount in the shipment but had misread the manifest. One of the men to face trial is John Twomey, 61, who gave evidence against the police in a notorious corruption inquiry in the 1980s that led to more than 400 London policemen losing their jobs.
He has already faced three trials over the Heathrow raid. In one, in which six other co-defendants were acquitted, he collapsed from a minor heart attack and was removed from the indictment. A second trial resulted in a hung jury while the third was called off by a judge who said that there were real fears that members of the jury had been subject to intimidation. No evidence of jury tampering has been presented in open court, however.
James Saunders, Mr Twomey's lawyer, said yesterday: "He feels that some police officers have borne a grudge against him for many years and that it is no coincidence that he is now the first defendant to face trial by judge alone, based on undisclosed evidence presented by the Metropolitan police to judges behind closed doors." The trial will get under way with a preliminary hearing at the Old Bailey in July. Although unprecedented in the judicial system in England and Wales, serious cases have been heard by judge-only "Diplock Courts" in Northern Ireland for more than 30 years because of frequent intimidation of juries by paramilitary groups on both sides of the sectarian divide.