Varying fines for offences 'unfair': Adam Sage spent a day in a Leeds court with magistrates operating the unit fines system Offenders must not be sentenced for their past history

IT WAS early afternoon when Peter stepped wearily into Leeds magistrates' court to face a drink-driving charge.

Yes, he admitted that he had been over the limit by nine milligrams and yes, he realised that he would lose his licence. But he had been depressed because he was splitting up with his wife and, anyway, had only drunk four shandies. The stipendiary explained that she had no choice but to ban him for 12 months.

Neither did she have any discretion over the fine. The offence was worth 15 units on the scale of seriousness and Peter, a council officer, had a disposable weekly income of pounds 15. The two figures were multiplied to give a penalty of pounds 235.

Peter had not been in court for the previous case, but it would have have interested him. Paul, a part-time DJ, had been caught seven milligrammes over the limit after drinking, he said, two shandies and a pint of bitter at a nightclub. Again, it was a 15-unit offence but Paul earned only about pounds 40 a week, giving him a disposable income of pounds 4. His penalty was a year's ban and a pounds 60 fine.

Two almost identical offences, and two vastly different fines, which, say critics of the Criminal Justice Act, is manifestly unfair. Supporters say that as the first defendant had a stable job and the second did not, the impact of the fines will be the same on both men. This, they say, is justice.

Earlier in the day, three brothers and a friend had appeared in court charged with buying 24 cans of lager knowing it had been stolen from their local off-licence on the outskirts of Leeds. After they had all pleaded guilty, the prosecutor said they had previous convictions for other petty offences. But the stipendiary disregarded this information, as she is obliged to do under the new Act.

None of the four defendants had a job, giving all of them the miniumum disposable income of pounds 4 a week. The offence was worth 10 units, meaning a penalty of pounds 40 for each of them.

Next was a driver in his 20s from Harrogate. He had been stopped by police and asked to produce an MoT. Not having one, he paid a friend pounds 25 for a forgery, which he knew to be stolen. An engineer with a disposable income of pounds 18, he was fined 15 units for receiving stolen goods and 15 for driving without insurance, leaving a penalty of pounds 540.