Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland has dropped a widely criticised plan to replace juries in some criminal trials with a judge and two magistrates.
Meanwhile, the head of the courts service said the pandemic has “proved the case” for court reform.
Mr Buckland told peers on the House of Lords constitution committee yesterday: “I think the concept of a judge and two magistrates needed to be discussed and aired. I think frankly it is not an option I would seek to pursue.”
He went on: “There are other complications and ramifications from it we would all need to consider carefully, and if we are to move swiftly to deal with the pandemic and its consequences, legislation would have to move at a somewhat more rapid pace than mature reflection would allow.
“I am very instinctively cautious about all this, and I wouldn’t embark on any legislative change unless I was convinced that there was an operational case.
“So as things stand, we are going to pursue non-legislative options…It’s all about the practical operation now, rather than focussing on legislative change.”
Mr Buckland said the pandemic was “of uncertain duration”, and the danger of “further rises in contagion”, meant it would be “wrong of me sitting here in July to wholly rule out legislative options”.
He went on: “Having said that, from the outset I had always aired the possibility of what I called wartime juries – reduced numbers of jurors rather than a departure from the principle, such as a judge and two magistrates.
“The retention of the principle is to me more important than anything else. I am prepared to look at a jury size of nine, with a minimum of seven, replicating the rules on majority verdicts that apply to juries of 12.”
Mr Buckland ruled out a further option from former justice minister Lord Faulks that defendants, so long as they were properly advised, should be able to opt for a trial by a judge and magistrates or by a judge alone.
He said the since most defendants preferred trial by jury, he did not think the plan would make “any real difference” to the number of jury trials.
Reducing the role of trial by jury was condemned in the strongest terms by Law Society president Simon Davis and chair of the Bar Council Amanda Pinto QC earlier this week, with Ms Pinto saying the Bar was “vociferously against” tampering with the right to trial by jury.
Susan Acland-Hood, chief executive of HM Courts & Tribunals Service, told peers that the pandemic had “proved the case” for court reform, with the parts of the justice system operating digitally showing themselves to be “much more pandemic-proof”.
Ms Acland said HMCTS had learnt some things from the pandemic that contradicted widely held assumptions, such as that if somebody “had any sort of vulnerability”, a video-based hearing would be worse for them.
“It depends on what the vulnerability is. For some people with autistic spectrum disorder, it can be less threatening and difficult to give evidence by video than to be physically present.”
She said the whole of the Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) Tribunal transferred to remote working very quickly after the lockdown because the technology was in place.
“This is not a place I would have necessarily taken video before the pandemic.”
She said the parents of children with SEN needs and disabilities had started lobbying the tribunal to retain remote hearings, saying “it ought to be a remote default tribunal because it works better for them as the parents of disabled children”.
Ms Acland-Hood said they found it “easier, less threatening, more convenient and more manageable”.
Mr Buckland said the government would be providing “further targeted support” for legal aid solicitors and barristers in the pandemic, particularly those new to the profession and returning to it.
He added that he was working “daily” on the issue and he hoped to be making an announcement “as soon as possible”.