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Jury trials saved after U-turn on terror laws

By Richard Ford and Frances Gibb

THE Government has abandoned plans for non-jury trials in terrorism cases as it prepares instead for a rough ride in Parliament over its renewed proposal to introduce identity cards. Given Labour’s much reduced majority in the House of Commons, ministers have decided that sweeping changes to centuries-old legal processes are far too controversial.

The potential for dissent within Labour ranks will now focus on the Bill to set up the £3 billion-plus identity card scheme, which will be one of the first tests of party discipline in the new Parliament.

The proposed legislation will feature prominently when the Queen formally begins Labour’s third term with her set-piece speech at tomorrow’s State Opening. But yesterday one Cabinet minister conceded that Labour’s reduced majority would probably lead to concessions on contentious measures.

Peter Hain, the new Northern Ireland Secretary and former Leader of the House of Commons, predicted that the Government’s majority of 67 would lead to a dilution of ID card legislation in order to get it onto the statute book. However, he said he was still confident that the Bill would succeed and insisted that opponents were flying in the face of “overwhelming” public support.

The slashing of Labour’s majority from more than 160 to 67 also rules out far-reaching changes to courtroom procedures to make it easier to convict suspected terrorists.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton, QC, the Lord Chancellor, has rejected suggestions from Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, and David Blunkett, his predecessor, for fundamental reforms to court processes in terrorism cases.

Mr Clarke had suggested moving away from the traditional British adversarial legal procedures to deal with terror cases, while Mr Blunkett had suggested non-jury courts for such trials and a lower burden of proof to secure convictions.

Lord Falconer made clear his opposition to any such ideas when he outlined the strategy of his department for the next Parliament. “We have absolutely no such plans in relation to general court procedures and no such plans in relation to terror suspect cases,” he said.

But ministers are to press ahead with a new anti-terrorism Bill which will be one of about 40 measures in the Queen’s Speech tomorrow. It will also allow Parliament to review the operation of control orders under which foreign and domestic terror suspects who have not been charged with any offence are tagged, monitored and have their movements restricted.

Two new offences in the anti-terror legislation are intended to make it easier to convict those on the edges of terrorist activity and to meet public concern at the activities of some extremists, including outspoken radical clerics, who praise acts of terrorism.

The Government is likely to create a new offence of “acts preparatory to terrorism” with the aim of catching and convicting those helping to plan such acts. Mr Clarke is also expected to introduce a second new offence of “glorifying or condoning” acts of terrorism.

But the Home Secretary has failed to persuade the Department of Constitutional Affairs of the need for changes to the traditional justice system to deal with terrorist cases.

The breakdown of the new Parliament would make it very difficult to get such controversial proposals into law without risking defeat at the hands of backbench Labour MPs.

Mr Clarke had said that he was willing to look at other legal systems to deal with terrorism cases. He was not very keen on Britain’s traditional adversarial system in which prosecution and defence lawyers compete to persuade a jury of a person’s guilt or innocence.

Mr Blunkett had previously suggested introducing non-jury courts for handling terrorists’ cases which would be presided over by security-vetted judges.The non-jury courts — as operated in Northern Ireland during The Troubles — won the support of Lord Carlile of Berriew, QC, the Government’s anti-terrorism watchdog.

Lord Berriew said: “A three-judge court with the obligation to give full reasons for its fact-ual decisions has its attractions, and in my view could be effective for terrorism trials where the public interest requires a significant degree of secrecy affecting parts of the evidence.”

Mr Blunkett had also suggested that the burden of proof in non-jury courts could be lower than the normal “beyond reasonable doubt”. But both Lord Goldsmith, QC, the Attorney-General and Ken Macdonald, QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, are understood to have been opposed to lowering it in terrorism trials to “on the balance of probabilities”.