Pensioner jailed for failing to pay debt seeks damages

Man wants compensation for his imprisonment and a declaration on rights of debtors

Mountjoy Prison. A pensioner is seeking damages for the time he spent in the prison. File photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times

Mountjoy Prison. A pensioner is seeking damages for the time he spent in the prison. File photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times

 

A pensioner who won High Court orders for his release after being jailed over a failure to pay court-ordered instalments on a €5,000 judgment debt has brought fresh proceedings seeking damages for his imprisonment and declarations concerning the right of debtors to seek legal aid.

The man, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, was arrested in March by order of the District Court and jailed for seven days for not meeting the repayment instalments.

He spent two nights in Mountjoy Prison before being freed on bail following an application by his lawyer, Mícheál P O’Higgins SC, to the High Court.

Described as having significant health issues, the man claimed he was unable to meet the instalments of €500-a-month which he had been ordered to pay to meet the judgment debt, which arose from family law proceedings.

His only income was said to be his old-age pension and he was said to be in dire financial straits.

After the man’s release, the Free Legal Advice Centres, which took proceedings on his behalf, said his case underlined “major failings” in debt-enforcement law here.

The case returned before the High Court on Monday, when Mr O’Higgins secured permission to bring fresh proceedings arising out of the man’s imprisonment.

Orders and declarations

In his action against the governor of Mountjoy Prison and the Minister for Justice and Equality, the man seeks various orders and declarations, including orders formally quashing the District Court order for his arrest and detention arising out of his failure to pay an instalment order.

He also seeks damages for the time he spent in prison.

He wants the court to declare that, before a debtor can be imprisoned for non-payment of an instalment order, the judge hearing the application must alert the debtor to the possibility of imprisonment and explain that the debtor is entitled to apply for legal aid.

The man claims the District Court judge who sentenced him to jail did not apply two safeguards required under the legislation that governs the failure to meet the terms of an instalment order.

He claims legal aid must be offered to any debtor who requires it and no jailing order can be made unless the court is satisfied the creditor has shown beyond reasonable doubt the debtor failed to pay due to their “wilful refusal or culpable neglect”.

The ex-parte application for permission to bring the action was granted on Monday by Mr Justice Seamus Noonan, who returned the matter to next month.