Court challenge to begging law succeeds

 

A Dublin man has won his High Court claim that a 19th-century law prohibiting begging in a public place is unconstitutional because it excessively interferes with his right of freedom of expression.

The Vagrancy (Ireland) Act 1847 was introduced at the height of the Great Famine. Section 3 of the 1847 Act, amended by a later Act in 1939, made begging in a public place an offence and provided for a sentence of up to one month on conviction of that charge.

Niall Dillon, a graduate understood to have fallen on hard times, brought the challenge to section 3 after he was charged under that provision with begging on Parliament Street, Dublin, on September 19th, 2003.

Mr Dillon claimed he was outside the Spar shop on Parliament Street when he was arrested and that he had earlier been given a cup of coffee and a sandwich by the shop manager as Mr Dillon had prevented a theft from the shop. He was sitting outside the shop with a cup in a quiet and peaceful manner when he was arrested, he claimed.

He brought his challenge on several grounds, including claims that the Act discriminated between rich and poor.

Mr Justice Éamon de Valera yesterday upheld the claim by Mr Dillon that section 3 is unconstitutional on grounds that the likely sentence amounted to a disproportionate interference with his constitutional right to freedom of expression.

On that basis, the judge ruled that section 3 was unconstitutional, meaning Mr Dillon will not now face trial.

However, the judge rejected additional claims by Mr Dillon that the section was unconstitutional because it provided for a mandatory prison term of up to one month for begging. He ruled that judges had a discretion in relation to the sanction imposed and that the provision for a sentence of up to one month was not a mandatory sentence.

The judge had heard the challenge early last year and reserved judgment. Outlining the thrust of his findings, he said the full judgment would be made available within days.

During the hearing, the court was told that the Law Reform Commission, in its 1985 report on vagrancy, had recommended that the 1847 Vagrancy Act be repealed and replaced with a new offence of : begging (1) in a public place; or (2) from house to house in a manner likely to cause fear or annoyance. The commission had said that imprisonment was undesirable in many cases of begging and recommended that a fine be also available as a penalty.

In opposing the challenge, it was argued on behalf of the DPP and Attorney General that section 3 did not discriminate between rich and poor or between citizens on the basis of their characteristics. While it might be argued the section affected the poor more than the rich - because it was from the poor that people who beg were likely to be drawn - not all the poor engaged in the act of begging, it was submitted.

Section 3 provided only that a certain type of behaviour, begging in a public place, constituted an offence.