Amendments Nos. 58 to 63, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Fines Bill 2009: Committee Stage (Resumed).
I move amendment No. 58:
In page 18, line 16, column 2, to delete "5 days" and substitute "2 days".
These amendments try to do the same thing, namely, to change the link between the financial amount and the period of imprisonment. Although I did not get the opportunity to voice this on Second Stage, I have always felt strongly that five days imprisonment is a very severe penalty compared to a fine of €500, as is 30 days compared to €3,000. This is relative and people's view on how the money payment relates to the period of imprisonment would depend on their financial circumstances. However, where possible we should err on the side of providing for a lesser period of imprisonment to correspond to a particular fine. I do not understand why we have chosen five, ten, 20 or 30 days, when we could have chosen the lesser periods of two, five, ten and 20 days. The Minister is aware that in practice, people are released from prison earlier than the period for which they were originally detained. However, the fact they are detained for a 20-day period for non-payment of a fine will have huge implications for jobs, rent, child care and various issues in their lives. Where possible, we should err on the side of a lower period of imprisonment to correspond to a particular fine. That would be in keeping with the spirit of the Act. Given we will take Report Stage on another day, I ask the Minister to consider the periods I have proposed as an alternative to the fines.
Similarly, I propose that for indictable offences, the maximum period for which a person should be committed to prison should be reduced from 12 months to six months. This would reduce the numbers of persons in prison for fine default and reduce the periods of time they must spend incarcerated. This is in keeping with the spirit of the Bill. The periods of imprisonment will always be somewhat arbitrary, but a period of two, five, ten or 20 days would be more reasonable and more in keeping with a modern view of comparisons between imprisonment and fines.
What the Senator's amendments try to do is to reduce the maximum periods. In most cases, her suggestion is that the periods be reduced by approximately a half. The current scale of imprisonment for default of payment of a fine imposed on summary conviction is covered in section 2 of the Courts (No. 2) Act 1986. Section 17 of this Bill will amend the scale in two ways. First, the maximum period of imprisonment is being reduced from five, 15, 45 and 90 days, respectively, to five, ten 20 and 30 days. Second, the maximum fines for which periods apply are also being increased substantially. For example, the maximum period of imprisonment for default on payment of a fine between €250 and €500 was 45 days, but this will now be reduced to 20 days for a fine between €1,500 and €3,000.
I emphasise that the periods of imprisonment are maximum periods and not mandatory minimum periods. My concern over reducing the periods too much is that imprisonment would possibly become more attractive than the alternative, which would usually be community service. The possibility of two nights imprisonment, which might or might not be served, might seem a better option to some offenders than 50 to 60 hours of community service. Even where the offender spends no night in prison, the administration associated with admittance and release is a strain on prison resources, which is something with which I am trying to deal in the legislation. On balance, I consider the reductions we have made are as far as we can go, particularly when associated with the fact that most persons committed to prison in the future will be offenders who could have paid their fines quite easily through the various procedures set out in the Bill.
With regard to the imprisonment of offenders convicted on indictment, a period of 12 months was introduced as recently as 2006 and seems right. When one considers the level of fine that can be imposed for an indictment, a longer period of imprisonment might seem appropriate. However, in view of the fact that the judge who convicted the offender regarded the fine as the appropriate sentence, a relatively short maximum prison sentence of 12 months was provided. I consider this is quite right. While I see some merit in what the Senator says, we cannot go too far down that route.
The Minister said the periods of imprisonment in the table are maximum periods. However, this is not quite clear in section 17(a) which states the court “may make an order committing the person to prison for a term not exceeding the appropriate period of imprisonment specified in the Table”. It seems to me that the term “appropriate period of imprisonment” implies that period is a set comparator or alternative to the fine amount rather than a maximum. There is a slight lack of clarity here and I ask the Minister to take another look at it before Report Stage.
I would like to have seen more clarity in section 17 that imprisonment would be the final sanction or sanction of last resort and that a community service order would have been the default sanction on fine default.
Amendments Nos. 65 and 66 are related and may be discussed together by agreement.
This relates to the name and shame section. Amendment No. 65 will ensure that if a person pays the fine after the due date for payment but before his or her name is published, the name and address will not be published. In the case of publication on the Internet, amendment No. 66 will oblige the Courts Service to erase the reference to the default in any particular case after eight weeks or if and when the fine has been paid, whichever is sooner. For example, as soon as an offender has failed to pay by the due date, his or her name could be published as a fine defaulter. However, a period of approximately eight weeks will elapse before the receiver is sent notification of the default from the Courts Service. During that period more efforts will be made to have the fine paid through a series of reminders. If the offender pays within the eight weeks, his or her name will at that point be removed from the list and if he or she does not pay, the name and address will be removed in any case after eight weeks.
When is it proposed to take Report Stage?
On Wednesday, 5 May 2010.