Working group to consider how to reduce number of non-jury trials
A working group including lawyers, prosecutors and police is set to be established to identify practical measures to reduce the number of non-jury trials taking place in Northern Ireland.
Under the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007, the Director of Public Prosecutions can direct that a specific Crown Court trial be conducted without a jury in certain circumstances.
The trial must have a paramilitary connection or a political or sectarian motivation and the DPP must be “satisfied that there is a risk that the administration of justice might be impaired” if a jury trial were to be held.
The provisions in the 2007 Act must be renewed by Westminster every two years and Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has, following a consultation, laid an Order before Parliament to extend them until the end of July 2023.
However, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) has come under increasing pressure in recent years to justify the continued use of non-jury trials (NJTs), which were always intended as a temporary measure.
In his 13th annual report, published last month, David Seymour, the independent reviewer under the 2007 Act, described the non-jury trial provisions as “remnants of the emergency powers which were introduced during the Troubles”.
He said the “time has now come for a serious assessment of whether NJTs remain necessary” and suggested that the jury tampering provisions in the UK-wide Criminal Justice Act 2003 would provide sufficient protections for the administration of justice in Northern Ireland.
Mr Seymour’s previous report, published in April 2020, recommended the establishment of “a working party to look at the feasibility of using existing juror protection measures to reduce still further the number of NJTs” which he said could include “representatives from the PPS, PSNI, the Court Service, the Bar, the Law Society and independent organisations with an interest in these matters”.
He suggested this could look at measures short of non-jury trials, including having jurors from outside the district where the case is to be heard, screening jurors, and relocating trials to another location within Northern Ireland.
Following a consultation, the NIO said there is a “broad consensus” in favour of Mr Seymour’s recommendation and that it will now proceed with convening a working group to explore these measures.
The working group will also be asked to “examine what indicators would assist in determining when it would be safe and compatible with the interests of justice to allow the provisions to expire”.
Around one per cent of Crown Court trials in Northern Ireland are conducted without a jury. Between 1 August 2019 and 31 July 2020, the DPP issued nine certificates allowing non-jury trials to take place.