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The course of justice can't be judged on its cost alone

A letter published recently in the Belfast Telegraph from Mike Ritchie, chair of the Committee on the Administration of Justice, in relation to the conviction of a person for the theft of a pair of jeans, raises important issues which merit further consideration.

Mr Ritchie argues that this individual should not have been prosecuted because the jeans were only worth £10. In explaining his view, it would appear that Mr Ritchie misunderstands how the Public Prosecution Service's Code for Prosecutors, to which he refers, is applied. The position is that prosecutors apply a broad presumption that the public interest requires prosecution where there has been a contravention of the criminal law.

The facts and circumstances of each case must be considered on their own merits, always remembering that shoplifting is theft and that theft is a serious offence - not just for the individual against whom dishonesty is alleged, but also for those who are victims of theft. Indeed Mr Ritchie acknowledges that theft is a crime and is wrong.

On the other hand, there may be circumstances in which, although there is evidence sufficient to provide a reasonable prospect of conviction, prosecution is not required in the public interest. Where, for example, the offender is remorseful and the value of the goods is small, there may be scope to proceed by way of a caution, or an informed warning, or indeed not to prosecute in the public interest. However, this was not the position in the case referred to by Mr Ritchie. The prosecution was brought on the basis that the evidence supported the view that the individual had acted dishonestly and not through an error of judgment, or a mistake, as suggested by Mr Ritchie.

While Mr Ritchie's letter is misconceived in relation to the public interest, it does however raise a broader issue of public importance with regard to costs. A certain level of costs is an inevitable consequence of the decision to bring criminal proceedings. The PPS considers that proceedings in the Magistrates Court, rather than the Crown Court, is a proportionate response to an offence of theft where the value of the goods is low. Costs would be avoided if one accepted Mr Ritchie's view that individuals accused of what he terms 'petty' theft should not be prosecuted - particularly in circumstances where there is a possibility that the accused will elect for jury trial, which is more expensive.

Is that, however, what society wants? Not prosecuting solely on account of the value of the goods risks creating a license to steal and is a concept which is unlikely to inspire confidence in the criminal justice system among shopkeepers and householders across Northern Ireland. Furthermore, consideration may be required in relation to the right to elect for trial in the Crown Court for theft. While no-one would criticise a defendant for exercising a right to elect for trial given by legislation, the fact remains that this significantly increases costs.

Mr Ritchie states that anyone has the right to trial by jury 'where it is available'. That observation begs the question as to whether such a right should be available to someone being tried for the theft of an item worth £10, or whether trial by an experienced judge in the Magistrates Court would be sufficient to protect the rights of accused to a fair trial.

Not all offences bring with it the right to elect. Prosecution for forgery, an offence akin to theft in that it involves dishonesty, does not bring with it the right to elect. Nor does the offence of criminal damage, which attracts a penalty of up to two years' imprisonment at the Magistrates Court. These are important matters which would benefit from wider debate.