Deputy Harrington was in possession, but he has shared time with Deputy Feighan.
Fines (Payment and Recovery) Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed)
I thank the Minister and welcome this Bill, which was published on 19 July. The Bill has six parts and comprises 23 sections, running to 26 pages. Speaking as a private citizen and a politician, it is embarrassing that people resign themselves to doing jail terms rather than pay fines. While that is their right, it places significant pressure on the system, clogging it up. This is not a good use of Garda and prison officer resources. There must be a better way than going to jail for the non-payment of fines. Through this Bill, the Minister is ensuring such a better, easier way.
Everyone who is fined will be able to opt to pay it through instalments over 12 months. Sometimes, people go to jail because of fines of €50 to €100. Instalments would provide an alternative to people who are hard pressed financially. This would be welcome.
Where a person fails to pay a fine, the court will make an attachment or recovery order. Where neither is possible, the court may make a community service order. What happened to community service? I have never called for putting people on display in the stocks as once seen in UK villages, for example, but community service was a deterrent. Approximately 20 or 25 years ago, people who misbehaved or who got into trouble with the law were required to paint signs or tidy up local estates. It was a win-win for both sides. Twenty years ago, long before I was in politics, a young man who has since grown up and got married told me that community service was effective. He used to be seen in his community as someone who had misbehaved or erred on the wrong side of the law. Did we become a nanny state? Did we interfere with some element of the law? Community service used to be effective.
It is important that the Bill provides for the sharing of data between the Revenue Commissioners, the Department of Social Protection and the Courts Service. For too long, Revenue worked in its own domain, as did the Department and the Courts Service. The past two and a half years have seen significant co-operation between those departments. The Bill tackles the problem of the number of people multi-claiming social welfare payments fraudulently. This is welcome.
I have had cause to visit my local prison in Castlerea numerous times. It is a state-of-the-art, drug-free prison. The hour one leaves prison is the hour one decides never to end up there. Hopefully, I never will. The prison is doing great work. There is considerable co-operation between the prisoners and the Prison Service in devising innovative ways of dealing with a difficult situation. I pay tribute to the Minister, the Courts Service and the prisoners, who erred on the wrong side of the law.
When someone decides to go to jail instead of paying a fine, it can be embarrassing. I do not mean politically. It is not the right approach. The Bill provides for an alternative for people. The 8,300 people who were jailed by judges last year for the non-payment of fines is 8,300 too many. The Minister has been innovative. All sides should welcome the Bill as I have done.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this Bill, which I support in general despite my reservations about a number of points made by the Minister yesterday.
The current system does not work. Many hours of Garda time are spent serving warrants and collecting fines. The Minister stated that there had been little change in how fines were collected since the foundation of the State. Like me, the Ceann Comhairle has been a Member for a long time. Hardship and medical grounds used to be taken into account when fines were imposed. Whoever was the Minister for justice at the time had the right to reduce those fines, but that power was done away with a number of years ago after it was found in court to be unlawful. More often than not, many Ministers for justice, working in conjunction with departmental officials, reduced fines to manageable proportions when people made cases to them on medical or hardship grounds.
Judges serve fines on people without taking into account their ability to pay. Many people have attended my clinic because judges fined them €500 or €1,000 for having car tax that was two or three months out of date or for not paying their television licence fees. The judges who did this well knew that the people in question never had the ability to pay that kind of money out of, for example, their unemployment social welfare payments. This legislation introduced by the then Minister, Mr. Dermot Ahern, goes some way towards dealing with that issue.
No person should need to go to prison for a fine that relates to a television licence or lower level misdemeanours. Smuggling cigarettes or tobacco and laundering oil and diesel are different issues, but community service is the way forward in respect of lower level fines. Once the justice system implements a fine or orders community work, the ensuing administration should be performed within the local authority system. Gardaí spend too much time trying to serve warrants and collect moneys.
More often than not they get a million and one excuses, so they must repeatedly re-serve the warrant. In many cases, if people do not pay fines, they are taken off to Wheatfield, Mountjoy, Castlerea or elsewhere. Usually, two gardaí in a garda car or a taxi will accompany a person to prison. However, within 24 hours, or in many cases within a few hours, the prison governor will release the person. Meanwhile, the gardaí have returned home so the governor provides the released person with a bus or train voucher to go home. The current system is wasting taxpayers' money.
For that reason, rather than imposing a fine that a person cannot pay, community service would enable such people to pay back their debt to society. Such a provision is included in this Bill. The people involved could thereby work in a local GAA or rugby club, or with local authorities which operate social and community employment schemes throughout the country.
The Minister should clearly state that he does not want fines imposed on people for such matters, although ultimately that is a matter for the Judiciary whose members are independent of the Executive. None the less, the message should go out loud and clear that it is better to impose community service orders rather than fines, which some people do not have a hope in hell of paying.
I have serious concerns about attachment of earnings orders whereby fines are deducted directly from wages. The Minister says that will be a last resort but perhaps he will clarify in his reply to this debate where the Data Protection Act comes into this. If an employer receives a letter from the Courts Service or the Revenue Commissioners instructing him or her to stop €200 out of a person's wages over the next three, six or 12 months, it may damage the employee's standing with an employer. The Minister should clarify how he expects that system to operate because it would have a damaging effect on the employer-employee relationship. How can such a system get around the provisions of the Data Protection Act? Currently, even within this House, we are all subject to data protection legislation, and rightly so. None the less I have serious concerns about that particular issue.
The Minister stated that approximately 7,500 people are imprisoned annually for non-payment of fines. That is a substantial number with a consequent cost to the State, including garda manpower and the cost of transporting people to and from prison. Imprisonment for non-payment of fines should be a last resort. In addition, it is also causing overcrowding in prisons for minor misdemeanours. It is certainly not in the taxpayers' interests to lock up people for an hour or two just because they have not paid a television licence fee or car tax for a few months.
While I welcome the Bill generally, I feel the attachment of earnings order is a dangerous road to take. The administration of such a system will be hampered by the abolition of town councils. We will have super county councils throughout the country which will have rate, rent and revenue collectors. Instead of wasting Garda manpower, the collection of fines should be handed over to local authorities. Alternatively, community service orders could also be operated by local councils at the direction of a judge.
I had a great regard for the old system which was operated fairly and meaningfully by previous Ministers for Justice. At that time, if someone was not in a position to make a payment, the Minister of the day, in conjunction with his or her officials, would decide on compassionate grounds to reduce the fine or in some cases write it off. We have become so self-righteous over the years that people did not like that system. They felt that Ministers were abusing the system, although I certainly never found that to be the case. We have moved on, however, and are now dealing with this legislation.
While I hope the Bill will be passed as quickly as possible, I would ask the Minister to re-examine the attachment of earnings orders which will do serious damage to employer-employee relations. It could, in effect, cause a person to lose out on promotion or lose his or her job. I hope the Minister will take into account some of the reservations that have been raised during this Second Stage debate.
I call Deputy Seán Kenny who is sharing time with Deputy Michelle Mulherin and Deputy Derek Keating. Is that agreed? Agreed.
This Bill represents a major reform of the system that governs fines payment and recovery in Ireland, and provides for the payment of fines by instalment and attachment of earnings. The Government is committed to ensuring court decisions are respected and complied with. The Government is also committed to keeping the number of people committed to prison for non-payment of fines to an absolute minimum, and I fully support that approach.
I believe that prison is for people who represent a danger to society, such as those who commit violent acts or who pose harm to society, such as those who commit white collar criminal offences. I do not believe that people who have failed to pay a fine in respect of a dog licence or television licence fall into either of those categories, especially during a time of financial hardship for many.
When I was previously a Member of this House between 1992 and 1997, there was a practice whereby Deputies could petition the Minister for Justice on behalf of a constituent who had incurred a fine and was in financial hardship. The previous speaker also referred to this practice. I recall getting many such requests at that time but, thankfully, that practice has ended as it was found to be unlawful.
Allowing everyone to pay a fine by instalment and introducing attachment of earnings are important new reforms to the fine collection system which will lead to improved collection rates. Last year, some 8,300 people were sent to prison for the non-payment of fines. Those people comprised the vast majority of those sentenced to short sentences by our courts and committed to prison in 2012. The new measures provided for in the Fines (Payment and Recovery) Bill 2013, combined with the requirement that judges must take a person’s financial circumstances into account when setting a fine, should result in a reduction in the number of people committed to prison, with all the benefits to society that will follow from that.
This Bill would make it easier for people to pay a fine and, where they fail to do so, there will be sufficient alternatives available to the courts to all but eliminate the need to commit anyone to prison for the non-payment of fines. Every person on whom a fine is imposed will be able to opt to pay the fine by instalments over 12 months.
Where a person fails to pay a fine in full, including by instalments, he or she will be required to return to court and, depending on their circumstances, the court will either make an attachment of earnings order directing the person’s employer to deduct the fine from the person’s earnings, a recovery order appointing a receiver to recover assets to the value of the fine, or a community service order. I hope attachment of earnings orders will be used as a last resort. Community service is a far better alternative to imprisonment in such cases.
The introduction of attachment of earnings orders for unpaid fines is a commitment in the programme for Government. Such orders are likely to be applied in most cases where a fine defaulter is in employment or in receipt of an occupational pension.
The Bill also contains a number of administrative changes that will improve the courts’ capacity to ensure fines are paid. I understand that work is ongoing on developing the Courts Service IT infrastructure to enable the legislation to be workable by early next year.
When people consider the practicalities of our legal system and the way in which prisons are used, what irks them most is a person being sent to prison for non-payment of a fine when more serious offenders are not because of the incapacity of our prisons to accommodate them. The Minister is to be commended in respect of much of the legislation he has introduced, in particular legislation which addresses issues which for many years needed to be addressed and have been talked about in that way. He has brought about good, positive and practical reform in terms of the manner in which our criminal justice system works.
It is important to recap on the reason it is important that people are pursued in respect of the payment of fines. Currently, 30% of fine payments are uncollected. Fines are imposed on persons convicted of offences, be they minor or more significant. Often, they are imposed in respect of the non-payment of a television licence or a failure to file tax returns and so on. Law abiding citizens who pay their dues are often out of pocket having done so. A person who does not comply with the law while others have done so, often, as I stated, at personal cost to them, is guilty of committing an offence. If the administration of justice is to be meaningful there must be repercussions for people who commit crimes be they misdemeanours or of a more serious nature.
This is practical legislation in that it provides options in relation to the payment of fines. For example, those people not in a position to pay in full upfront can opt to pay their fines by way of instalment over 12 months. Other options include an attachment order on earnings, a recovery order whereby assets can be seized and liquidated to pay the fine and a community service order. It is of greater benefit to communities to have persons convicted and fined and who fail to pay those fines carry out work in their areas rather than take up places in our prisons, which in itself is a bit of a comedy in terms of their often being committed to and released from prison within hours. This does not achieve the objective of people paying their fines and dues to society.
I welcome the Bill and all of the reforms introduced in this area by the Minister, Deputy Shatter, which will hold our justice system in good stead.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important legislation and commend the Minister, Deputy Shatter, on its introduction. I concur with many of the points made by previous contributors from both sides of the House in relation to the imprisonment of a person for the non-payment of a fine. It is extraordinarily positive that we are introducing, as part of the modernising of our courts, a system which ensures the payment of fines. It is imperative fines imposed on people found guilty in court of having committed an offence are collected in an efficient and appropriate manner.
The Bill defines a fine as a monetary penalty payable on conviction, depending on the offence. I note from the information received from the Oireachtas Library that compliance in this regard stands at 82%. This means 18% of those on whom a fine is imposed by the courts are not paying. It is disturbing to read from time to time in the media of the judicial discretion exercised by judges. One has only to visit the District Court to see how on a daily basis the system is being abused by those who break the law, be it in respect of a traffic or litter offence or breach of the peace. They often entertain the court in order to obtain a minimum fine which, I suspect, in many cases is not paid.
While I support judges having the discretion to take into account an offender's personal income, including their belongings, personal property and financial commitments to their families or otherwise, I welcome section 6 which promotes the option of the payment of fines by way of instalment. Section 7 deals with failure to pay fines. I am fearful that this will be abused by a small but significant number of people who, given how often they appear before the courts, know the system. If there is one section of the Bill that may require strengthening it is section 3 which deals with recovery orders.
I welcome that a sheriff can be appointed by the courts as a consequence of failure to pay. However, the appointment of a sheriff is a significant step which could be cumbersome and, perhaps, expensive for the State. I welcome sections 14 and 15 which deal with attachment orders. The reality is that it is more expensive now to keep offenders in prison than it is to impose fines on them. There is evidence to indicate that this is being abused. A person can be arrested by a garda in respect of the non-payment of a fine, brought to prison, processed and released within hours. The fine is then written off and the sentence is deemed to have been served, with the offender going on his or her merry way.
I agree with the Law Reform Commission that fines need to be index linked to inflation and that they should vary to take account of the offender's ability to pay. A person who fails to pay a small fine imposed by a District Court in respect of a minor offence should only be imprisoned as a last resort. I agree with the Minister that this legislation will all but eliminate the need to commit people to prison for non-payment of fines. There are many ways to deal with this issue other than the costly and unsuitable procedure of committing a person to prison, which person, very often, will be in and out within hours because of the cost and pressure on prisons and the standard of improvements which the Minister has demanded of the prison services in relation to facilities for those who are serving medium to long term sentences. The reality is that while a fine in respect of the offence of speeding imposed on one person with a large family who is unemployed and dependent on social welfare will have a huge impact on that person and his or her family and its weekly income, a similar fine on a person who is wealthy and has no difficulty writing a cheque to the District Court has no impact. There is much to be learned from this. We need to provide for a scaling of fines relating to a person's wealth.
I agree with the sentiment that justice should not only be done but should be seen to be done.
The next speaking slot is being shared by Deputies Michael Healy-Rae, Finian McGrath, Seamus Healy and Mattie McGrath.
I thank the Technical Group for allowing me some of its speaking time and, in particular, Deputy Finian McGrath for allowing me to speak before him.
I welcome the introduction of this Bill. It is about time changes were made to the mechanism for the collection of fines. The current system is ridiculous and nonsensical. We have all witnessed the situation of people the length and breadth of the country, having been committed to prison, taken there at great expense to the Garda Síochána, processed and released an hour later, which was farcical. It is crazy and beyond belief that this was allowed to continue until now. I welcome the provisions of this Bill which will put a stop to that nonsensical process.
On the recovery of fines, I agree with previous speakers that ability to pay must be taken into account. The credit union network recently published a survey on disposable income, which found that the majority of families, in particular young families, do not have sufficient income to engage in discretionary spending. A fine of €50 or €100, which some people may find small, could place undue hardship on a young family struggling in the current economic circumstances. For this reason, fines should be graded according to the offender's ability to pay, which would mean that the same crime would not always attract the same fine. The level of a fine should depend on individual circumstances and ability to pay and people should have an opportunity to outline their personal circumstances to the court, without recourse to a solicitor. This would allow judges to ensure defendants are able to pay the fine they impose. Provision for staged payments is also a most welcome development.
I tabled a parliamentary question this week on debt recovery, an issue that has concerned me for some time. There have been horrific cases involving people who would I describe as guns for hire being sent out by leasing companies and lending institutions to recover debts and engaging in ruthless and thuggish behaviour. As I have stated previously, it is not a shame for a person to be in debt to a lending institution. People who owe money are entitled to be shown respect. A person may have borrowed money in the belief that the debt was manageable. When things go wrong such people should not be looked down on or treated as second class citizens but shown respect and treated with dignity at all times. I feel very strongly about this matter.
Some of those engaged in debt recovery have assaulted debtors and used the cover of darkness to enter farmers' yards and premises to retrieve machinery and goods. Such despicable and thuggish behaviour should not be tolerated in a modern society. There is no place for it and it should be outlawed. I thank the Technical Group again for sharing time.
I welcome the opportunity to speak to this new Bill. I support the legislation, as I support all reforms that will help make the justice system fairer and more accountable and transparent. Many citizens believe the system is unfair and I agree with them in many cases. As a member of the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, I seek to ensure the justice system is fair and transparent for all citizens. People want reform introduced now.
From the point of view of human justice and costs to the State, it is not necessary to imprison non-violent and petty offenders. There appears to be one law for the rich and powerful and another for the rest of us, as was exposed in the recent penalty points scandal. The hypocrisy evident in this regard is unacceptable. I am sick and tired of some influential people getting off, while the rest of us must pay fines and have penalty points applied to our licences. The vast majority of people believe this type of carry-on is not acceptable in a democratic society and has no place in a justice system that claims to be fair.
I receive five or six telephone calls every week from victims of our justice system who have been treated badly. I urge real action and reform of the justice system.
To return to the legislation and events in the real world, in 2012 there were 8,304 committals to prison for fines default, including 1,687 female committals. This practice imposes great strain on the prison system and generates significant costs for taxpayers, families and communities. That more than 85% of people imprisoned for fines default return to prison within four years demonstrates how damaging and ineffective is the practice of imprisoning people for fines default. I support the legislation for this reason.
The Bill proposes to amend the fines system and complete the process commenced with the Fines Act of 2010, which created a modern, standardised system in which all fines fall into five distinct classes that should be easily adjustable over time. It is also designed to provide a more flexible system for the payment and recovery of fines. The Fines Act 2010 has not been completely commenced and all uncommenced sections relate to the payment and recovery of fines. If a person fails to pay a fine within one year, options can be forced upon him or her by a court but only where he or she has been summoned to a court meeting to determine the appropriate court action. The options to be considered are a recovery order, an attachment order or a community service order. If effective, the Bill should generally reduce the number of persons imprisoned for the non-payment of fines, cut associated costs to the State and increase State revenue through greater collection rates for fines.
The justice system has made major mistakes in certain crime cases. In what became known as the "garlic man" case, Mr. Paul Begley was sentenced to six years in prison, despite paying taxes owed and a fine arising from non-payment of VAT. Many people sensibly asked what was going on in the case as a community service order would have been more appropriate than a prison sentence, particularly as the sum owed was repaid to Revenue. Mr. Begley was eventually released from prison following considerable lobbying. His six year sentence resulted in a significant waste of resources.
It is scandalous that people who have committed rape, murder and other extremely violent crimes have been given similar sentences of between six and eight years. In the case of a journalist who was killed on his way home from a pub an individual was sentenced to a couple of years in prison. People are regularly stabbed and their attackers get away with all sorts of light sentences, while many of those charged with violent crimes are released on bail.
This Bill deals with petty crimes. I accept that letting people off lightly with any crime does not do society any favours. This is important legislation and I hope many of its reforms will be implemented.
I welcome this debate. Every year, a significant number of people end up in prison as a result of fines default. I understand that in 2012 more than 8,000 people, including almost 1,700 females, were committed to prison for fines default. This practice creates significant costs for the taxpayer and places considerable strain on the prison system. It also creates difficulties for families, family life and communities.
Probably the most disturbing element is that 80% or more of people who go to prison for fine default end up back in prison in the following four years. It indicates that the system of imprisoning people for fines default is counterproductive in every way. It is damaging and ineffective. People find themselves in what is effectively a university of crime and consequently find themselves back in prison within four years.
Much of the comment on the Bill relates to the payment of fines by instalment. However, the first option for judges in these cases should be community service orders, which would ensure there is a punishment and also that the community and the individual would benefit from the situation that has arisen. That should be the first option and every effort should be made to ensure that community service orders are handed down rather than fines, attachment orders or imprisonment.
Up to now many people end up in prison for a period of time. Some people are taken to prison by public transport or Garda transport and with an hour or two are taken back home on public transport. Obviously it is a system that is not working, and is costly, ineffective and damaging.
The Deputy has one minute remaining.
I welcome the provision to allow for payments of fines by instalment. I would prefer a longer period to do so - 24 months rather than 12 months. It should also allow for the payment of fines of up to €100 by instalment because for many people €100 is a significant amount of money. Credit union surveys have shown that people have very little, if any, excess income. I believe all fines should be allowed to be paid by instalment.
Eviction is a very difficult and emotive issue. A family in Kanturk faces eviction by banks and their bondholders whom we have bailed out. These are people who have done their best to meet their responsibilities and through no fault of their own they found themselves in very severe financial difficulties.
I want to call the Deputy's colleague.
I will finish with this. The banks should be forced to make reasonable agreements with the vast majority of people who having made their best effort find themselves unable to repay their mortgages.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for facilitating my change of speaking time. I am pleased to be able to speak on the Bill today. We all know the criminal justice system and the court system need reform in this area. A referendum will be held shortly and sadly most people do not have a clue what it is about. The effect will be merely to insert another layer of judicial appointments between courts and will keep the barristers busier - no barrister will come out to oppose that.
The fines area needs to be addressed sensibly and sensitively. I welcome the provision for fines to be paid by instalment. While it probably will not happen, I hope we will see an end to the system of gardaí serving warrants and picking up individuals. We have heard some of them on radio shows this year - nonsensical parking fines and silly things that should be dealt with administratively on the ground. Community service should be an alternative and a first step rather than going through the process. On occasions people may not even know about it and next thing there is a fine. In a recent case a person paid a few euro more than the fine amount by mistake. The cheque was sent back rather than cashing it and putting the extra amount into the poor box. He was then served with a summons, arrested, brought to a prison where he was inducted, fed, watered and given pocket money to come home. The Minister of State sitting opposite knows it is a farce and it must be dealt with. The sooner the legal situation is taken on the better.
I raised the Kanturk case on the Order of Business this morning. I have a copy of the sheriff's order which was printed on 9 September advising the people that an order for possession had been lodged with the sheriff on behalf of the plaintiff, the bank, and that she would carry out the execution of that order seven days after the date of the letter. It was signed by a brand new sheriff, who appeared on a radio programme recently saying how genuine she would be and how she would understand the families and would not hurt them. We are acting on behalf of rogue banks that will not allow these people to pay. The sheriff's staff arrived on the scene yesterday. We have all the powers of the State working for these banks. The Government has changed the legislation - we voted twice in the last session - to allow banks to repossess homes.
Section 133 of the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act states, "The power of the sheriff, or of other persons entitled to exercise the sheriff’s powers, to seize a tenancy under a writ of fieri facias or other process of execution is abolished". I am not good at Latin - the last time I spoke Latin was while serving Mass - but people know what that Latin term means. How can a sheriff be outside a house intimidating a family if that was abolished in an Act? Are we paying any heed to the Acts that are passed here? We are doing so for the little people - we persecute them and lock them up. However, for the banks we let them do what they like. It is law for one and no law for the others. We need to bring back Ned Kelly or someone like him. In case people might not understand fieri facias, it is a writ of execution authorising a sheriff to lay a claim to and seize goods and chattels of a debtor to fulfil a judgment against the debtor. As it has been delayed by good people and court threat, all that will happen is that the sheriff and her agents will be paid - and well paid.
The receivers represent the biggest industry in the country. We are passing laws and empowering them to terrorise people. Another auction will take place - now that they have found a home for it in the RDS. We are allowing these gangsters, mobsters to run riot here and are passing laws that are actually empowering them. This Bill is not worth the paper it is written on because it empowers the big people rather than dealing with things sensibly. However, the legal profession might be upset if we took away some of their income. It is all law and no justice.
The referendum the Government is backing is another farce because it is just putting in another layer. No barrister has come out against it. I heard one of them this morning debating with the Minister for Justice and Equality who said he was partly opposed it. He is not against it because it sets up whole tier of the Judiciary and we know who will be appointed - the card-carrying members of Fine Gael and Labour, just as happened with the previous Government. This Government promised change but there is no change. Those appointed will have to be friends of the Taoiseach or Minister for Justice and Equality as we saw with recent appointments.
A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, will the Member give way for a question?
That is what is happening. It has happened here in recent times and it is public knowledge.
The time is up and Deputy Stanton is the next speaker.
It would be useful of the Member opposite would stick to the Bill we are discussing rather than going off on all kinds of other tangents.
The truth hurts.
The Bill repeals and replaces Part 3 of the Fines Act 2010. It is progressive legislation, which I fully welcome. I hope the Bill will be enacted by the end of the year and operational by 2014. Its purpose is to keep the number of people committed to prison for the non-payment of fines to an absolute minimum. We want to have fewer people in our prisons.
This is in line with several recommendations that have been made, including the report on penal reform published last March by the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. I have the honour of chairing the committee, which has made several recommendations on reducing prison numbers: commuting prison sentences to less than six months; increasing the standard remission from one quarter to one third; introducing an incentivised remission scheme; introducing legislation to provide for structured release, temporary release, parole and community return - I understand community return is working quite well; addressing prison conditions, and so on. The thrust is to consider what is happening in other countries, including some states in America and especially in Finland, which has reduced the numbers in prison substantially from 4,000 to 3,000. Crime has fallen there as a result. There are other ways of doing this.
I have met gardaí who have put it to me that it is very frustrating for them to commit someone to prison only to find that the prisoner is home before they are. This is happening time out of number. The Bill serves to address this problem. I call on the Minister to address an issue that was reported about in the newspapers this morning. An allegation was made that 649,509 summonses were not served between 2009 and 2012. That amounts to 39% of 1.7 million summonses issued by the Courts Service during that period. This is an important issue and we need to get to the bottom of it. Is that true and, if so, why is it happening? Is it the case that gardaí are so disillusioned with the current system that they do not bother to issue summonses because it is a waste of time and because prisoners can be home before the gardaí in some instances? I am not blaming anyone - certainly not the gardaí or the prison governors, because they can only take in so many people. It is simply that the system up to now has been wrong and we are now trying to change it.
The last time I spoke on this issue I referred to the community court system in New York. I have a sense that we are moving in that direction. The community court system in New York has been in place for several years now and is successful. The way it works is simple. People are arrested for misdemeanours or low-level offences. Provided they plead guilty, the following day at the latest they appear before a specially trained judge or justice in a community court. They can get a prison sentence, but in the main they get community service from the judge. They must report immediately upon receipt of the sentence to a probation service. An assessment is carried out and they begin community service straight away - that day, if possible. It may be for one or two weeks and if they are working or in college they can do it at weekends. In addition, their behaviour is monitored for six months and if at the end of the six-month period they do not re-offend, their files are sealed. I am told that recidivism over there has gone from 80% to 18%.
I visited New York last spring and I sat on the bench with a community court judge and watched the system in action. I met the people working behind the scenes and I was highly impressed with the system. The Fines (Payment and Recovery) Bill 2013 is moving in that direction because it emphasises community service and working in the community, and the Minister is to be commended on this progress. In the United States the type of work done by people on community service is worth a great deal to the communities and voluntary organisations, NGOs and so on. However, the fact that they are monitored and kept in touch with by the court and that the judge receives a periodic report on their behaviour adds to the value.
The Joint Sub-Committee on Penal Reform went through this report and the Department has a related working group in place at the moment. As part of the work we met several agencies that are doing interesting work in the area. The Etruscan Life Training & Education Centre is well worth seeing. The staff there deal with anger management and people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol and they try to get these people to change their lives. They have been quite successful. PACE deals with people who come out of prison and those working there try to ensure that they do not go back in. Care After Prison was established quite recently in the Carmelite Community Centre on Aungier Street and it has a 100% success rate in ensuring people do not return to prison in the Dublin area, a fantastic achievement that improves the quality of life of everyone. The Parole Board is doing fantastic work. A group that has interested me greatly is the Cornmarket Project in Wexford. I almost accused those involved of keeping it a State secret. I visited the project and saw what they were doing. They are dealing with people who have great difficulties in their lives and who are from the tough end of it. I understand they have a 63% success rate. There are other ways of helping people to stay out of prison, and we should be taking those into consideration.
I agree with some of the comments made earlier by my colleagues across the floor. Perhaps we should be putting more emphasis on community service. The joint committee will be examining the area of community courts later this year and I hope the Minister and staff from the Department of Justice and Equality get involved in examining the model because it has been quite successful.
An issue arises in respect of section 15, which deals with attachment orders. It appears to apply only to persons in employment or receiving an occupational pension. I will stand corrected, but I understand that fines will not be deducted from social welfare payments. The Department maintains this is not a valid option due to the cost of administration and because social welfare rules mean that only approximately €2 per week can be deducted. However, on a regular basis the Department of Social Protection deducts overpayments of social welfare when they arise.
I believe that a fine should be paid or else a community service order should be implemented - one or the other. If someone is not in a position to pay a fine, he should do community service. There should be no out simply because someone is on social welfare, and this should be made clear somewhere in the legislation. Even if it is only €2 per week, eventually over a year a person would pay back €100. Everyone should pay the fine. Allowing people to pay a fine by instalment and introducing attachments on earnings are new and important reforms to the fines collection system and should lead to an improved collection rate for fines. Ultimately, we will end up with fewer people engaging with the prison system, and that is important as well.
Mention was made earlier of white-collar crime. Section 5 relates to taking into account a person's ability to pay a fine when setting the level of that fine, and that is welcome. The Law Reform Commission recommends indexing against inflation, which is important. I understand that in some jurisdictions - particularly in Finland - if a wealthy person comes before the court, the court takes into account the nature of the person's income and fines are adjusted in accordance with the income. This means a person cannot be seen to buy his way out of a situation, and it will not be merely a fleabite in that it makes no difference to someone who is well off. Perhaps we should consider a system whereby if someone who is well off offends, the fines are adjusted in order that the person actually feels the pain to the same extent as someone at the lower end of the income spectrum and such that the wealthy person does not get off the hook by paying a fine that does not really matter because it is only small change. Section 5 relates to taking into account a person's ability to pay a fine. The thinking is that if someone has a low income the fine would be adjusted down, but perhaps we should consider providing for a situation whereby if someone has a high income the fine could be adjusted up.
I welcome the Law Reform Commission's fourth programme, presented yesterday to the Oireachtas joint committee. It was an interesting presentation. One area the commission is examining is that of white-collar and corporate crime. This is to be welcomed because we need to start examining it. Sometimes when well-off people break the law, a fine does not mean anything to them.
What does community service mean and how does it work? This is something I would like to see a report on soon.
My information is that it is extremely positive for everyone, works well and provides much work in the community and for NGOs and so on that is highly valuable. It would be useful to ascertain what is the financial benefit of community service per annum to the community in which it takes place.
The sharing of information between the Revenue Commissioners, the Department of Social Protection and the Courts Service that is provided for in section 23 will ensure that all recovery and attachment orders are accurate and are executed correctly. It also will allow for information on welfare payments, tax payments and overall revenue to be shared with the courts and will ensure all the information is accurate. This is quite important and will prevent misstatements of income and total value to reduce fines levied or cost of instalments and so on. I understand the instalment option will not apply to fines of less than €100 and some agencies, including the Irish Penal Reform Trust, consider even €100 to be a significant amount of money for some families in the current economic climate. The trust recommends that the amount below which a fine cannot be paid by instalment should be removed and it might be useful to consider this point on Committee Stage.
I refer to the appointment of sheriffs and so on and note some colleagues have mentioned a matter that has come to all Members' attention, namely, the tactics used by some debt recovery agencies. I have concerns about some of the tactics that have been reported and believe guidelines are required to ensure such agencies do not break the law or cause undue stress to people who already are stressed and that the so-called "bully boy" tactics mentioned do not occur. I appreciate there are two sides to every coin, that in some instances, people have refused to engage at any level and that this is the last resort. However, it should be the last resort and the tactics used and behaviour of such agencies must be investigated. Greater clarity is required regarding the setting of a proportion of the receiver's fees where property is seized. According to the Irish Penal Form Trust, consideration should be given to the setting of a maximum level or a proportion of a receiver's fees where property is seized and this issue may require further debate.
I reiterate my welcome for the Bill. In this context, I wish to encourage a debate on what one might call problem-solving courts, as considerably more responsibility will be placed on judges, which I welcome, to examine the lives of those who appear before them to ascertain what is the best solution. If one takes as an example the community court model in New York, this is moving into the area of problem-solving courts. Much work has been done in New York in this regard and only yesterday, the authorities there established what they call a trafficking court to deal with and specialise in human trafficking and the victims of human trafficking. I note reports this morning that the Council of Europe has expressed concern on the level of trafficking in Ireland, especially into prostitution, and perhaps we should find out how the trafficking court in New York operates. While I am straying a little from the point, this relates to the area of specialised courts. There has been criticism of such courts on the basis that they may become somewhat isolated and that they must keep in touch with developments which are in law outside of their own specialism. However, if people are aware of that need, that also can be done. I commend the Bill the House, am pleased by its introduction and look forward to its operation. Before I conclude, there was an issue about the putting in place of the proper software and computer systems to allow all this to happen. In his summing up, the Minister of State might refer to that and clarify for Members what precisely is the position regarding the software that was needed, what is its present status, whether it is in place now and is working under the current legislation as it stands or whether more time or investment is required to get it in place.
I call on Deputy Pringle, who I understand to be sharing time with Deputy Boyd Barrett.
Yes, I believe so. I will be taking no more than ten minutes anyway.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate today on the Fines (Payment and Recovery) Bill 2013. When one considers that more than 8,500 people were incarcerated last year for non-payment of fines, the general purpose of this Bill must be welcomed because a situation in which so many people end up in jail for non-payment of fines is untenable and should not be allowed to continue. I believe this Bill will contribute to removing this practice from society, which is important. I have some concerns regarding the Bill itself and some of its provisions. It is interesting that many of the provisions in the Fines Act 2010 on the recovery of fines have not yet been implemented. Consequently, this Bill is not really based on a need to change legislation that already is in place because while the legislation has been passed by the Houses of the Oireachtas, it has not been implemented and this is not a good way to operate a fines recovery system across the State.
The Bill itself provides for attachment orders to be placed on the wages of those who have been fined and for it to be paid in instalments. While a number of Members already have raised this important point, the period for the payment of the instalments differs under this Bill from the provisions in the Act of 2010. Under the proposed legislation, the period is for 12 months only and the Minister must reconsider and amend this provision on Committee Stage or later to extend the provision to at least a 24 month period. People in society may not even necessarily have received very large fines for them to have difficulty in discharging them within a 12 month period and it definitely must be extended to at least 24 months. In addition, the ability of a person to be able to pay a fine of any sort must be taken into account when the fine is being levied and courts should be highly cognisant of this, particularly in the current climate.
Section 6(5) provides for the provision of an administrative charge of 10% on those who pay fines by instalment, which is excessive. I do not believe a 10% administration cost will be in evidence in respect of the processing of fines, particularly when one considers this can be done through an information technology system. While there may be an initial cost in implementing such a system, this should be carried by the State in the interest of the public good. The Courts Service should not actually make a profit on the payment of fines by instalments on foot of the retention of the aforementioned 10% administrative charge. A worrying aspect to this legislation is that in its report for 2012, the Courts Service stated it still is not in a position to be able to accept fines by instalments and it has highlighted the need for its IT systems to be updated to ensure it can do this. This is worrying when one considers that paying in instalments has been on the Statute Book since 2010, although it has not been commenced. Will it be the case that next year or in two or three years' time, the Courts Service will have been unable to step up to the mark? As this measure has been flagged for so long, the Courts Service should be ready to roll out a system of paying by instalments as soon as this Act is implemented because the system will simply collapse otherwise. Moreover, it will be completely unacceptable for the Courts Service not to be in a position to cater for citizens of this State who are willing to pay by instalments. While I am unsure whether this has been covered in the Bill, provision should be made to enable people to pay through the post office or their local council office and so on in a manner similar to car tax, television licence fees and everything else. The avenues and options available to people to make payments should be as broad as possible to facilitate them in so doing.
Section 6 also provides that fines under €100 are not eligible for payment in instalments. This should be re-examined by the Minister. A fine of €100 could place a severe burden on many families and individuals. The difficulty in being able to get €100 together to discharge a fine cannot be underestimated. For some single people living on jobseeker's allowance of €188 per week it will be impossible to pay €100 in a once-off system such as this. The level at which payment by instalments can be implemented must be looked at and adjusted. Also, I note with interest that in the explanatory memorandum circulated with the legislation there appears to be a problem in respect of social welfare recipients and whether their fines can be deducted from their payments due to the levels allowed. The social welfare Act passed earlier this year changed the level that can be deducted from people to 15% of their social welfare payment. I hope this provision is not intended to allow only people who are in employment to be able to pay their fines by instalments, but that it is also intended for recipients of social welfare so they can benefit from the instalment process. Otherwise, there would be a situation where possibly the only people who would end up incarcerated for non-payment of fines would be social welfare recipients, if they are unable to avail of payment by instalments. That is very important.
The right to appoint a receiver to confiscate property to allow for fines to be discharged is a very serious development. It must be examined and considered very carefully. There should be a minimum level of fine under which a receiver would not be appointed. As we have seen over the last few years, receivers are probably one of the few growth sectors in the State, given the amount of receivers that have been appointed to properties and companies throughout the country. Appointing another raft of receivers to recover the value of fines is something we must consider very carefully. It should only be in exceptional cases and for very high levels of fines that the appointment of a receiver would be considered, particularly as appointing a receiver will add an additional amount to the cost of the fine because the receiver's fees will be paid out of the property being confiscated to recover the fine.
Section 11 provides that where recovery of assets is not possible a community service order or imprisonment may follow. It appears the court does not have to consider that first, but can go straight for recovery of assets. I believe it should be able to consider the community service element in advance of recovery through confiscating assets. Community service means the person is not incarcerated and it can add some value to the community the person comes from in discharging the fine.
I will consider tabling amendments relating to the issues I have raised. I ask the Minister to consider the arguments I have made in respect of the problems we can foresee with the operation of the legislation.
I call Deputy Boyd Barrett. He has 11 minutes.
I might not use all of them, for a change.
I welcome the objective of this legislation. It is a worthy objective to try to limit the number of people who are imprisoned for non-payment of fines.
It is not true in all cases but, in my experience, in a huge number of cases imprisonment for non-payment of fines is, in effect, imprisonment for poverty. People should not be imprisoned for poverty. What prompted me to speak on this issue was a phone call I received last week from somebody in the Tallaght area. A disabled, elderly man told me he was due to appear in court last Friday for non-payment of a television licence and was under threat of possible imprisonment. He told me something even more shocking. He was so outraged by this, because obviously somebody who is disabled is entitled to a free television licence, that in seeking to challenge it he had rung the local Garda station. I have still to confirm what he told me as I only heard it last week, but he informed me that 20 to 30 people in Tallaght in the last couple of weeks have been imprisoned for non-payment of the television licence. He alleged, and I have heard of a couple of such instances, that because people have so little money there is a type of informal but now routine arrangement where the gardaí call and advise that the person would be better off doing a prison sentence as only a few hours will be served following which the liability for the fine will have been discharged.
People are so desperate and so unable to pay that they are opting to spend a few hours or a day or two in prison rather than pay the fine, which they cannot afford. It a sad indictment of our society at present that people would voluntarily opt for prison in a situation where it is either do that or pay a fine for a television licence or another fine which they simply do not have the means to pay. The least we can do is try to minimise the rate of incarceration of people because, in a huge number of cases, they do not have any money.
I have not had a chance to study the finer detail of the Bill but I intend to table amendments as necessary. What is important is that we ensure the fullest consideration is given to the circumstances that led to people being unable to pay a particular fine. If it is genuine poverty and if, as is the case for many people at present, choices are being made between paying the mortgage, the credit union, the household bills or looking after children and in that context people let certain things drop, such as a fine or television licence, the most generous understanding of that difficulty should be extended by the court to people who might find themselves in that situation. We should find a such a way of proceeding so we do not have to waste money, time, resources, administration and so forth on, essentially, having to punish people for a situation that is largely out of their control. That is the point we must reach.
I have not had an opportunity to listen to the debate so far but, as others have probably mentioned, we all know it costs far more to keep people in prison than, for example, to give them a job. That is a huge anomaly when one considers our prison population generally. Overwhelmingly, people in prison come from less well-off or disadvantaged backgrounds. That is true not only in respect of non-payment of fines but generally. In a huge number of cases if people just had meaningful and reasonably paid employment, it would be the route out of the circumstances which led them into prison in the first place. The annual cost of keeping somebody in prison is approximately €70,000 per year.
That figure represents the jobs of two people earning the average industrial wage. This is a serious anomaly and in order to deal with it we must try to address the conditions which may lead to people going to prison, for example, poverty, unemployment, living in disadvantaged areas etc., rather than punishing those individuals for being the victims of difficult circumstances. What I have just outlined represents the general thrust of the Bill. Notwithstanding my differences with the Minister, Deputy Shatter, on many issues, I am sure that this thrust arises out of his experiences in the courts. I welcome what is being done but I am of the view that we must go even further in order to try to understand the circumstances of people who find themselves in difficulty.
Deputy Pringle's point with regard to increasing the period for instalment payments from 12 to 24 is absolutely correct. I know people who are in debt in respect of their bin charges or who are behind on their rent. In that context, it can be tough for individuals to meet the terms of arrangements whereby they are allowed to pay off their debts at €5 or €10 per week over two or three years. Discharging a fine of a few hundred euro over a period of a year could place quite a serious additional burden on those who are on the very margins in the context of their economic viability. In such circumstances, I am of the view that we should extend the time limit.
I completely agree that community service should be the first option taken in cases where it is necessary to impose some form of penalty on an individual for non-payment of a fine. Surely obliging someone to perform community service, which involves giving something back to society, would be far better than seizing his or her assets or imposing a term of imprisonment.
The Bill is extremely detailed. I genuinely welcome the fact that it has been brought forward and that an attempt has been made to deal in a progressive manner with a real problem. In some cases the nature of that problem borders on the scandalous. Successive Governments - not necessarily this Administration - have allowed it to continue to obtain for many years. I refer to ordinary people who are not a threat to society being imprisoned and the subsequent costs to which this gives rise for them and society in general. I look forward to the remainder of the debate on this legislation as it passes through the Houses.
I understand Deputies Corcoran Kennedy, John Paul Phelan, Kyne and Walsh propose to share time. They will each have five minutes in which to make their contributions.
I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this welcome legislation. When citizens break the law there are consequences involved. The use of fines is a punishment which is intended to be an encouragement for people not to break the law. Fines are widely used by the Courts Service as a cost-effective punishment for specific offences.
The Minister, Deputy Shatter, outlined the three main objectives of the legislation. These are restoring confidence in the administration of justice where fines have been imposed by the courts, ensuring that fines imposed by the courts are collected and reducing the number of people committed to prison each year for the non-payment of fines. I do not believe anyone can argue with those objectives. I wish to focus on the final objective first. The increase in the number of committals to prison in respect of the non-payment of fines is extraordinary, particularly when one considers that the average fine amounts to just over €300. The majority of fines imposed are for amounts of less than €200. In 2007, 1,335 people were committed to prison for non-payment of fines. Just five years later - in 2012 - that number had increased to an incredible 8,304. Who are the people who would go to prison rather than pay fines and why do they take this course of action? The answers in this regard are complex. I understand that some individuals are even being jailed for non-payment of their television licence fee. Is it a case that they cannot pay, that they will not pay or a combination of both?
I am of the view that the punishment should be appropriate to the offence committed. I further believe that imprisonment for non-payment of sums of between €200 and €300 is a waste of public money. However, if fines are imposed, they must be paid. The legislation will keep to a minimum the number of people committed to prison for such transgressions. This will fit well with our overall aim to restrict the prison population to a minimum. It is in all our interests to do so, particularly when one considers that in 2012 the average cost to the taxpayer regarding the incarceration of each prisoner was €65,404. That figure, which does not include the cost of education, is staggering.
Imposing fines which take account of the means of the person involved is critical. Fining people with higher means will have very little impact on them in comparison to individuals who have lesser means. In the context of the provision whereby people will be permitted top pay fines over a period of 12 instalments, I request that consideration be given to using the previous period of 24 instalments in certain circumstances. I understand that such a move has been recommended by the Irish Penal Reform Trust. Every effort should be made to simplify the payment of fines by means of instalment by allowing for their collection via the services offered by An Post and the banks. This will ensure that fines will be paid by those upon whom they are imposed.
I welcome the provision which will permit the sharing of data by Revenue, the Department of Social Protection and the Courts Service. I also welcome the fact that attachments of earnings will apply in respect of unpaid fines. However, we should give careful consideration to the recommendation contained in the report on penal reform, which was produced by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality and to which previous speakers referred, to the effect that prison sentences of less than six months duration in respect of non-violent offences should be commuted and replaced with community service orders. This recommendation should be implemented as soon as possible.
In the broader context, an impression has been given that the payment of a fine removes one's debt to society. In that context and like previous speakers, I am of the view that the imposition of fines in respect of significant sexual offences is not the correct route to take. People should not be able to buy their way out of certain offences which are grossly offensive to the majority of the population merely because they have the money to do so. Society faces a challenge in ensuring that citizens operate within the law, which is vital to ensure that society can function. The legislation before the House will go a long way towards ensuring that people who are fined for minor offences will be kept out of the prison system.
I support the legislation and agree with many of the comments made by speakers on both sides of the House. Regardless of whether they were all served, the fact that last year over 8,000 people received some form of prison sentence in respect of the non-payment of fines is quite startling. Deputy Boyd Barrett referred to people choosing the option of going to prison rather than paying fines. The latter has a significant impact on the individuals involved and gives rise to a significant cost to the Exchequer. I welcome the Bill because it will change the position in this regard. I am sure all Members are of the view that people who do not pay fines, whether by choice or because they cannot afford to do so, should not end up in prison and that attachment of earnings and community service orders offer a much more effective way of ensuring that justice will be served.
I wish to focus on community service orders, which are imposed in a very haphazard way throughout the country at present. Is some areas significantly more of these orders are put in place than is the case elsewhere.
Deputy Stanton referred to work his committee will undertake in the near future in regard to the community court system which is prevalent in New York and which has worked to a very startling extent in that city. Recidivism among people who have appeared before the community court has dropped from 80% to 18% since its introduction. People are tracked for up to six months after appearing before the community court and, if they do not get into any difficulty in that period of time, their file is sealed and it is not something which can be held against them at a later date. There is much scope for additional legislation in that area in this jurisdiction. People should not go to jail for the non-payment of television licences and traffic fines.
A few days ago, a leading national commentator spent a couple of hours in prison as a result of a traffic offence. Some might argue it was a little bit of a stunt on the part of that person and one could argue that it was a misuse of State resources that somebody would spend a few hours in prison to discharge his or her liability, having gone through the courts and prison system. That is why this legislation is really important.
I agree with Deputy Stanton's comments on the possibility of deductions from social welfare payments, in particular for smaller fines, although it is a controversial area. The Department of Social Protection is in a position to look for money back when overpayments are made to those in receipt of social welfare. A small contribution over a long period of time to ensure somebody does not end up in prison should happen. Failing that, a more effective community service order regime should ensure such people never end up in prison for non-payment of fines.
Deputy Mattie McGrath and others raised the issue of sheriffs and debt collection. There is no doubt the tactics being used by individuals operating for some of the leading financial institutions in this country leave a lot to be desired. I know it is not an area with which this Bill deals specifically but it is something which cannot continue. Some of these bully boy tactics are not appropriate and I hope the Minister will address that particular area in the near future.
I welcome the publication of this Bill and the debate which will take place over the coming weeks. Imprisonment must be one of the most detrimental events to take place in someone's life and its effects can be long-lasting, not only for the period of imprisonment. In some cases, it can lead people down a path of no return. While it is important imprisonment is there as a deterrent, I welcome the Minister's proposal in this Bill that the minimum number of people will be sent to prison for non-payment of fines.
I accept many of the useful observations published by the Irish Penal Reform Trust. One of the main points is that sending people to prison for non-payment of fines is a great strain on the system and it also costs the taxpayer. Imprisonment should be seen as a last resource, especially for repeat offenders. One of the innovations of this Bill is the instalment option which allows people to pay by instalment over a period of 12 months. This will allow a more manageable and equitable system and should also result in greater numbers of people paying their fines. I know of people who have had fines of €250 and who looked for the opportunity to pay by instalments, so I am glad to see this will be allowed in the future.
Section 6(5) has a stipulation that an administration fee of up to 10% should be imposed, with the Minister to set the exact percentage. This will be an additional charge to be levied and is reasonable because there would be an administrative fee if the fine was to be paid in instalments, whether in a post office or otherwise, with the proceeds of some of this going to the benefit of communities and charities. The figure of 10%, however, needs to be looked at and perhaps a lower figure would be more reasonable, especially when one considers that those who wish to pay in instalments would be doing so by necessity because they do not have the money to pay the lump sum in one go.
I also welcome the community service orders and the attachment of earnings provision. The attachment of earnings is practised by the Department of Social Protection in regard to overpayment of welfare payments and in family law situations to allow people to comply with maintenance orders. Section 15 has a stipulation which only permits attachment orders to be applied to persons in employment and in receipt of private pensions. While social welfare payments are at a basic level, we need to look at that area if there are high levels of social welfare payments going to an individual which may give him or her the means to pay something by way of instalment.
Community service orders have much potential. As I stated, very often the proceeds derived from fines ultimately finance the community through official programmes, services or schemes of local or central government or, in some instances, charitable organisations. If a person fails to pay a fine through instalments or otherwise, his or her debt could be paid through restorative community work, of which there is a good variety of options that all benefit communities.
Other functions of the Bill are worth mentioning as they demonstrate a number of positives, such as the innovative use of IT by the Irish Courts Service in making the instalment payment option possible. The provision for the sharing of data between the Revenue Commissioners, the Department of Social Protection and the Irish Courts Service is vital in the interconnected society in which we live. Up to a few years ago, overpayments were being caused in the Department of Social Protection because various schemes were on two different IT systems. Some of the overpayments occurred because of this IT oversight or because of genuine human error. Others, however, were as a result of unscrupulous individuals who knew the system very well and knew how to defraud or, more significantly, defraud their fellow citizens.
I welcome this Bill as it aims to reduce the number of people imprisoned for non-payment of fines by utilising better IT and introducing more manageable recovery systems. I reiterate my concerns regarding the administration fee for paying by instalments and hope the Minister will be mindful of this when setting the percentage.
I welcome the opportunity to speak briefly on this Bill and I thank my colleagues for sharing Government time with me. The dysfunctionality of the current practice in regard to the collection of court imposed fines was recently highlighted by a case involving The Irish Times columnist, John Waters, to which Deputy John Paul Phelan referred. Having failed to pay a €40 parking fine, Mr. Waters presented himself at Dún Laoghaire Garda station and was transported by gardaí to Wheatfield Prison where he was processed and spent approximately two hours before being released. The whole exercise cost the State far more in resources than the original fine. He was essentially afforded a very expensive visitor's tour of the prison facilities before heading home in time for his dinner.
The provisions of the Bill seek to address some of the problems arising from the disproportionality and rigidity of the current system. The introduction of a range of enforcement options, such as attachment orders, community service and the appointment of receivers, will improve compliance rates and make imprisonment an option of last resort. Rather than imposing further expense on society, the Bill will ensure offenders repay their debt to society. While it represents bad news for those who will not pay, it is a welcome development for those who wish to pay but struggle to do so within the timeframes outlined by the courts. In this regard, I warmly welcome the inclusion of section 6, which again provides for the payment of court-imposed fines by instalment. This was an aspiration under the Fines Act 2010, as we know, but the relevant section was not commenced because of the need for the courts' information technology system to be developed and upgraded to enable it to function as envisaged in the 2010 Act.
Like other Members of the House, in recent years I have met several constituents who want to pay court fines they have received but do not have the means to do so within the permitted timeframe. They have sought to engage with the Courts Service by offering what they could, along with a genuine undertaking that the balance would follow but this cannot be accommodated and they face the prospect of going to prison. It is difficult for Deputies to explain to them that a law providing for the payment of fines by instalment has been passed, but the relevant section of that legislation has not yet been commenced. One might expect to hear the excuse that a staggered payment plan is not possible because the courts' computer system cannot process the information from a substandard call centre, but not from the justice system of the State. The inclusion in this Bill of a section providing for payment by instalments is to be welcomed. It will bring fairness to the system. Under the current system, those who cannot afford to pay go to prison, whereas those who can comfortably pay their fines do not. This is the epitome of inequality.
The provisions of the Bill will mean nothing to those who have to pay fines unless they are enabled through the adequate resourcing of the courts system in order to allow them to work. It is worth noting that the estimated outlay involved in the required upgrade of the District Court criminal case management system and the courts' accounting system is approximately €400,000, which is a fraction of the projected increase in revenue that will accrue from improved collection rates and a reduction in the number of people being imprisoned for not paying fines if this legislation is enacted in full. I would be anxious to hear a commitment from the Minister regarding a timeframe within which the requisite resources and infrastructure might be provided to allow this legislation to function fully and as intended.
I will not use all the time available to me. I welcome this Bill. Legislation is generally introduced for a positive purpose and we all welcome it. The introduction of the Bill reminds me that the Government and various Departments - in this case, the Department of Justice and Equality - are failing to implement the legislation we have. Much of the Bill deals with the uncommenced sections of the Fines Act 2010. If I check the debate on that legislation, I am sure I will find that everybody welcomed its introduction as a progressive development. It is baffling that the 2010 Act has not been implemented in the last three years.
I welcome the Bill because something needs to be done about the repeat offenders - people with 10, 20 or 30 convictions - who continuously appear before the courts in Dublin and in our large towns. When the free legal aid mechanism becomes operative the barrister or solicitor gives a spiel on behalf of the defendant, the judge listens with a certain amount of compassion and the individual goes out the door to repeat the offence with very little to deter him or her.
It is important to ensure this legislation is implemented as soon as possible. We know from the application of speeding and parking fines that people who are hit in the pocket with €60 fines will be slow to think about parking illegally again. Human nature being what it is, one will take the risk if one is likely to face a fine of €5 or €10, or if there is a chance that one will not be caught. If the fines are sufficiently strong and consistent, and if they take one's circumstances into consideration, they will certainly have an impact.
The report that was compiled in preparation for this legislation states that approximately €14 million in fines was collected in 2012. It refers to a collection rate of 82%, which means that almost 20% of fines are not collected. It can be estimated on the basis of the figures for 2010, 2011 and 2012 that approximately €10 million in small fines has not been collected since 2010. That is almost half of what it costs to run the Seanad for a year.
That was a quick calculation.
When one takes into account the administration costs associated with dealing with those who do not pay their fines, including the cost of imprisoning them which is approximately €2 million per annum, it can be estimated that the non-implementation of the Fines Act 2010 has cost the State approximately €16 million in the three years since 2010. I do not know how accurate those statistics are. I have taken them from the appendix to the document on the legislation.
I wish to comment on the idea of putting someone in prison for a short period of time. The revolving door policy, which we used to speak about a number of years ago, is still being pursued. I met someone recently who was sent to prison for not paying a Revenue fine. He was picked up, brought to Wheatfield Prison in Dublin and kitted out in his new prison clothes. He was released two hours later and his clothes were put into the bin. I am sure they were incinerated so they could not be used again. It is a complete waste of money.
It is important that under this legislation fines will depend on income. A sum like €10 or even €100 might mean something to one individual but nothing to another. Some people can afford to forget that they have tens of thousands of euro stashed under the bath. It is important that these fines are relative.
The concept of attachment of earnings orders was introduced into Irish law by the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act 1976. I would love to know how much money is collected in maintenance fines each year. I appreciate that this legislation does not deal directly with this aspect of the matter. I think fathers who have maintenance orders against them get away with murder in this country. I would like the Minister and the Department of Justice and Equality to examine this issue. I intend to table a number of parliamentary questions about the extent to which maintenance orders are being adhered to.
People have responsibilities in society and in life. That is why we have laws, regulations and rules. Very often, they are not implemented. I suspect that in the area of maintenance collection, there is very poor implementation and very little follow-up on the maintenance orders. I know from the lone parents I deal with on a weekly basis that in many cases one parent has completely abdicated responsibility and is making no contribution whatsoever. The State has to pick up the tab in such circumstances. When I say "the State" I am referring to the individuals who fund its activities.
There is an increasing disconnect in our society. Those who feel they have to carry the load are increasingly disillusioned. When I was at the National Ploughing Championships in County Laois yesterday, I heard this message frequently from people who are trying to pay their way and make a living. Now that we are hopefully coming out of recession we must learn lessons from the boom period. People often ask me why they should take on extra employees in light of the difficulties presented to them by various rules and regulations. They feel that many of the taxes they are paying are being used to subsidise a section of society that does not pull its weight.
I appreciate that vulnerable people and people who face certain difficulties cannot work. I accept that the State and society as a whole should look after them. Having said that, people must pull their weight. Perhaps Deputies read the recent remarks made by the King of the Netherlands about the importance of people making a contribution to society. This is relevant to this Bill because I believe people who do not pay fines should be tasked with community service. It is important that those who cannot afford to pay fines make a contribution in the form of community service. I am a great believer in the concept of "workfare" rather than welfare. It is more productive for the courts to provide for community service than to impose fines. It is not just a case of going through the motions and doing something non-productive. It makes a contribution to society.
The Bill contains - I stand to be corrected - maximum periods for various fines. It is phased from €1 to €500 and there is a maximum period in prison of so many days, be they five or six days. I will look at this between now and Report Stage but I wonder whether we should look at the idea of a minimum time period in addition to this. If we had a minimum time period, perhaps only two days, it would stop the idea of bringing someone in for a couple of hours and going through the ritual. One could have a minimum time period of two days for the lesser fine and increase it. I understand the maximum period in prison for fines up to €3,000 is 90 days. There should be a minimum period of ten or 15 days as well because if someone does not pay their €3,000 and gets 90 days, they may well know that they will be out after half a day or a day so it will not be a deterrent. This policy should not aim to punish people. It should be a deterrent to make sure they comply with the law. If, for whatever reason, they do not comply with the law, the mechanism should be in place to allow them to meet their obligation under the law through a payment.
I do not know if the Department has ever looked at my next point or whether it is constitutionally possible but one thing one consistently comes across is the broken window on a weekend, the bin pulled aside and plants pulled up. Is there merit in looking at a system whereby if the local superintendent knows who did it and that person is willing to own up, there is an automatic fine to compensate for the damage done? If Deputy Terence Flanagan wants a period of time, I am happy to share my time with him. I continually hear about cases where shopkeepers have their windows broken and both they and the Garda know the perpetrator. By the time the case comes to fruition, if at all, things have moved on a few years, the insurance has covered the window, which is ultimately paid for everybody, or the individual businessperson or homeowner has repaired the damage done.
In his reply perhaps the Minister could look at the concept of an on-the-spot fine when there is an acknowledgement of the wrong done. It is an issue I might raise on Report Stage. Many people break windows or pull up plants. It is very difficult to understand why they do it, people can do it when they are younger and do not see the damage they are doing or its impact on society. If, when they are pulled in by the gardaí that evening or the next day, the local superintendent can say "the cost of that is €20", which is the equivalent of a small court fine except it is done at a local level, it saves on administration and allows the court to get on with more serious issues. How much time do I have left?
The Deputy has nine minutes.
A number of years ago, we would hardly turn on the television in the evening but there was an issue about the conditions in Mountjoy Prison, including the argument that everybody was getting drugs into the prison. In the past few years, that bad publicity has dampened down. I visited the prison a year or two ago and it struck me that one of the reasons why it has dampened is because the governor implemented a policy of involving the prisoners in work in the prison, be they painting or maintenance jobs. I must acknowledge the work of the governor, Mr. Edward Whelan. I saw how prisoners did up the showers. It enhanced the self-esteem of the prisoners who bought into the project. As a result, the discontent they felt and the difficulties with them dramatically decreased. This might be why we do not hear the same amount of bad stories about Mountjoy, notwithstanding the fact that our penal system leaves much to be desired. Due to an industrial dispute, it was four and a half years after the centre for young offenders in Mountjoy was built before it was used. I understand it opened up for a period but is now closed.
That leads on to my final point. I was part of a Fine Gael policy on dealing with young offenders. Unfortunately, the media damned the project which involved boot camps but they were really rehabilitation centres. I and a few others visited Warrington outside Manchester in the UK to look at a centre. I would plead with the Department to look at that type of facility for young offenders. It is not an extreme right-wing concept. It is a progressive concept. What struck me when I visited it was the relationship between the prison officers and the prisoners. I saw the letters former prisoners had written to the prison staff thanking them for the period they spent there. Prison officers outlined how young offenders across England wanted to get into the centre. Prisoners there carried out their woodwork, metalwork and plastering. They got up in the morning and made their beds. They had a very strict regime but they bought into it and it helped build up their self-esteem. There are common threads regarding why we have many young offenders. It relates to educational difficulties and offenders feeling that society has let them down, which it has in many respects with regard to the lack of early intervention in education and the bad housing policy in areas like north Dublin, parts of Cork and Limerick and other towns where there is no real concentration on the layout of housing estates.
I ask the Minister to look at the concept of giving young offenders an input into their period in prison to make it progressive rather than regressive. He should visit the centre in the UK and look at the letters written by prisoners who had no male role model in their lives as they grew up. All of a sudden, they bonded with the prison staff who took them on board not as prisoners or offenders but as people who needed direction and education. It benefited them. It was surprising to read the correspondence from the former prisoners in these centres. There are many families with a second or third generation in prison. I used to hear the former governor of Mountjoy Prison, John Lonergan, talk about it continually. He obviously knew the families whom society has failed. The old mechanisms do not work.
I support the concept of the Bill but it must be implemented. We do not want to come back here in a few years' time and find out that the fines are not being collected. It must be proportionate. Where people do not pay them, the community service must be productive. Young offenders and our prison system must be looked at. I will put down parliamentary questions to see if information about the non-payment of maintenance orders is out there because many people are abdicating their responsibilities.
I thank Deputy Timmins for sharing his time with me. I am supportive of the Bill and congratulate the Government in bringing in much-needed reform in this area. We know the non-payment of fines results in lost revenue for the Exchequer, wastes Garda time and resources that could be better used in fighting crime and leads to the imprisonment of a large number of people for short periods of time. Recently, the journalist John Waters wrote about his experience of spending two hours in a cell over a €40 parking fine. He set out his experience and the sheer waste of time and money involved in the current system. That is why reform is very much needed.
We know the Bill provides for a comprehensive system of collection and recovery of fines allowing for the first time for an attachment of earnings so that a fine will come out of a person's wage. That is one way of dealing with those who consistently abuse the law and fail to pay the moneys that are owing. In paying the fine, the only choice they have is to decide whether to make a single payment or to pay by instalments from their wages. If they fail to pay the fine within the year, they will face further court action through either a recovery order, an attachment order or community service. If all the options are exhausted, the person could face imprisonment. There is a major problem in this area.
As Deputies and legislators, we are all disappointed to see so many people imprisoned for minor crimes, given the overcrowded prisons in this country. The Irish Penal Reform Trust gave a statistic of 8,304 committals for non-payment of court order fines in 2012, including 242 people imprisoned for failing to pay fines for not having a television licence. The trust also advised that 85% of fine defaulters are back in custody within four years, which shows how ineffective the current system is.
The amount of money involved is sizeable, with the cost to the taxpayer last year estimated to be more than €2 million. The new measures are expected to result in substantially higher fine collection rates, some estimates suggesting approximately €4 million. Sometimes people are imprisoned for only a small number of hours - I referred to the case of John Waters - but there is a great deal of paperwork and administration involved, and much wastage of time on trivial matters. Dealing with the payment through people's wages is much more relevant.
Recently in my constituency a couple contacted me who were threatened with court action because they were unable to pay their television licence. A fine of €1,200 had accumulated over time and there was a threat they would be imprisoned. The couple were both in their 60s, fragile and very distressed and stressed out by the situation. If this Bill can prevent such situations, we must all welcome the change.
The system suggested in the Bill is very similar to the one in place in the UK, where imprisonment for non-payment of fines is rare and is only implemented if a person continues to ignore the various requests for payment made to him or her by the courts. In addition, a person can ask to pay fines in instalments and this will be considered by the court, which considers the person's genuine financial circumstances. If a car is clamped, for example, the car will be held by the court and sold, if need be, in order to pay for the fine. I am confident that this legislation will contribute favourably and will make a difference to the numbers currently caught up in our prisons for the non-payment of small fines.
I have one question for the Minister of State. I understand there is no provision in the Bill to deduct unpaid court fines from social welfare payments. Can this be considered in light of what takes place in the UK? Here, only up to €2 per week can be deducted. Is the Minister of State worried this might unfairly target people in employment over those who are claiming social welfare payments?
Deputy Bernard Durkan has 20 minutes.
With the permission of the Chair, I propose to share five minutes of my time with my colleague, Deputy Brendan Griffin.
This is déjà vu for some of us. We are reviewing an item we reviewed before, something that occurs with many pieces of legislation. A number of speakers have mentioned updating legislation. It is important that when we update legislation, it should remain updated. That should be the purpose of the exercise and we should not have to revisit it after a couple of years. In 2010, whatever the reasons and reservations were about its application, the legislation did not become fully operational, as has happened in the case of a number of other Bills which remain on the Statute Book. The Charities Act is the most recent example that comes to mind.
I wish to make a couple of points on the Bill. First, as a number of people have noted, a fine is imposed when a person has not discharged a duty or has broken the law, whatever the case may be. There are differences. The television licence has been referred to, for example, as have the numbers of those who have been imprisoned for failing to pay for their licence. For the life of me, I cannot understand why it has not been found possible over the years to prevent the person having to go to court in the first place. When a person is detected for not having a television licence, there should be a provision whereby he or she must then take out a licence or buy into a deferred payment system. That could then be taken into account in the determination of the fine or penalty.
What really takes me to the fair is where a person has not been able to pay for a television licence, which is very often the case in the prevailing circumstances, not necessarily only currently but over the years. As a public representative, I have dealt many times with cases where people were in prison for failing to pay for their television licences. Why did they not do so? There were so many other competing demands and the tendency was to put off paying. It is fine for people to say those involved should not have had a television if that was the case. Perhaps it was the only social outlet they had. Perhaps there was nothing else for them. Perhaps they were on a restricted income and could not afford it. The fact was they had the television, incurred the penalty and served time in prison - often more than 24 hours, which is appalling. That applies not only to this time but goes back throughout the past 20 or 30 years. If people want chapter and verse I can give them plenty.
This is the point at issue. When the crime, or whatever it may be, is detected and the person goes to court, how will it become possible for that person to pay what was not paid before and pay a penalty at the same time? That always takes me to the fair. I cannot understand it. It reminds me of the lenders, the banking system, in cases where a person falls behind in his or her payments. Some other person decides that in order to bring the payments up to date, they will be doubled up over the coming 12 months or so, with no chance whatsoever of achieving success in that situation. That is the first thing that must be taken into account. When the courts impose a fine or a prison sentence in a domestic case such as non-payment of a television licence, regard should be had to the ability of the person to pay and, ultimately, to the ability of that same person to pay a fine on top of the licence fee. I do not refer to people who deliberately avoid having to pay what is due by going through the prison system, abusing it as a means of getting away from payment. I do not accept anybody's right to do that.
One other aspect concerns me a little. As outlined in the Bill, a number of interventions are now required in cases when a person who fails to pay a fine has an attachment or a recovery order imposed by the court. Where it is not possible to make either order, the court may make a community service order. A visit back to court is again required. I would have thought that, in the first instance, the court should set out where the means and wherewithal could be found to discharge the fine. Otherwise, more time will be wasted, which creates a further burden on both the system and the person involved.
Recidivism was referred to by other speakers. There are two issues in that regard. First, there is the person who repeatedly commits a criminal offence. The courts are full of people who do this, who commit multiple crimes while on bail. The Minister referred to this during Question Time yesterday. Obviously there is a flaw in the system. These are people who deliberately flout and abuse the system, using it to continue doing what they have been doing. These are not hardship cases but are people who deliberately set out to break the law and profit thereby, punishing society at the same time. They do so with impunity, as far as I can see. How many times have we seen situations where people have a string of offences, have warrants issued against them for failure to appear before the courts, have committed crimes while on bail, and then get bail again? We need to have regard for that situation in the course of what we are doing here.
The Bill states that when an attachment or recovery order is made and the fine or part thereof remains outstanding, the court may make an order for community service. That is another intervention. Why not deal with that and get it out of the way in the first place by making whatever provision needs to be made? A number of options are available then to the unfortunate person who, through no fault of his or her own, has incurred the penalty.
I was dealing with a case recently where a person stopped outside the St. Vincent de Paul shop and was clamped. The person will obviously have to pay, but I cannot understand how it could not be possible for the attendant to work out for himself where the person might be. The person was not going there for the good of his health but for a particular purpose. The person did have an entitlement in this case to a special parking order which was displayed but which was out of date, but at least that was an indication of the person's particular circumstances. Of course, there was no such luck. This was the application of the rule, as somebody determined, and I believe that was wrong.
I have as much knowledge of the inside of a prison as the outside of a prison, and more knowledge of the former than many in here. It is an intimidating experience and one that will last with the person all of his or her life. I dealt with the case of a widow who was imprisoned for failure to pay her television licence. It was an awful experience, because her children were put into care while she was in prison. Somebody was trying to illustrate whatever they were trying to illustrate at the time, but I thought it was a callous act on the part of the person who determined that. There are no excuses in any caring society that will allow something like that to happen. There should be due regard for the degree to which it fails to be caring.
What are the reasons for an attachment order? Is it for a criminal reason or has the fine or penalty been imposed for negligence on the part of the person concerned? Is it due to hardship the person incurred previously? What are the circumstances? I strongly urge that the circumstances of the case be taken into account in the very first instance when this case goes before the courts, instead of going back repeatedly and making various interventions, which will cost the taxpayer huge sums of money. All of these interventions cost a serious amount of money.
I wish to digress for a moment. Those of us who deal with local authority housing applicants know that there is a HPL1 and HPL2 form that must be signed by the applicants before they get registered for a local authority house. It can take six months to register them, so there is a lot of toing and froing involved. Both parties to the application must have this done. In the event that they had a house previously, this form cannot be signed by the Revenue Commissioners because they owned a home previously. However, we have to send it to the Revenue Commissioners, who must then write a letter back stating that they cannot sign this form because they had a house previously. That is about the daftest application of the law that I have ever heard. When it is known and admitted beforehand that the person concerned cannot have this particular form certified, why does it have to be sent to the Revenue Commissioners, who will tell us the story in any event? If a person has been overpaid social welfare, is that through deliberate fraud or an oversight on his part or through an oversight on the side of the Department of Social Protection? I think those circumstances must be taken into account as well. We cannot treat equally the person who inadvertently breaches the law and who finds himself in a particular situation, and then finds himself subject to an attachment order as well, which will take the original amount plus costs and penalties, creating an even greater burden and a spiral out of which that person can never climb.
I particularly support the points made by Members about the 12 month period. The circumstances of the case must be taken into account. In some circumstances it may be possible for the person to be fined over a 12 month period by way of deferred payments, but in other cases it may not be possible. It may be totally outside the person's ability to meet the costs in a 12 month period. The options should be made available in the first instance. There should not be a situation where the person must go back to court or some other body to resolve the issue.
I would like to make a point about the appointment of a receiver in respect of a debt that has not been discharged. I wonder about some of those things in the current climate. We all deal with constituents who have faced the courts in respect of the non-payment of mortgages, an inability to pay mortgages and so on. I hope that the tendency does not arise in future for lending institutions to take the last option first, because a number of them are doing that now. For example, some agencies will tell people that repossession or sale is the last option. However, some of them are telling them that the first option is voluntary surrender. That is not an option; that is enforcement. In these cases, I urge that the circumstances of the person charged be borne in mind in the very first instance whenever an arrangement is made, in court or elsewhere, to resolve the problem. Otherwise, it cannot be done. The issue will continue forever, get worse and worse, and eventually the person will end up having to spend a considerable time in prison to discharge something that could have been resolved more amicably in the first place.
Data sharing is readily available, as far as I am concerned, but the Bill refers to the sharing of data between the Revenue Commissioners, the Department of Social Protection and the Courts Service. In the context of whatever may happen there, I strongly urge once again that the circumstances be taken into account. If that is not done, we will not resolve this problem at all. We will be back here in two or three years if it is not practical in the way it applies to the public.
None of us would encourage people not to discharge their debts. Of course we encourage people and we always try to help them out in the most positive way possible. It is also worth remembering that, in the current climate, there are competing demands and difficulties for people at all levels of our society. We have to be conscious of their circumstances and try to do what we can to assist them by way of practical advice. At the end of the day, we hope that the passage of this Bill will improve the situation, that it will not become an impediment to what we are trying to do, and that it will not become administration laden to such an extent as to make it impossible to do anything.
I thank Deputy Durkan for kindly sharing some of his time with me. I welcome this Bill. It is a very sensible and practical proposal. If it is enacted, I hope it will lead to a much more fluent and productive system. It is like something from a Dickens novel when we hear about people being put into prison because they cannot pay fines. That is something that this Bill will tackle, but this is distinct from people who will not pay. The Bill will apply a far more cost effective remedy to that problem for the State, which is something that must be welcomed.
There is a lot of common sense in the Bill. There is a provision for flexibility in the system, which is badly needed. I did not get to read John Waters's piece on his incarceration, to which Deputy Flanagan referred, but I saw Mario Rosenstock's "Wheatfield Redemption" some time ago.
In a way, it summed up much of what is happening in the system. I am aware of an individual who was brought from Kerry to a prison in the midlands via taxi, which needed to be paid for by the State, and accompanied by two gardaí, whose wages and expenses also needed to be paid. The person went in the prison door and literally turned around again to return home. It was like a day trip. This type of process is nonsensical, particularly at a time of adjusting budgets and saving money in every Department. If such instances can be avoided, this legislation will be welcome.
Someone who does not pay a fine might be released from prison after only one or two hours, but he or she will still be left with the label of having been in prison. For a young person in particular, it can be the beginning of a slippery slope. Avoiding a scenario of officially imprisoning people, even if the term is only for one or two hours, would be helpful.
I will be interested in listening to further discussions on this legislation. I listened carefully to Deputy Durkan, whose concerns must be addressed. The uncommenced sections of the 2010 Act were somewhat impractical and inflexible. This Bill contains more common sense.
Constituents have brought an issue to my attention. Where a person gets fined and clearly does not have the means to pay, raising the money can sometimes lead to the commission of further crimes. I have been given anecdotal evidence of such. We must be conscious of this issue. That the fine will be designed to meet the individual's capacity for payment is a positive step.
If implemented correctly and in full, the Bill will be a positive move that will lead to increased revenue for the State, fewer hardships for those who incur fines and offer fewer ways of avoiding fines for those who simply will not pay as distinct from those who cannot pay. Overall, this is welcome. I commend the Minister on his initiative in introducing this legislation.
As the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, is unavoidably detained at another event, he has asked me to stand in for him today. I am more than happy to do so.
I thank the Deputies who have contributed so constructively to this debate. This important legislation makes good on the Government's commitment to introduce attachment of earnings for the collection of fines. It builds on the Fines Act 2010 and ties together its provisions with attachment of earnings in a unified whole. It also enhances confidence in the fine as a penal sanction that, once imposed by the court, will be enforced by the criminal justice system. It is that confidence in the penal system that goes to the heart of this Bill.
It is important to our democracy that crime not go unpunished. For good reason, the fine is the most widely used penal sanction in Ireland. It is an entirely appropriate sanction where a person is convicted of a minor offence and is not a serial offender. However, it is only one of a number of sanctions available to the court and it is to be noted that, in most cases, where a judge imposes a fine, he or she has the option under the relevant legislation to impose a prison sentence of up to six or 12 months. That the judge chooses to impose a fine is entirely appropriate. Indeed, all of the Minister's efforts since his appointment have been in the direction of reducing the incidence of committals to prison and ensuring to the greatest extent possible that alternative sanctions, such as community service, are used where appropriate.
As the fine is the most widely used and appropriate sanction in most cases, it is important that it be collected. The Minister referred to the two types of fine defaulter - those who cannot pay and those who will not pay. Since the commencement of section 14 of the 2010 Act, few, if any, people should find themselves in the "cannot pay" category. Section 14(2) reads: "Where a person of full age is convicted of an offence, the court shall, in determining the amount of the fine (if any) to impose in respect of the offence, take into account the person's financial circumstances."
To the vast majority of people who want to obey the law and meet their obligations, I offer this advice. If their financial circumstances are such that the imposition of a large fine would impose undue hardship on them, it is in their interest to go to court and present the court with a statement of their financial circumstances. The judge is required to take this into account in deciding on the fine to impose, if any, having regard to a person's financial circumstances. The law is clear and judges are bound by it. The judge is required to set the fine at a level that ensures the effect of the fine on the person or his or her dependants is not made more severe by reason of his or her financial circumstances. That being the case, there is no reason any person should not be able to pay the fine when it falls due or, under the terms of this Bill, in equal instalments over 12 months.
I turn to those who, for whatever reason, will not pay. This is a diverse group ranging from the financially comfortable conscientious objector to the careless person who puts the fine notice to one side and forgets about it, and everyone in between. Until now, this group was dealt with through the warrant signed by the judge at the time the fine was imposed and executed on failure to pay the fine. The warrant provided for the arrest of the person and his or her imprisonment for a period of up to 90 days. The actual sentence imposed was typically less than five days.
The Bill targets this group in particular. From now on, there will be no automatic imposition of a custodial sentence in default of payment of a fine. Indeed, the current system has the appearance of an optional arrangement that could be characterised as "pay the fine or do the time." The Government does not want people to be imprisoned for failing to pay a small fine. Policy generally has been against imprisonment and towards alternative non-custodial sentences. That being the case, it is arguable that it is perverse that imprisonment is the default setting for offences that only attract the penalty of a small fine. Prison should not be the first port of call for the fine defaulter. Rather, it should be the last after every alternative has been tried. This is the approach taken in the Bill, supported by the three principles underpinning it.
The first principle is the one to which I referred, namely, no one should have a fine imposed that is too big for him or her to pay. People can avoid this easily by going to court and telling the judge about their financial circumstances.
The second principle is that it should be made easy for people to pay fines. The Bill advances this considerably by extending the instalment provisions contained in the 2010 Act to everyone on whom a fine is imposed. A fine will be set at a level that takes into account the person's ability to pay. The person can then take 12 months to pay it. The Bill includes a provision that allows for an administrative charge of up to 10% of the value of the fine to be imposed. However, this charge will only be set at a level designed to recoup the cost of providing the facility and not as a revenue-raising venture.
The third principle is that, once a fine is imposed, the State will collect it. Obviously, our preference is for the fine be collected by the due date. To be fair to all concerned, this happens in the majority of cases. Where this does not happen, it will be collected by the imposition, where appropriate, of an attachment order or a recovery order. The attachment order will require the person's employer to deduct the fine from his or her earnings and pay it over to the court. The Government is firmly of the view that attachment of earnings is a powerful weapon in ensuring fines are collected. I expect that, once the Bill is enacted, employed people will be encouraged to pay their fines by the very existence of this provision. The alternative of being forced to appear in court and run the risk of their failure to pay a fine being brought to the attention of their employers is something that most employees would wish to avoid.
The recovery order will provide for the appointment of a receiver to recover the fine, including by the seizure and disposal of the assets of the defaulter. This new receiver provision can encourage and foster a culture of compliance. Whereas the 2010 Act provides for the making of recovery orders in all cases, the recovery order in this Bill is more targeted. It will only be applied where the judge considers it appropriate to do so.
However, everyone coming before the court for the failure to pay a fine will have to disclose details of any assets they own. The possible seizure of those assets to satisfy the fine will give pause for thought to, at least, some those who would be committed to prison under the existing arrangements.
It is anticipated that most fine defaulters who present in court as employees will have an attachment order made. This is so because, once again, the fine imposed on the person should have taken their financial circumstances into account. Accordingly, it is hard to conceive of circumstances where it would not be appropriate to have that fine deducted from the person's earnings over the subsequent 12 months. Equally, it is expected that the fine defaulter who presents in court with savings, or with other assets that can be disposed of to pay the fine, will have a recovery order made. Recovery orders will provide not just for the recovery of the fine but also of the expenses of the receiver.
Where a judge decides that it would not be appropriate to make either an attachment order or a recovery order, he or she may make a community service order. A community service order may be made where the person consents and the Probation Service is satisfied that the person is suitable for community service. It is only where it would not be appropriate that a community service order be made - or where one has been made and the person has failed to comply with its terms - that the question of committal to prison arises.
These provisions taken together should all but eliminate the need to send anyone to prison for the non-payment of fines. Where it does happen, it will be as a result of the failure of that person to engage with the process and to use the process to avoid imprisonment.
The support of Deputies McConalogue and Mac Lochlainn for the principles of the Bill is welcomed. The Minister will reflect on the issues they raised concerning the administration charge and the period over which instalments can be made.
Earlier in today's debate, Deputy John Browne asked if the provisions for attachment of earnings orders were in accordance with the Data Protection Act. Similar provisions are in place concerning the local property tax and we are satisfied that there are no data protection issues here.
Deputies David Stanton and Terence Flanagan asked about the attachment of social welfare payments. While that is not provided for in the Bill, community service can be imposed in certain instances.
Deputy Stanton also asked whether higher fines might be imposed on wealthier people. This is provided for in section 5. The Courts Service is working on arrangements to put the new regime in place and it is expected that these will be in place when the Bill is enacted.
During the course of yesterday's debate, there was a rather bizarre contribution from Deputies Clare Daly and Mick Wallace. Deputy Daly was joined in her denunciation of the Bill by Deputy Wallace, who might have been expected to have made a declaration of interests before he spoke, given the fines imposed on him in respect of his conviction for offences under the Pensions Act in 2011.
Leaving that aside, both Deputies Daly and Wallace have been leading a campaign recently on fixed penalty notices. The main point of that campaign is that gardaí should have no discretion where these notices are concerned. The clear implication of this is that both Deputies believe that fixed penalty notices must be paid by everyone on whom they are imposed regardless of their means. Meanwhile, in this House yesterday, Deputy Daly made the argument that fines were inherently wrong and should never be imposed. These two positions are mutually exclusive. The Deputies are either in favour of fines or they are not. They need to make up their minds on this issue.
Of course, Deputy Daly knows that fines have been imposed by the courts for hundreds of years as an alternative to imprisonment. The majority of people on low incomes, including those on social welfare, would prefer to pay a small fine, set at a level that takes account of their financial circumstances, rather than to serve any time in prison or undertake community service. To suggest otherwise is nonsense and displays little understanding of the thinking of most Irish people.
The Bill strikes the right balance and meets its key objectives. It makes it easier for everybody to pay a fine and provides workable alternatives where a person fails to do so. It should greatly reduce the numbers committed to prison for the non-payment of a fine.
On behalf of the Minister, I thank all Deputies for their contributions to the debate. The Minister will reflect on what has been said and he looks forward to discussing the Bill in detail on Committee Stage.