A 15-YEAR-OLD vulnerable boy was dragged before court for taking a box of choc-ices from a staff fridge at the care home where he lived.

The teenager was charged with burglary and faced a trial at magistrates court after he ate at least one of the 70p Asda Smart Price choc-ices.

However, on Monday magistrates threw the case out after hearing the prosecution’s evidence - prompting questions over whether it should have been brought to court at a time of huge budget cuts.

The case followed an absolute discharge given on the same day to a man convicted of criminal damage for scrawling “Lies, lies, lies,” on a poster advertising a Conservative MP during the general election campaign.

Leading criminal lawyer Rodney Warren, a member of the Surrey and Sussex Criminal Justice board, said: “There is obviously a lot of pressure on courts and reduced resources. Therefore I find it surprising when police officers find they need to investigate offences of such a low level and even more surprising when the CPS believe it worth prosecuting .”

The teenager's lawyer, Jason La Corbiniere, successfully applied for the case against the teenager to be dismissed on the grounds that he thought he was entitled to a choc-ice because he lived at the home in Hove.

Speaking to The Argus after the trial, heard in the boy's absence at Brighton Magistrates’ Court, he questioned the handling of the case.

He said: “Anyone who is in the criminal justice system knows the effect of the savage cuts. But do these cuts explain the decision to arrest him, take him into custody and then prosecute him, given that he is in a residential care home?

“Can you imagine the state prosecuting your child for not asking can he have an ice cream from the freezer?"

Olivia Johnstone, a member of the Sussex Youth Commission, set up by the police and crime commissioner to strengthen relations between young people and criminal justice authorities, said: "I was a bit shocked the police were even involved in the first place.

"This boy lived there and needed to feel safe and the the involvement of the police does not create safety."

The court heard how the boy had got into the locked room where the choc-ices were held via a window.

A staff member told the court there had been problems with food disappearing from the fridge and staff property was kept in the room, prompting concerns it may have been tampered with.

A spokesman for the care home, which looks after a small number of children with emotional or behavioural problems, told The Argus staff had phoned police because the teenager had broken into the locked room, not because the choc-ices were taken.

Last month an inspection reviewing the Crown Prosecution Service in the south east found that more than 40 per cent of decisions to charge people were “poor”.

The CPS had not responded by the time The Argus went to press.

A spokesman for Sussex Police said: "In both cases, we investigated reports of crimes that had allegedly been committed and finding evidence to support a prosecution, they were submitted to the CPS for a decision to proceed."


IT was not a good day for prosecutor Jane Deakin, as she made her way through her case list on Monday.

Magistrates conceded she had had a tough day of it as they threw out her latest case as soon as her evidence concluded.

Chairwoman of the bench Maggie Brain wasted no time in deciding she agreed with the defence lawyer that the boy accused of stealing choc ices had no case to answer.

Earlier in the day Mrs Brain had given an absolute discharge – the lowest type of sentence available to the court – to a man who was caught scribbling, “lies, lies, lies,” on an election campaign billboard poster.

The prosecutions come at a time of huge budget cuts to the criminal justice system, when courts are being closed, legal aid cut, and police officers axed.

They also come at a time when criminal justice authorities are increasingly keen on looking at prosecuting people outside of court, emphasising other routes such as cautions, warnings and apology letters.

So why had these cases made it so far?

If you take the outcomes, it appears the magistrates agreed they should not have made it to court. They dismissed the case against the teenager and gave an absolute discharge to Mr Morgan which results in no punishment and no costs.

The care home stressed they called the police because they were concerned staff goods may have been taken. They said they did not call over the choc ices. But he was evidently left facing trial for an offence so trivial that it risks bringing the court system into disrepute.

Authorities can dole out warnings or cautions as opposed to taking people to court, but stress in most cases the defendant has to admit guilt.

It is not clear whether other out-of-court options were explored with the teenager, but he apparently accepted taking the choc ices but not that this amounted to an offence of burglary.

A similar situation was at play in the case of Mr Morgan as he accepted scribbling on the poster but not that this amounted to an offence of criminal damage.

This was not the case when he was initially interviewed at the police station, when he made a no comment interview.

However, by the time it came to court, his position would have been clear.

No doubt the fact he was representing himself, for financial reasons he said, had some bearing on how the case panned out.

The CPS was unable to comment by the time The Argus went to press but Ms Deakin told the court “political overtones” of his offence were included in the decision to prosecute, adding it had been reviewed at a “high level”.

She said prosecutors weighed, as always, whether there was a “realistic prospect of conviction” against whether it was in the public interest to prosecute, adding: “Given the political overtones it was decided that it should be and would be in the public interest to proceed.”

Whether these cases are symptomatic of a wider-problem or just one-offs is not clear.

However, a recent review of the South East Crown Prosecution Service found that decision making was poor more than 40 per cent of the time.

But before the crown’s decision to prosecute, all cases start with a police decision to arrest and to send a file to prosecutors for a decision. It can be a hard balancing act. They are sometimes criticised for dealing with too many cases out of court – and sometimes for too few.

Police said in their response that they investigated and “finding evidence to support a prosecution,” submitted files to the CPS. They are not, however, robots and are of course, rightly, allowed discretion in their work.

Regardless of all of that, both cases will, in their own way, have had an impact on the individuals affected, not least the stress of the criminal process.

Olivia Johnstone, a 22-year-old who works on the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner’s youth commission, said the effect may well be the opposite of that intended.

She said: “He may have thought that the message is that it is OK because the courts have said this is essentially acceptable.”


The Argus: Rodney Warren

LAWYER Rodney Warren, founder and senior partner of Warren’s law and advocacy in Eastbourne, said: “There is obviously a lot of pressure on courts and reduced resources. Therefore I find it surprising when police officers find they need to investigate offences of such a low level and even more surprising when the CPS believe it worth prosecuting .”

“For some time now it has been difficult if not impossible for defence lawyers to have any input into decision-making, and this is something that needs to change. We need to be able to make representations. 

“I remember a time when it was common for solicitors to be talking to police officers about the case. They looked at what steps should be taken in deciding whether or not to put a case to the CPS. 

“That has all changed because it was felt that the decision-making should be made on the strength of the case against the defendant, irrespective of the view that the defence might want to bring. Now it is their decision and the defence have no right of input. 

“There have always been delays [in court cases] and the reduction in the number of court rooms and the restructure of the way courts are listed across Sussex is unhelpful. 

“The closing of the local courts is bad (the Government has closed Lewes and Mid Sussex Magistrates’ Courts and plans to close Chichester and Eastbourne, to save money). There is no concept of ‘local justice’ and the deterrent effect of that should not be underestimated. 

“I don’t believe the courts will cope adequately – there will be more delays and and a huge amount of travel. 

“I don’t think that is true (that the courts are under-used, as the Government has said). The only way I can describe it is that you can manipulate the figures to achieve a result that is absolutely self-serving.”


The Argus: Nick Morgan

NICK MORGAN represented himself in court to argue scribbling “lies, lies, lies” on a poster advertising Conservative Party general election candidate Graham Cox did not amount to an offence of criminal damage. 

Mr Morgan, 47, of Westbourne Grove, Hove, said the poster did not belong to the Conservative Party because its rental period on the billboard had run out, and that graffiti was an accepted part of public discourse in Brighton and Hove. He added that when he used black marker on the poster outside the King Alfred Leisure Centre on Tuesday March 31, he was making a comment about swimming facilities, not about the Tories. 

He told his trial on Monday: “We had three people who died in the sea this year. It is a really big issue, learning to swim. And what I took exception to was the claim that Graham Cox was going to build a new King Alfred Centre. 

“He had been a councillor for over a year and never spoken about getting a new leisure centre.”

Reacting to the case, Mr Cox said he thought prosecutors and police had “no alternative” other than to take the matter to court because Mr Morgan had not admitted an offence of criminal damage. He said: “I think an absolute or conditional discharge is what I would have expected in the circumstances, but I was surprised there was not at least some award of costs.”

He added the Tories had not been in control of the council, and therefore could not have been expected to deliver a new leisure centre.