No such thing as imprisonment for debt, claims government

15 July 2008

A UN Committee said today that the Irish government's explanation of how people are jailed for debt in Ireland was "not entirely convincing". Mr Rafael Rivas Posada, Chair of the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC), was responding to Secretary General of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Mr Sean Aylward at the HRC's examination of Ireland's Human Rights Report in Geneva.

Mr Sean Aylward claimed that imprisonment for debt in Ireland does not exist. He explained that people were imprisoned only for contempt of court, not for non-payment of debt. While the percentage of people in prison for debt-related offences was tiny, he "wished it was a nil percentage".

Mr Posada said the HRC would come to its own view about this over the next weeks before issuing its Conclusions about Ireland's report.

Reacting in Dublin today, FLAC Senior Policy Researcher Paul Joyce said: "We can suggest ways that the percentage of people in prison for debt-related offences might be substantially reduced or eliminated. The initial hearing at which a decision is made to order repayment of a debt by instalments is often not attended by the debtor, as that hearing is in open public court and attendance is not compulsory. This usually results in an instalment being ordered that the debtor cannot afford. This in turn leads to default in payment and a further application to have the debtor imprisoned. The debtor will usually not appear at this hearing either, having at this stage well and truly opted out of what is a long-winded and intimidating process.

"Access to timely legal and debt advice, a compulsory examination of a debtor's finances taking all debts into account before instalments are set, and hearings in private in a less intimidating environment would all decrease the number of applications for committal. Ultimately, ordering a person's imprisonment in his or her absence and without up to date details of financial circumstances must end. Getting into debt is not a crime. We need to acknowledge this and put in place a much more user-friendly system."

Imprisonment for debt was one of a number of issues of some concern to the HRC examining human rights in Ireland, including Ireland's legislative failure to guarantee the rights of transgendered people - making Ireland one of the three countries in Europe not to have done so.

Attorney General Paul Gallagher SC was replaced by Mr Aylward for today's session. He headed up a contingent of senior civil servants responding to questions on how the state is meeting its commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The Irish government delegation was unable to answer all the HRC's questions within the time constraints imposed but has undertaken to provide any outstanding information before this Friday (18 July). The HRC will draw up its observations on Ireland's performance under the ICCPR for publication in early to mid-August.

NB: Read more about the ICCPR and Ireland's reporting at the dedicated NGO website,