Belfast Telegraph

Monday 14 July 2014

£13,000 bill for failed £5 school shirt theft charge

Demands for legal reform

Eileen Millar leaves Belfast Crown Court with her husband

More than £13,000 of taxpayers’ money was spent prosecuting a woman acquitted of stealing a packet of school shirts worth just £5.

Eileen Millar picked up the shirts while shopping at Tesco, but found herself in front of a jury accused of theft after forgetting to pay.

Now it has emerged that the cost of taking Mrs Millar to court came to a staggering £13,061, after the mother-of-two from north Belfast opted to have a trial in the Crown Court.

Last night there were demands for an urgent review of the trials procedure amid claims that the taxpayer is becoming a “cash cow” for Northern Ireland’s prosecution system.

Details of the case costs were obtained by Fermanagh/South Tyrone MLA Lord Morrow, who chairs the Stormont justice |committee.

Bringing the prosecution against Mrs Millar — who was cleared of theft last month — cost the PPS £1,500 and the PSNI £740 in fees.

Court costs totalled £2,540 while jury expenses came to £332.

A further £7,389 was paid out in legal aid to cover Mrs Millar’s defence costs.

It comes just weeks after the Belfast Telegraph revealed how £15,000 was spent prosecuting a young mother accused of stealing a child’s dummy in Co Tyrone.

Lord Morrow said an urgent review of the system was needed.

“There is no way that this expense can be justified,” he said.

“The taxpayer is becoming a cash cow for the PPS to draw on. This cannot go on.”

The DUP peer said a fixed penalty system for dealing with minor offences would avoid similar costly cases in the future.

Fixed penalties are among the measures included in the current Justice Bill, which is looking at alternatives to prosecution for low-level crimes.

SDLP MLA Conall McDevitt, a member of the justice committee, said penalties would be a more efficient alternative for minor cases.

He added: “It means a lot of people could pay the fine and be done with it.

“This would be without £13,000 of public money being spent on a case which could quite easily have been disposed of a lot more efficiently.”

Mr McDevitt said Mrs Millar’s case highlighted the need to review Northern Ireland’s |

prosecution policy. Mrs Millar, from Lyndhurst View Close in Belfast, was arrested at Tesco's Ballygomartin store in August 2009, moments after putting spare change in a charity box and after paying for a trolley full of groceries.

The 40-year-old claimed she “completely forgot” about the pack of three boys' short-sleeved shirts, and had been distracted by her 13-year-old son at the time.

The jury agreed and last month unanimously cleared her of theft, accepting her claims it was “a genuine mistake”.

Afterwards, Mrs Millar and her husband Mark said they had |endured “18 months of hell” over the case.

Defending their decision to prosecute, a spokesperson for the PPS said theft was a serious offence — regardless of the value of the goods or the cost involved.

Factfile

  • PSNI prosecution fees: £740
  • PPS prosecution fees: £1,500
  • Legal aid costs: £7,389
  • Court costs: £2,540
  • Jury expenses: £332
  • Facilities: £560
  • Total cost: £13,061


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