Charity slams homeless man’s £150 court charge for stealing 99p drink

South Tyneside Magistrates' Court.
South Tyneside Magistrates' Court.

A charity has hit out at new court rules which they say penalise the poor - after a homeless man was ordered to pay £150 for stealing a 99p drink.

The case of the 26-year-old, who was given a conditional discharge and ordered to pay a £150 criminal courts charge and a £15 victim surcharge after he stole a can of Red Bull worth 99p from a supermarket was one of 30 highlighted by the Howard League for Penal Reform.

Since April, magistrates and judges have been told that they must impose a mandatory Criminal Courts Charge of up to £1,200 on anyone convicted of an offence – whatever the defendant’s circumstances might be – on top of other levies such as fines, compensation orders, victim surcharges and costs.

Defendants who fail to find the money risk being sent to prison.

The government has said it will review the charge after three years, but the Howard League has launched a campaign calling for the review to be brought forward to this autumn.

The charity says the charge puts pressure on people to plead guilty, as it rises from £150 for a guilty plea for a summary offence in a magistrates’ court to £520 for a conviction after a not guilty plea. The charge at crown court is £900 for a guilty plea and £1,200 for a conviction after a not guilty plea.

The Howard League argues that the charge removes discretion from magistrates and that, in some cases, money will be wasted on pursuing debts that people cannot pay.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “These cases are a snapshot of a failing criminal justice system. Up and down the country, people are being brought to court for minor misdemeanours and being ordered to pay a mandatory charge regardless of their circumstances.

“Some are homeless. Some have addictions. Many will be unable to pay. But the Ministry of Justice is poised to waste money it does not have on pursuing the debts. With more budget cuts on the way, ministers should be looking to shrink the system, not trapping more people in it for absurd offences.

“We do not want to see the return of debtors’ prisons. It is time for an urgent review of this unfair and unrealistic sanction, which is doing nothing to tackle crime and, in all likelihood, is making matters worse.”