THOUSANDS of criminals will be forced to pay a victims' surcharge to compensate those who have suffered at the hands of law-breakers under new plans to be unveiled by the Scottish Government.
The further penalty will initially apply to those who are convicted, sentenced and fined in court, with full proposals expected to be made public later this month.
The move is designed to make offenders more accountable and support those whose lives have been blighted by crime.
Under the plan, the tariff would be imposed by courts and the money paid into a fund, with cash being directed towards crime victims depending on need.
Campaigners hope the fee will in time apply to all convicted offenders, with those receiving a custodial sentence potentially paying the surcharge from earnings in prison.
Currently, Victim Support Scotland manages a small victims' fund that has helped people with few resources.
Beneficiaries include a murder victim's family who needed to redecorate their home and buy new carpets after their loved one was killed in the property.
Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill is due to speak to people who have benefited from the Victim Support Scotland fund on Thursday.
The levy is among a range measures to be put forward in the Scottish Government's Victims and Witnesses Bill, aimed at putting the interests of these groups more at the centre of the criminal justice system.
Campaigners and support groups have supported the introduction of a surcharge.
However, John Muir, 73, of Inverkip, Inverclyde, whose son Damian, 34, was killed in Greenock in 2007, said it was vital the authorities ensured the surcharge was paid.
He said: "There are merits in the idea but I wouldn't want it to become an alternative to prison.
"I also have some concerns about whether criminals would pay the surcharge. I think it would be vital to make sure they do."
David Sinclair, head of communications at Victim Support Scotland, said a victims' surcharge was long overdue and should apply to all crimes.
He said: "We have been calling for a victims' surcharge and are delighted to see the Scottish Government is now considering its implementation.
"The surcharge should apply in the majority of cases. Indeed, I would be surprised if it didn't include those who receive a custodial sentence as most people in prison have the capacity to earn income in prison. Therefore they have the ability to pay.
"The fact is, if someone is sent to prison for an offence, it's likely to be a very serious one. We hope the surcharge will be applied as widely as is possible."
It is not clear yet what the level of the surcharge would be, though a flat rate of £15, £20 or £30 or a variable rate linked to the severity of the crime committed were discussed in the bill's consultation process.
In England and Wales, a flat rate £15 victims' surcharge for offenders fined for a criminal offence was introduced in April 2007 under the Domestic Violence Crime and Victims Act 2004. The act allowed for the surcharge to be extended to those who received custodial or community sentences.
Last night the Scottish Government would not reveal details of the amount of the proposed surcharge, or whether the rate would be fixed or variable.
An analysis of the responses to the Scottish Government's consultation on the Victims' and Witnesses' Bill said most of those responding preferred a variable levy depending on the severity of the crime committed.
However, a flat rate would be easier to administer.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: "We will be introducing the bill to Parliament in early February. Alongside it, we will publish a policy memorandum which will set out our proposals in full across a range of areas, including administration, eligibility and how charges will be calculated.
"We will be doing a launch event on the day and our proposals will be available to read at that point."