By Dearbhail McDonald and Tim Healy
Mother takes case to fight our debtor prison laws
A MOTHER who borrowed money to pay for her newborn baby’s funeral and support her alcohol dependency has taken a landmark legal action challenging Ireland’s “Victorian” debtors’ prison laws.
Caroline McCann, a single mother of two from Monaghan who lives on social welfare and is “barely literate”, has brought a constitutional challenge against the procedure that allows debtors to be sent to jail for failing to pay a civil debt.
The test case could have significant implications for hundreds of debtors sent to prison every year because they are unable to or refuse to discharge a civil debt.
Last year 276 people were sent to jail for an average of three weeks for non-payment of civil debts — between May 2003 and July 2008, 1,138 people were imprisoned, prompting calls for reform of Ireland’s enforcement of court order laws.
Ms McCann, from Mullaghmatt, Co Monaghan, who was diagnosed with severe depression and is recovering from a “serious drink problem”, is seeking to a quash a 2005 District Court order jailing her for a month over her failure to meet loan instalments of €82 per week owed to Monaghan Credit Union.
A committal order was sought by the credit union after Ms McCann, who only had five years of formal education, failed to pay arrears of €5,865 arising from an loan of some €18,000 she owed to her credit union.
She claims that the decision to jail her is unconstitutional and in breach of the European Convention of Human Rights. The State opposes the action and rejects the claims.
In her action, Ms McCann, who yesterday gave evidence at the High Court, claims that the order made at Monaghan District Court, depriving her of liberty merely on the ground of inability to fulfill a contractual obligation, amounts to a conviction for a criminal offence and this is therefore unlawful.
She claims one month’s imprisonment over the non-payment of €5,865 is entirely disproportionate.
It is claimed that adequate opportunity must be given to a person who appears before a court in a case where their liberty is at risk to seek legal assistance. Where a person does not have sufficient means to pay for legal assistance, it should be provided free of charge, she also contends.
Opening the case yesterday, Donal O’Donnell for Ms McCann, compared the situation in 21st century Ireland to that of “Victorian era” Britain, before the writings of Charles Dickens prompted a change in the laws, when people could be jailed over debts.
The case is expected to conclude today.
State ‘not standing over’ jail term
THE STATE has told the High Court it is “not standing over” a one-month jail sentence imposed on an unemployed mother of two over her failure to pay arrears of €5,865 on an €18,000 court judgment secured against her over non-repayment of a credit union loan.
However, the State has denied arguments by Caroline McCann that provisions of the Enforcement of Court Orders Acts are unconstitutional or contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights.
It claims it is entitled to have a statutory mechanism in place for enforcement of lawfully made court orders.
Ms McCann (36), Mullaghmatt, Co Monaghan, has brought her action against the State with Monaghan Credit Union as a notice party and the Human Rights Commission as an amicus curiae (assistant to the court on legal issues).
Under the Enforcement of Court Orders Acts, an order for imprisonment may only be made when a District Court judge is satisfied the failure to pay was due to either wilful refusal or culpable neglect of a debtor, he said.