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Fines legislation will have no impact on prison committals unless fully commenced – IPRT

10th April 2014

[Updated 11th April 2014]

MEDIA ADVISORY 

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), Ireland’s leading penal reform campaign organisation, welcomes the passing of the Fines (Payment and Recovery) Bill 2013 through both Houses of the Oireachtas yesterday (10th April 2014). However, IPRT cautions that previous legislation, the Fines Act 2010, had no impact on committals for fines default, and was never fully commenced. IPRT therefore calls on the Minister for Justice to ensure the full and expedient commencement of the present Bill, to fulfil its intended purpose of ending Ireland’s wasteful and damaging practice of imprisoning thousands of people every year for failing to pay court-ordered fines.

There have been more than 30,000 committals to prison for fines default since the Fines Act 2010 was signed into law, almost four years ago. Although parts of the Fines Act 2010 were commenced, it is still not possible to pay fines by instalment, as provided for in that legislation.

While IPRT welcomes the clear statement today by the Minister for Justice of the “inappropriateness of imprisonment” as the automatic response to fines default, IPRT is disappointed that a number of proposed amendments to the 2013 Bill, including the recommendation to allow fines of less than €100 to be paid by instalment – in order to ease the burden on families – were not accepted. IPRT strongly believes that even €100 can be a significant amount of money for families in the current economic climate.

The impact of the recession on the ability to pay fines is evidenced by the figures. Committals to prison for fines default increased sharply from 1,335 in 2007 to 8,121 in 2013. In 2013, there were 411 committals to prison for non-payment of a fine relating to a TV license, up from 75 in 2009.

The soaring numbers of women imprisoned for non-payment of fines is a particular concern, with female committals for fines default rising from 163 in 2007 to 1,894 in 2013. The imprisonment of women for fines default is particularly damaging on communities, as they are more likely to be the primary carers of children and elderly family members.

Speaking today on passing of the Bill, IPRT Executive Director Deirdre Malone said:

“We warmly welcome both the passage of the Bill and the clear statement today by the Minister for Justice of the inappropriateness of imprisonment as the automatic response to fines default. However past experience shows us that this legislation will be of limited benefit unless and until it is fully implemented. It is staggering that there were 411 committals to prison in 2013 for non-payment of a fine relating to a TV license. Given the appalling impact of the recession on many Irish families over the last number of years,  it is unfortunate that an opportunity has been missed to allow for payment by instalment of fines less than €100. The sooner this Bill is fully implemented, the sooner these financially wasteful and socially damaging committals to prison will be reduced.”

On the passing of the Fines (Payment and Recovery) Bill 2013, IPRT is calling on the Minister for Justice to:

  • Ensure the full commencement of the Fines Act 2014, once signed into law, in order to bring to an end the ineffective, costly and damaging practice of imprisoning people for non-payment of fines.
  • Monitor the effectiveness of the legislation, in particular the requirement of the court to take into account the person’s financial circumstances before determining the amount of the fine, if any, to be imposed.
  • Review whether the minimum of €100 for a fine to be eligible for payment by instalment needs to be removed.

For media enquiries or comment from IPRT Executive Director, Deirdre Malone, please contact Fíona on 087-1812990

NOTES FOR EDITORS:

1. Imprisonment for fines 2007-2013

Year                  Fines                  Debts

2013                  8,121                  22

2012                  8,304                  22

2011                  7,514                  35

2010                  6,683                  5

2009                  4,806                  162

2008                  2,520                  255

2007                  1,335                  201

(Source: Irish Prison Service annual reports)

2. Fines Act 2010

President McAleese signed the Fines Bill 2009 into law on 2nd June 2010. Section 15, which allowed for the payment by instalment of a fine over a 12-month period (and, exceptionally, over a 2 year period) was never commenced. The Courts Service ICT system was cited as the reason.

Section 14 of the Act was commenced with effect from 4 January, 2011. This requires the court to take into account the person’s financial circumstances before determining the amount of the fine, if any, to be imposed.

3. IPRT Proposed amendments to the Fines (Payment and Recovery) Bill 2013

  • Administrative charge: In relation to larger fines IPRT does not believe that a 10% charge can be justified in all cases, and that it may be preferable to set a flat administration fee or to cap the administration fee (e.g. at €50).
  • Minimum threshold for payment by instalment: IPRT believes that even €100 may be a significant amount of money for families in the current economic climate; we recommended that the limit (100 euro) below which a fine cannot be paid in instalments should be removed.
  • Maximum period for payment of instalments: The Fines Act 2010 allowed greater flexibility with instalments over 24 months in some cases. IPRT put forward that the courts should be able to extend the period of instalments in the interests of fairness and taking into account ability to pay (e.g. where the total amount of fines is particularly high).
  • The use of community service orders (CSOs) in the Fines System: At present, the Community Service Order is a high sentence tariff, which is intended to be interchangeable and equivalent to a prison sentence. IPRT is concerned that the inclusion of CSOs as a stage in the process in the Bill could have a “net-widening” effect, and may reduce the judiciary’s confidence in the interchangeability and equivalence of CSOs with custodial sentences of up to twelve months. Consideration should be given to clarifying that the use of a CSO under section 7 of the proposed Bill is distinct from the use of a CSO under the 1983 Act.

4. Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT):

IPRT is Ireland's leading non-governmental organisation campaigning for the rights of everyone in prison and the progressive reform of Irish penal policy, with prison as a last resort.