CAMPAIGNS: Public Affairs - Bar Council's jury trial work targets Lords

Client: The Bar Council PR Team: Weber Shandwick Public Affairs Campaign: Defence of the right to trial by jury Timescale: June 2001 - July 2003 Budget: Between £100,000-£120,000

Efforts by successive governments to curb the historic right to trial by jury have failed. The latest attempt by Downing Street was the fourth.

Home Secretary David Blunkett attempted to push through measures contained in the Criminal Justice Bill to introduce judge-only trials for three circumstances - when the defendant requests it, in a complex or lengthy fraud case and where there is a risk of jury intimidation.

The latest attack on trial by jury was different, because the Government enjoys an overwhelming majority and has watered down original proposals for a blanket scrapping of trial by jury in a whole raft of cases, including theft.

Each attempt has been scotched by the clout of the Bar Council, which is the regulatory and representative body for barristers, and the use of strategic co-ordination and advice from Weber Shandwick Public Affairs.

The agency has run the Council's press office and its public affairs since 1998.

Objectives

To lobby Lords who might be sympathetic to the Bar Council's desire to protect trial by jury. To use key dates in the legislative timetable to alert peers to the passage of the Bill through Parliament and the second chamber. To ensure the media publicise the threat to trial by jury.

Strategy and Plan

The latest campaign to halt the Government's plans drew on research, conducted in the late 1990s, into the public's attitudes to trial by jury.

A key argument to come out of this was that people trust juries.

Regular briefings were held in line with the Bill's passage through Parliament, culminating in a rallying press release issued on 16 June on behalf of Bar Council chairman Matthias Kelly QC, calling on peers to 'speak up for justice'.

Although barristers conducted the technical core of the campaign, the agency handled media relations to guarantee the technical case was distributed to the right press at the right time.

To ensure the right peers were targeted, the agency drew up a hitlist of those from a law enforcement and legal background, who were considered more likely to speak in the debate. As the passage of the Bill through Parliament was 'more of an art than a science', Weber Shandwick Public Affairs joint MD Jon McLeod and his team had to regularly review the Bill's progress.

'We had to make sure the greatest pressure was affected at the right time,' he said.

The agency reported back to the 12-strong working party of barristers, drawn from the Bar Council and its internal group, the Criminal Bar Association.

Several parliamentary receptions, private dinners and press events were held, including a key briefing between the second stage and the committee stage, to ensure Lords were primed at the right time.

'We could not always count on the House of Lords (to speak out against this Bill),' said McLeod. 'They would resent being taken for granted. They need strong arguments presented for them to speak up.'

Two daily newspapers were the main targets: The Guardian because of its large Labour readership, and The Times for its extensive legal coverage.

Days before the agency suspected the House of Lords would defeat the bill, WS vice chairman Michael Prescott, who was formerly political editor of The Sunday Times, helped co-ordinate a bid to gain maximum publicity by priming journalists for the defeat story.

Close client working and strategic planning helped ensure peers likely to speak out against the proposals to curb trial by jury were kept fully informed. On top of this, WS manoeuvered the campaign so it peaked at the right time, with feeling running high against what was positioned as a move to attack a fundamental point of principle.

Measurement and Evaluation

In the weeks prior to the debate in the House of Lords, coverage of the bill and the Bar Council's warnings intensified.

There were items on Channel 4 News, ITV News and BBC News, in addition to regular pieces on Radio 4, including on the Today programme. Wide national press coverage included a front-page story in The Guardian, The Times carried extensive pieces in its news and legal supplement, along with stories in the Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Express.

According to press accounts, there was an 'impassioned' debate in the House of Lords. Peers were quoted in national newspaper stories stressing the 'fundamental importance of jury trial to our democracy'.

Result

Despite the proposals being positioned as a way to end jury intimidation, saving the public purse up to £100m a year, and being backed by more than 20 chief constables, peers voted 210-136 against the bill.

However, Financial Times legal correspondent Bob Sherwood suggests opposition in the house to the measures may have been high regardless of the campaign.

'I am not sure the Lib Dems and the Tories needed much persuading to vote against it,' Sherwood said. However, he added: 'The Bar Council made their feelings very plain.'

But WS's work is not over yet. Immediately after the defeat, the Home Office issued a statement that said: 'This is a bad day for jury members who would continue to be intimidated by dangerous criminals if this vote were allowed to stand. We shall reverse this defeat in the Commons.'

But McLeod expressed doubts over whether the Government will succeed, because any amendments to the Bill will need to go back to the Lords, and parliamentary time is now limited.

McLeod added: 'The Government is in a tight squeeze. It gives us the opportunity to heap more pressure on them, and we can highlight parliamentary "bully boy" tactics.'

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.