Judge-only trials urged amid ‘unique risk of jury tampering’

Barristers urged ministers to move towards the system in England and Wales where a judge decides whether to grant a trial without jurors
Barristers urged ministers to move towards the system in England and Wales where a judge decides whether to grant a trial without jurors

Nearly 200 offences of intimidating jurors or witnesses were recorded in Northern Ireland last year.

A “low but consistent” number of cases meet the threshold for a judge-only trial to prevent such threats, the Government said.

Barristers urged ministers to move towards the system in England and Wales where a judge decides whether to grant a trial without jurors.

A Northern Ireland Office (NIO) document said: “The NIO’s assessment that there is a unique risk of jury tampering in Northern Ireland, particularly in cases involving members of proscribed organisations, is based on expert advice gathered from a range of criminal justice practitioners in this and previous consultations on the matter, as well as other relevant briefings.”

Use of a Diplock court in Northern Ireland where a judge hears cases without a jury is normally reserved for terrorism matters where jurors could be intimidated.

The Government disclosed details of its exchanges with members of the criminal justice system as it considered extending the practice for another two years.

Dissident republicans pose a severe threat in Northern Ireland and the security forces are on high alert for more attacks.

The Bar of Northern Ireland said allowing the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to make a “subjective” decision on whether to hold a non-jury trial without giving reasons was “problematic”.

Its submission to the Government said the system should be brought into line with England and Wales where a judge makes the decision.

“Under this legislation the judge must be satisfied that there is ‘evidence’ of a real and present danger that jury tampering will occur and that, despite precautionary steps such as police protection, there remains a ‘substantial’ likelihood of jury tampering making it necessary in the interest of justice for the trial to be conducted without a jury.

“This includes the safeguards of judicial oversight, high objective thresholds and consideration of alternative precautionary steps which are all built into the legislation.

“We believe that in the longer term Northern Ireland should seek to move towards this regime as soon as it is considered practically possible.”

A Government response said recent figures from 2016/2017 show 197 offences of intimidation/threat to harm witnesses/ jurors were recorded and 56 offences were detected by police.

The NIO said the current law in Northern Ireland allowed account to be taken of “community pressures” on jurors.

It expressed concern that reliance on a law like that used in England and Wales alone would prove inadequate for the unique situation in Northern Ireland.