Wednesday, 26 February 2014
Fines (Payment and Recovery) Bill 2013: Second Stage
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, to the House. As other speakers have done, I very much welcome the Bill, which fits well in a welcome general trend in criminal justice policy to try to reduce reliance on imprisonment and ensure people are not committed to prison for convictions for minor offences and cases where a fine has been imposed but not paid. Others have already mentioned the large numbers of people still being committed to prison, and there were 8,304 committals to prison for fine default in 2012, including 1,687 female committals. There is real concern because the Irish Penal Reform Trust has indicated that the large number of women committed to prison in 2012 for fine default represented a five-fold increase on the 2008 figure, when 339 women were imprisoned for fine default. As we know, there is serious overcrowding in the Dóchas Centre and we do not have an open prison for women; all convicted women are sent to the closed prisons of the Dóchas centre or the Limerick prison. It is a matter of grave concern that so many women are being committed to prison for non-payment of fines.
Others have pointed out how this builds on the Fines Act 2010, which was introduced by the previous Government. The real concern is that the 2010 legislation, which had the same admirable and welcome objective, never took effect, with significant numbers of people still being committed to prison every year for fine default. The reason for the non-implementation of the Fines Act is that the court ICT systems have not received the necessary upgrade to process payment of fines by instalment. The legislation is very welcome and the new Bill repeals Part 3 of the 2010 Act but replicates and improves it.
The real concern is whether the infrastructure will be available to ensure that the Bill is implemented so that the aim that we all agree with can in fact be put in place and that we will see a dramatic reduction in the number of people committed to prison for fine default. I accept people are generally committed for very short periods of time. It can be a matter of days or sometimes only hours but nonetheless they are clogging up the prison system. Being committed to prison has a considerable detrimental impact on those concerned and their families, in addition to the considerable cost to the State. There is a social and economic cost. We are all in agreement that the situation needs to be remedied and we very much hope the Bill will do so.
The Bill has been broadly welcomed, not only by parties on both sides in the other House and in this House, but also by NGOs. The Irish Penal Reform Trust has very much welcomed the Bill and has made some constructive points on it. I wish to raise those with the Minister of State, who might perhaps pass them on. The Bill provides for instalments to be paid over a 12-month period. The Fines Act 2010 had allowed greater flexibility with instalments to be paid over 24 months in some cases. I wonder if that could be considered in the Bill. It has been indicated that the Minister will bring forward useful and important amendments on Committee Stage in this House. We welcome that but he might consider an amendment also along the lines I outlined.
The administration charge of up to 10% on a person paying a fine by instalments might also be reconsidered. The suggestion is that perhaps a flat administration fee or a capped administration fee would be preferable, in particular as the Bill provides for fines payable on indictment for convictions that follow an indictable offence. We could see quite large administration charges if they are based on a percentage amount.
Fines of more than €100 came up also in the context of the 2010 Act. I accept there are issues around the cost of administration if one is talking about fines of less than €100 becoming payable in instalments but nonetheless €100 may represent significant hardship for certain individuals. I question whether it would be possible to reduce that to €50 or €75.
Prior to the debate, Senator Colm Burke and I were discussing a more general issue, namely, the change to ensure that people will not be sent to prison as a first option where they have defaulted on a fine and that community service orders, CSOs, would instead be imposed. That was also in the 2010 Act. There was always a concern that the use of the CSO would amount to net widening, that in other words people who would never have been sentenced to prison might now be sentenced to a community service order, which when it was introduced in 1983 was supposed to be an alternative to imprisonment rather than an alternative to a fine. The Bill strikes the right note because it should not be too easy for a judge to impose a CSO where somebody is in default of a fine because that would make it appear as if a community service order was equivalent to a fine. It is important that a procedure is in place whereby people would be brought back to court for consideration as to whether a CSO would be imposed where they have been in default. It is only as an alternative to imprisonment in cases where people would otherwise have been imprisoned for non-payment of a fine. The concern that both the Free Legal Advice Centres and the Irish Penal Reform Trust have raised is that we might see people being put on community service who would never have been contemplated for imprisonment and that it would therefore widen the net in terms of serious penalties for minor offences.
Those minor caveats aside, we all very much welcome the Bill. We welcome the context in which it is introduced where we are seeing an attempt to reduce our reliance on imprisonment. A number of Senators who are members of the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality and Defence were involved in the penal reform report the committee produced last year in which we specifically called for a reduction in the use of imprisonment for a policy of penal moderation or decarceration to be adopted where we would see fewer people being sent to prison each year and a particular approach taken to people convicted of minor non-violent offences whereby they would have sentences commuted to community service rather than having to serve terms of imprisonment. I see the Bill as part of a general policy of penal moderation and I very much welcome it in that context. We all very much hope that we will see a very small number of people only being committed to prison for non-payment of fines in the future. The key issue is whether the infrastructure will be available to ensure the Bill will be effective in practice.