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Perspective: Forget cost and remember the value of a trial.

Byline: Davis Wilson

On this date in 1215, King John and various rebel barons signed a charter at Runnymede, known as Magna Carta, declaring the law in the technical language of the court as an attempt to establish peace between the crown and the barons.

Magna Carta is a code of some sixty clauses, and while as a whole it was ineffective and inadequate and has often been subject to a great deal of romantic theorizing, the basic principle of the rule of law was expressed in Chapter 39.

This states: 'No freeman shall be arrested, or kept in prison, or disseised [of his freehold], or outlawed, or banished, or in any way brought to ruin - and we will not act against him or send others against him - unless by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.'

In short, the principle of trial by jury was born. Recently however, that principle has come under a great deal of pressure, symbolized by a relatively little-known case in Newcastle 787 years later, which had nothing to do with warring barons and the king, but rather a disputed can of spaghetti - worth 92 pence and shoplifted from South Shields Co-Op by Stephen Phillips.

Phillips, a 23-year-old man, with a 'transient' lifestyle had some 30 other similar convictions, but nonetheless opted for a trial by 12 of his peers in the case of the stolen spaghetti, as opposed to allowing the magistrates to decide his fate.

Unfortunately for him, his peers took only 32 minutes to convict him of theft.

But his case has been jumped upon by various legal and other worthies as a ludicrous and costly example of how the concept of trial by jury for 'petty' or 'minor' crime wastes money, takes time, and does little to serve the cause of justice.

After all, in the case that I've just described, the bill the taxpayer has had to foot comes to almost pounds 10,000. Is that justice?

The short answer to that question is, for me, yes.

But that will do little to satisfy the various individuals and groups - including Lord Bingham, the senior Law Lord, Lord Falconer, the new Minister for Criminal Justice and Lord Justice Auld - all of whom would seem keen to remove trial by jury for minor or petty offences.

But what is minor and petty? Various cost limits have been suggested, from pounds 20 to pounds 200. But does defining the amount which is alleged to have been stolen really tackle the damage that might be done to your reputation if you were convicted of theft?

Does it really matter if it is a 92 pence tin of spaghetti that got nicked, as opposed to a pounds 192 jacket? For what people, especially potential employers, will see and remember is you were convicted of theft, which many will see as a particularly damaging character flaw.

I doubt if this issue is going to disappear, common sense suggests the Government is not going to see 92 pence as being 'worth' pounds 10,000, but let's not imagine that cost is the only factor at stake here.

Rather we should see trial by jury as part and parcel of the form of criminal justice that has characterized our legal culture and practice and which is steadily being undermined. For it is not just trial by jury that is under threat, but also the right to silence, being represented by a competent solicitor and the concept of being innocent until proven guilty.

On this anniversary of Magna Carta, perhaps what we need are a few more warring barons.

Professor David Wilson is director of the Criminal Justice, Policy and Practice Department at the University of Central England.
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jun 15, 2002
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