State plans to dock fines from social welfare payments

Wed, Nov 2, 2011, 00:00

THE GOVERNMENT is framing radical legislation that would see Revenue-style powers being attached to people’s social welfare payments and salaries, enabling the State to collect at source fines imposed by the courts.

The measures would reform the courts fines system and would virtually end the process of people being sent to prison for not paying fines.

The proposal involves the State automatically deducting a fine from the convicted person’s social welfare payments or other income source, leaving them without the option of refusing to pay.

The payment would be taken in instalments to minimise the impact on a person’s income.

The Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed has cautioned against the proposal, saying it had the potential to cause already vulnerable people added financial pressure.

The system would work in the same way as Revenue attachment orders. These are orders attached to the bank accounts of people owing money to Revenue. Sums are automatically taken from the accounts and transferred to Revenue until the outstanding amount is paid.

The proposal would enable an attachment order to be applied to a person’s social welfare payments or salary until the financial sanction handed down by the courts was paid.

The organisation’s head of policy, Bríd O’Brien, said that for people living exclusively on social welfare, any additional demand on those resources would not be a “just and fair” option. “They would need to be very careful about how they use it,” she said.

While the organisation accepted that Minister for Justice Alan Shatter was trying to ease prison overcrowding and ensure people did not go to prison for non-payment of fines, the recession meant the proposal was potentially fraught with difficulty.

“For most people, I think an attachment order is not reasonable unless for a very small amount of money and in those cases it might actually cost the State money [to collect]. It might be very difficult for some people.

“You would also have to consider if the very reason why people couldn’t pay the fine in the first place was because they didn’t have the money. You may be adding to it [their poverty].”

A spokeswoman for Mr Shatter said the legislation was being developed and would be brought to Government in the months ahead. “It is not expected that this legislation will be published before 2012,” she said.

At present, many people convicted of an offence in court are fined.

Failure to pay within a specified timeframe results in their being sent to prison in lieu, usually for a short period of a few days.

Of late, the prison system has become completely overcrowded. Those being sent to prison for the non-payment of fines are adding to the overcrowding crisis.

In an increasing number of cases, defaulters are being turned away at the prison door and their fines expunged because there is no room for them.

Such offenders are not officially recorded in the prison population figures – a tactic that has the effect of artificially massaging downwards the prison population figures. This process has become known as the “front-door mechanism”.