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Magistrates ‘bending over backwards’ for defendants struggling to pay fines

Magistrates are said to be “bending over backwards” to help those who are struggling to pay their debts during the economic crisis.Lawyer Chris Swan has highlighted how presiding magistrates in civil proceedings have become more understanding of people’s financial hardships.He insists “prison is only used as a very last resort” for those who are having to choose between paying for their food, rent and bills.Mr Swan believes those who are out of work or have poorly paid jobs are now being given “lots of chances” to pay-up in court.Chief Justice Richard Ground said people’s financial hardships were taken into account, but said each case was ultimately treated on its individual circumstances.Mr Swan said: “Magistrates have a lot of sympathy for the people standing in front of them during these difficult times.“They are bending over backwards to help those who are struggling. In my experience, nine times out of ten magistrates are cognisant of where we are right now with the economy.“People’s financial situations are taken into consideration more than ever before. Magistrates look at all the options and prison is a last resort”.Mr Swan spoke out in defence of magistrates after a mom-of-five was last week threatened with a committal for prison if she didn’t make debt payments. In a TV interview after her court case, the woman reportedly accused magistrates of “having no mercy”.However Mr Swan contacted this newspaper to explain it was the sixth time she had been threatened with prison after failing to pay her monthly amounts “and she hasn’t gone anywhere near a cell”.The Royal Gazette has decided not to name the woman. She has made little effort to pay off an outstanding $17,000 debt. She owes the money to a relative after the relative paid a loan for her.Mr Swan, who represents the woman’s aunt, said Magistrates weren’t “the horrible, mean and nasty” people they were made out to be as this woman had been given repeated chances to pay the money back.He said: “No-one is locking anyone up unnecessarily. Instead of someone declaring ‘I’m not paying this,’ a consistent payment should be set up … Even if it’s just a few dollars over a longer period of time.“Making absolutely no effort to pay off your debts or squeeze out some payment is only when there is a problem”.Chief Justice Ground told The Royal Gazette that all judicial officers were required to deal with cases on an individual basis according to the particular circumstances. He said The Debtors Act 1973 states that a person cannot be imprisoned for debt if the person does not have the means to pay the sun due.Chief Justice Ground added: “It follows, therefore, that the financial circumstances of the debtor are a relevant and material factor that a Judge must take into account when considering how to enforce a debt.“The state of the economy may insert itself at that point if it means that the debtor is out of work or has a reduced income, but this is not the result of any policy, simply a consequence of the application of the rules”.He added that those sent to prison were done so on a committal warrant, which only usually arises when the debtor ignores the various stages of a claim process or fails to comply without good reason with an order of the court.However, Sheelagh Cooper, founder of The Coalition for the Protection of Children, says the charity continues to pay off debts to prevent women being sent to jail. She estimates they pay about 20 debts a year to “stop women going to prison and children being placed in foster care”.Ms Cooper, who attends court cases to support women in need, said most debts are for healthcare and what starts as a small debt “quickly climbs beyond a person’s reach”.She said: “I really wish I had noticed that magistrates were taking people’s lack of finances into account.“We only seem to see this happening with fathers, magistrates seem to be more lenient with them. I have seen child support payments reduced or completely eliminated. But unfortunately this has a really negative impact on mothers and children”.Ms Cooper added that Bermuda should “look at other ways” to punish people who can’t pay off their debts. She suggests a programme where people carry out community service to “work off their debts”.Ms Cooper said: “Sending someone to prison doesn’t help anyone. The creditor doesn’t get any money and the debtor ends up in even more financial trouble”.