A failed court case against a man who forgot to pay for a handful of groceries has left the taxpayer with a bill of more than £20,000, it has been revealed.
Alastair Hetherington was dragged through the courts and put on trial for shoplifting over the unpaid items, which included two sausage rolls and milk.
Now it has emerged that the decision to prosecute the 57-year-old – who was unanimously acquitted of shoplifting – cost an astonishing £21,155.
That is 368 times the cost of the £57.55 bill which Mr Hetherington forgot to pay.
DUP Peer Lord Morrow said the case was a shocking waste of money and should never have got to court in the first place.
It took the jury 60 minutes to acquit Mr Hetherington, from Lisolvan Terrace in Brookeborough, of shoplifting from a Marks & Spencer store in Belfast. He claimed he stepped outside the store momentarily to get a signal on his mobile phone. He told the court that what had happened was a "genuine mistake through stupidity and tiredness" while he attempted to text a friend.
Mr Hetherington said the whole experience had left him "totally embarrassed and devastated".
The cost of taking him to court was obtained in an Assembly question from Lord Morrow.
In a separate question, Lord Morrow discovered that a further £23,105 was spent on a second case which collapsed. A 75-year-old man was acquitted of sex abuse charges dating back almost 50 years when the Public Prosecution Service offered no evidence, and the judge directed the jury to return a not guilty verdict.
Lord Morrow said neither case should have gone to court.
"The first case (against Mr Hetherington) has cost the taxpayer £21,155," he said. "In a case which was clearly an issue of human error, the PPS should have reviewed this matter thoroughly to decide if there was a possibility of a conviction.
"Collectively these cases totalled £44,260," he added. "No one is questioning where it is suspected a crime has been committed then justice must take its course.
"However, that must be tempered with the availability and credibility of evidence which can stand up in court, and when that is in doubt then cases should not proceed. It is an egregious waste of public money."
Other high costing cases:
- November 2010: £14,960 spent on case against woman cleared of stealing a £1.79 child's dummy from Tesco.
- March 2011: £13,061 spent on case of woman aquitted of stealing a packet of £5.25 school shirts from Tesco.
- April 2011: £17,453 spent on prosecuting a man accused of stealing a packet of prawns worth £6.99 from Sainsbury's. The judge threw the case out.
- October 2011: £10,146 spent after a woman cleared of stealing flowers and four Christmas decorations totalling just £13.50 from Marks & Spencer was taken to court.