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Imprisonment for non payment of debt

16th December 2010

In a report released today the Irish Law Reform Commission recommended that imprisonment for non payment of debt should be abolished within the state.

Under international conventions, of which Ireland are party to, imprisonment for debt is illegal (Article 1, Protocol 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights; Article 11 of the United Nations International Convention on Civil and Political Rights). At present, arrest and imprisonment remains a possibility as an enforcement mechanism of last resort in cases where a creditor has proved beyond all reasonable doubt that the judgment debtor has failed to comply with an instalment order due to his or her wilful refusal or culpable neglect. The report, Personal debt management and debt enforcement, states that this current position should be abolished.

It is not the Commission’s view that such persons should be exempt from criminal liability, but rather should be liable on summary conviction to a community service order under the criminal justice (community service) Act 1983. this position falls in line with one of the primary aims of the Fines Act 2010, namely to provide alternatives to imprisonment where a fine is not paid by the due date and ensure that those alternatives will always take precedence over imprisonment.

The imprisonment of judgment debtors incurs great cost to the State, both from the costs of imprisonment itself, and from the costs of conducting court hearings and providing legal representation to debtors as a court considers whether an order for arrest and imprisonment should be made. The procedure would appear to generate little benefit to weigh against these costs.  If other mechanisms of enforcement are improved to ensure the more effective recovery of judgment debts, the amounts recovered through the use of the threat of imprisonment are likely to be minimal.

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