Thousands of petty criminals imprisoned 'unlawfully'

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THE latest in a string of cases which are embarrassing the country's magistrates and forcing the Government to change its law and order policy found its way to the High Court in London last week.

Margaret Roberts, from Knowsley, Merseyside, had joined the tens of thousands of others sent to the underfunded and overcrowded prison system for the most petty of offences - stealing nappies for her children. Instead of serving her 14 days quietly, she added to the mounting atmosphere of chaos and gridlock by compelling the magistrates to explain themselves to sceptical judges.

Ms Roberts had been found guilty of stealing a packet of nappies from a local supermarket. She has cervical cancer, looks after a sick mother and is a single parent with two children.

Liverpool magistrates ordered in her absence that she should be jailed for failing to pay a pounds 90 fine. She claims she had no idea the case was going ahead, let alone that she had received a prison sentence. Earlier this month two policemen arrested her in front of the children and took her to Risley jail in Cheshire for failing to pay the fine.

Her lawyers got her out on bail. In fact, the handful of solicitors and barristers who specialise in the unglamorous and unprofitable business of legal aid work for fine defaulters nearly almost always win their High Court challenges against magistrates' sentences.

"I've fought over 100 cases for fine defaulters in prison," said Ian Wise, Ms Robert's barrister, "and haven't lost one. I'm rapidly coming to the conclusion that all the 22,000 people we jail each year for not paying their television licence or poll tax debts or for other minor crimes are the victims of unlawful imprisonment. The magistrates never seem to look at alternatives."

Mr Wise's brother Richard is a Staffordshire solicitor and the country's leading expert on freeing fine defaulters. When asked about the worst case he has dealt with, he singles out Lisa Roberts, also from Liverpool - but no relation to her namesake Margaret.

Lisa, 23, was caught riding on a train without the pounds 1.90 she needed for an excess fare payment the ticket collector demanded. She was fined pounds 400 by Liverpool magistrates, who have the most draconian record of any bench in the country.

"There was absolutely no chance of a woman on income support coming up with the money," he said, "so she ended up in jail. A pounds 400 fine and then a prison sentence for being unable to pay pounds 1.90. That just about sums up the mess the magistrates courts are making."

The mass jailing of fine defaulters is finally entering the popular consciousness. Even Coronation Street has had Tricia Armstrong, a single mother, sent to prison for failing to pay a fine for not having a TV licence.

Michael Howard's hardline "prison works" policy has sent the numbers in jail rocketing by 25 per cent in three years. By Easter, 54,000 are expected to be behind bars. By 1997, Britain is predicted to have 70,000 in jail.

The Treasury is cutting prison budgets and planning to make 3,000 prison officers redundant. Prison reformers say that the men and disproportionately large numbers of women fined for minor offences then jailed when they cannot pay should be the first to be let out of prison.

Conservative estimates put the cost of incarcerating 22,000 fine defaulters a year at pounds 31.5m. The courts are supposed to look at alternatives before locking them up. But research released last week by the probation workers' union, Napo, backedlawyers' claims that defendants were being unlawfully jailed.

Harry Fletcher, the union's assistant general secretary, said the work showed that in 1990, magistrates ordered 6,400 defendants to take money advice from the probation service instead of going to prison. The orders not only helped poor defendants pay their fines but gave them training in managing what little money they had. Last year, just 3,060 money advice orders were made.

Magistrates' leaders deny the charge that they are resorting to jail without thinking about the consequences. They respond by quoting an unpublished Home Office report described by senior legal figures as "terrifying".

On 31 March last year civil servants looked at everyone who was in jail for failing to pay court fines. On average, each prisoner had failed to pay three fines for petty offences before they were locked up. Eighteen per cent of the inmates had six unpaid fines outstanding. Employed prisoners owed an average of pounds 1,500 and unemployed inmates owed pounds 1,000.

Rosemary Thomson, chairwoman of the Magistrates Association, said the Home Office work showed that many fine defaulters were not petty criminals magistrates could ignore. They could not let habitual offenders get away with the idea that if they failed to pay fines for driving without insurance or shoplifting they could carry on breaking the law with impunity.

Yet Mrs Thomson has joined a working party involving Home Office and Lord Chancellor's department officials which will recommend that defaulters should be sent on community service or electronically tagged.

The signs are that Mr Howard agrees with the officials and that nappy stealers and TV licence dodgers will force the Home Secretary to admit for the first time that his prison works policy does not work.