Wednesday, 26 February 2014
Fines (Payment and Recovery) Bill 2013: Second Stage
I thank the Minister of State for stepping in for the Minister for Justice and Equality. I thank Senator O'Donovan for his constructive comments. He has experience of dealing with the District Court as a practising solicitor. I welcome the Bill, which is designed to increase the level of fines collection and to keep a number of people committed to prison for the non-payment of fines to an absolute minimum.
In 2012, the number rose to 8,300 in 2012 and these people represent a considerable proportion of those committed to Irish prisons for short periods. Legislation is already in place requiring judges to take a person's financial circumstances into account when setting a fine. The Minister of State touched on that point. When the Bill is enacted, it will be easier for people to pay a fine and, where they fail to do so, there will be sufficient alternatives available to the court to all but eliminate the need to commit anyone to prison for the non-payment of a fine. The option exists if the fine is not paid.
The Bill represents a major reform of the fine payment and recovery system in Ireland. Once the measures are in place, every person on whom a fine is imposed will be able to opt to pay the fine by instalment over 12 months. Where a person fails to pay a fine in full, including by instalment, he or she will be required to return to court and, depending on circumstances, the court may make an attachment of earnings order directing the person's employer to deduct the fine from earnings, a recovery order appointing a receiver to recover assets to the value of the fine, or a community service order. The introduction of an attachment of earnings order for unpaid fines is a commitment in the programme for Government and is likely to be applied in most cases where a fine defaulter is in employment or in receipt of an occupational pension.
In dealing with the area, it is important to consider the cost to the State. As pointed out by Senator O'Donovan, arresting someone takes up Garda time. Transport to prison and the prison process must be gone through and the person must be discharged to return home. There is a great cost to the taxpayer and reducing the cost is welcome. It is also a progressive way of dealing with matters in that it shows that, where someone has committed an offence, the person cannot abuse the system. Some people have abused the system and ignored the Garda Síochána and the courts. It makes it far more difficult for the Garda Síochána to implement the law.
The change we are discussing this morning is welcome and long overdue.
Under the Bill every person on whom a fine is imposed can opt to pay the fine by instalments over 12 months. Where a person fails to pay a fine, the court may make an attachment order, a recovery order or a community service order, as I have already mentioned. There are a number of different options giving discretion to the court, which would apply the most appropriate method. Where an attachment or recovery order is made but the fine or part thereof remains outstanding, the court may make a community service order. If somebody has decided to make a payment by instalment but defaults, there is still an opening for the courts to apply a community service order. The Bill also creates a new offence of failure to comply with an attachment order, which would attract, on conviction, a fine of up to €2,500 or up to 12 months in prison. The courts are being given the power to deal with somebody trying to ignore the courts or the justice system, which is very important.
There was reference to a sheriff appointed under the Court Officers Act 1945 who may be a receiver, so we would not be appointing somebody new into the justice system but using the existing facilities, which is a welcome change. There is also the issue of data sharing between the Revenue Commissioners, the Department of Social Protection and the Courts Service, which is also welcome. This is about all the arms of the State working together to ensure we have an efficient system and the law is complied with by everybody.
The Minister of State may not be able to deal with the following issue but it is important to highlight it. I refer to the use of the court poor box, and a number of issues have been raised recently in the media in this regard. The court poor box is used when a judge does not want the person before him or her to have a record; a penalty as such is not imposed but the person is required to make a contribution to the court poor box in order to deal with the matter. I am not sure if the Minister of State or the District Court has dealt with this in recent weeks but there have been a number of newspaper articles on the matter. In one case a District Court judge has decided to specify how moneys for the poor box are to be used. According to the articles, that member of the District Court is designating a particular charity of which a member of the judge's family is in charge. Such action is of concern. If we have a court poor box system, there should be some regulation of it. I am a little concerned about this as such an issue does not benefit the court system. The Minister should examine it and perhaps he has dealt with it in view of the articles published over the past two or three months. The media reports have led the general public to be concerned about the way in which the matter is operated. A regulation should be put in place and the matter should be dealt with appropriately. Perhaps the Minister has dealt with it behind the scenes.
I very much welcome this Bill, as it is important we have a foolproof system in place to ensure every decision taken by the courts would be fully implemented and that there would be full compliance with the law. If there is not full compliance with the law, the system will break down. I thank the Department of Justice and Equality staff and the Minister for coming forward with this legislation and dealing with the issue as it exists on the ground. It is extremely important. This legislation can be put in place immediately and will create a far more efficient system that we badly need.