Northern Ireland

£5 shirts case prompts trial by jury debate

NI's Public Prosecution Service has called for a wider debate on whether people accused of petty theft should have the option of trial by jury.

It comes after Eileen Millar, 40, from Lyndhurst View Close, Belfast, was cleared of stealing shirts worth £5.24.

She chose a jury trial at the Crown Court, refusing to accept a Magistrates Court caution as it suggested guilt.

The PPS said trial before an experienced judge in the Magistrates Court may have safeguarded her rights.

Mrs Millar said that her arrest in a Tesco shop in west Belfast in 2009 had placed her under "a lot of stress and pressure" on her.

"It was more or less the embarrassment, the blackening of my name and I just wanted it all cleared".

The court heard Mrs Millar was detained minutes after putting spare change in a charity box and paying for groceries.

Mrs Millar said she had made "a genuine mistake" and she "completely forgot" about the packet of school shirts hanging on the back of a trolley.

The 11 jurors unanimously found her not guilty.

Mrs Millar said that she would not have been happy for a judge sitting alone to make a decision on her case.

"That is why I asked to take it up to the Crown Court. So that ordinary people, a jury of 12, could make the decision."

Her husband Mark said two opportunities to have the case resolved had been missed.

"One would have been on the day in Tesco with a bit of common sense and discretion," he said.

"The second was in the Magistrates Court where she was offered to take a caution, which we did not believe was good enough.

"That was more or less saying - yes, I did it. And we know she did not do it."

In a statement released on Tuesday, the PPS said theft was a serious offence.

"It is not appropriate to decide not to prosecute merely because of the low value of the goods stolen or the potential expense of running a trial should the accused elect to be tried in the Crown Court," the statement said.

The PPS said a decision to prosecute in the Magistrates Court was taken and the accused, Mrs Millar, exercised her statutory right to trial by jury.

The PPS said the defence at no stage invited the court to rule that there was not enough evidence to put the accused on trial.

"A wider debate may be necessary to determine whether an accused should continue to have this option or whether trial before an experienced judge in the Magistrates' Court would be sufficient to safeguard the accused's rights," the statement ended.

In a separate statement, the supermarket, Tesco, said that the prosecution of the case was a matter for the Public Prosecution Service.

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