A NEW compensation scheme for victims of crime amounts to a tax on motorists, it has been claimed amid concerns serious criminals will escape the levy while low-level offenders bear the brunt.
Under new plans to be unveiled by the Scottish Government, and revealed in The Herald, offenders who are fined in court will be forced to pay an extra victims' surcharge in a move designed to make them more accountable.
The Victims and Witnesses Bill proposes to apply a flat rate to court fines in the first instance, with the possibility of rolling it out to custodial sentences at a later date.
However, lawyers claim this could lead to low-level offenders – including some who committed "victimless crimes" – financing the scheme, while thieves, murderers and rapists pay nothing.
Motoring group the AA also argued the surcharge is like a "tax on motorists", who are often more able to pay than other offenders.
Glasgow-based road traffic lawyer Graham Walker claimed the bill is a case of "reinventing the wheel" as there are already schemes available which offer compensation to victims in cases where it is appropriate.
Mr Walker said: "Sheriffs already have the power to award compensation where a court is informed the level of loss to victims can be calculated and accounted for. They frequently do make such awards, but it is fair to say they can be problematic because criminals tend not to have any money.
"Unless of course, the Scottish Government turns its attention to that dripping roast called the Scottish motorist.
"Drivers do tend to have an income and property, even if it is just a car, therefore it would make great economic sense to start milking them for funds that might sustain this so-called victims fund."
Under the bill, the full details of which will be made public later this month, the tariff would be imposed by courts and the money paid into a fund, with cash being given to victims depending on their need.
It has largely been welcomed by victim support groups, but Mr Walker believes its impact will not be felt equally by all offenders.
He added: "We do not know what level the victims' surcharge will be set at but there is speculation it may be a fixed flat rate, thereby introducing a disproportionate punishment for those low-end road traffic cases as opposed to the real target offenders – the violent criminals, the thieves, the drug dealers.
"It would seem therefore that Scottish motorists could soon be subsidising a scheme which would otherwise fail due to the obvious dire poverty and chaotic lifestyle of most criminals."
Ann Ritchie, president of the Glasgow Bar Association, agreed with Mr Walker that road traffic offenders could be major contributors to the scheme.
She said: "There is an argument it will be road traffic offenders who will be the ones financing the scheme, and I think that's correct. Low-level offences sometimes don't actually involve a victim so you have to question why those offenders should still be made to pay.
"The courts already have the ability to impose compensation orders in the cases where they feel it is necessary so why is there any requirement to further complicate the procedure? Not all offences have a victim, so then it's just looking like a tax."
A spokesman for the AA said the surcharge would be justified in some cases involving a victim, but questioned the Government's motives on offences which do not.
He said: "Motoring offenders will be disproportionately affected by this surcharge – it's certainly an additional charge or a tax on motorists.
"If someone was convicted of reckless driving and someone was injured then the surcharge would be completely justified. If, however, it's a motoring offence with no victim then you really have to question whether this is just motorists being forced to pick up the bill for others.
"It does make motorists quite an easy target."
The Scottish Government refused to comment on the concerns. A spokesman said: "We will shortly introduce our Victims and Witnesses Bill which will set out our full range of proposals."