Magistrates are letting guilty people off from petty crimes to spare them the crippling costs of the government's new courts fees policy.

The new charges, introduced in April, are designed to make criminals pay for the upkeep of the courts - but campaigners sat that since it isn't means-tested, punishments for small crimes are becoming disproportionate.

In many cases reported by the i, homeless people and those hit by benefits cuts who stole every items such as baby milk were being hit with fines of up to £900.

Some poverty-stricken people are even being encouraged to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit out of fear of the cost, which is fixed at £150 if someone pleads guilty, but can rise to £1,000 if they are found guilty.

Around 50 magistrates have resigned and several judges have lambasted the new charge - and now the i has learned that judges are waving punishments for petty criminals in order to protect them from the fees.

Normally even minor crimes are subject to a conditional discharge, meaning that a punishment could be meted out if they reoffend within a certain period.

But there is mounting evidence that absolute discharges are becoming a popular way of avoiding the court charge. A Berkshire magistrate gave a 51-year-old man on disability benefits an absolute discharge earlier this month after he was caught with around £5 worth of cannabis.

A judicial source said:

This is magistrates being creative with their sentencing in order to avoid the charge. It's always for lowlevel harmless stuff. It's happening around the country.

Pesident of the Law Society, Jonathan Smithers, said of the charges:

The government should be concerned that an effect of its criminal court charge is to skew judicial decisions. We expect the Justice Committee will want to look at whether this practice is widespread, as part of its review.

Figures published on Thursday suggest that more than £5m has already been billed to people under the new court charge in its first three months.

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