A "FRAGILE and vulnerable" woman has been jailed for six months after begging for just 50p on the streets of Worcester.
Marie Baker, who has difficulty reading and writing, was sentenced at Worcester County Court without legal representation – because she was unable to get a solicitor or legal aid.
The 38-year-old was sentenced in February by District Judge Mackenzie, after twice breaching a civil injunction which banned her from begging in the city.
The 26-week sentence has been condemned as a "damning indictment of our justice system" by legal campaign group the Howard League for Penal Reform.
And in his sentencing report, published online yesterday (Wednesday), Mr Mackenzie said he was "disturbed and concerned" Ms Baker did not have legal representation and carefully considered whether proceeding would breach her human rights.
He said: "I have reached the conclusion that she can have a fair hearing, and that every opportunity has been afforded to her to prepare a case with assistance from a solicitor, but through no fault of her own, she has not been able to secure that.
"It is wholly unsatisfactory that the system conspires against a vulnerable individual like this, so that she cannot get the legal aid and solicitor assistance that she really needs."
The judge said while Ms Baker's begging was not "aggressive" or persistent, the fact she had repeatedly breached court orders meant a more "significant" penalty was necessary.
Since the injunction was first granted at Worcester County Court on December 17, 2015, Ms Baker has breached it a total of four times.
The first three breaches resulted in jail sentences of one day, 28 days and three months respectively.
Ms Baker appeared in court on Wednesday, February 8, to be sentenced for another two breaches of the injunction – on November 25 2016 and January 2 2017.
"The aggravating factors, quite obviously, are the repeat and continuing disobedience of the court orders," said Mr Mackenzie.
"I am conscious that on both these two occasions, Ms Baker has simply asked for 50p. It has not been in an aggressive way. She has been told ‘no’ and she has not persisted. There is no aggravating feature in the way she has done this."
The judgement report details how Ms Baker had an alibi and believed CCTV images would prove her account – however she struggled to provide the evidence.
She also claimed mistaken identity and that police 'had got it in for her' – however both were dismissed by the judge.
District Judge Mackenzie said: "All those matters, potentially give rise to a line of defence which would better be explored by a solicitor assisting her. Knowing that, it is with great reservation that I have allowed the case to proceed today on the basis that it would be impossible to keep adjourning this case."
Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This is an utterly depressing case which highlights how all too often our courts are dealing with failings in social welfare and punishing poverty and vulnerability.
“It is quite simply a damning indictment of our justice system that a woman recognised by the courts as being 'fragile and vulnerable', with no legal representation, can be imprisoned for 26 weeks for begging for 50p.”