The Bill that sparked ‘Friday Night Fights’
Government has opposed a Progressive Labour Party move to ban the courts from incarcerating people for debt, with Attorney General Trevor Moniz believing that “if anything, courts in this jurisdiction stray on the side of being too soft”.
Accusations by the PLP that the governing One Bermuda Alliance was being callous in not backing the Bill were rubbished by former Attorney General Mark Pettingill as “hyperbole” and “political grandstanding”.
Ultimately, MPs decided to bring the Bill back to the House after further consultation on both sides.
Brought to the House by Wayne Furbert, the Shadow Minister for Economic Development, the Bill would “remove the ability of the courts to commit our people to prison due to debt”. Mr Furbert added that the Commissioner of Prisons had informed him that between January 2011 and May 2014, 115 men were incarcerated for non-payment.
While the jail terms were technically for contempt of court, Mr Furbert said that “any way you look at it, it’s due to debt”.
Eliminating such sentences had been proposed in 2012 by the OBA’s Alexis Swan, he said.
“We will see now whether they want to break another promise,” Mr Furbert said, maintaining that the Bill represented a “historic amendment that sends a message to the courts — enough is enough”.
He called on the OBA to “follow the lead and move forward so no one will be locked up ever again for debt”.
Tempers flared early in the debate over the Debtors Amendment Act 2014, with Randy Horton, the Speaker of the House, threatening to dismiss MPs from Parliament.
Mr Moniz disputed the PLP MP’s assertions of draconian court sentences, drawing a reaction from the Opposition when he said that there had been “allegations at one point” that a travel business run by Mr Furbert was a pyramid scheme. Mr Furbert in turn implied that Mr Moniz’s son had dealt drugs, which led the Speaker to halt the debate for a cooling-off period.
Rising again, Mr Moniz said that one problem was that “we allow people to continue running businesses while they get deeper and deeper into debt”.
He noted that the Bermuda Government was owed “something like $80 million”.
He added: “We have to take a more even-handed approach; we have been taking too soft an approach. In my estimation, most of the people who are locked up for debt are locked up for a matter of hours — people who need a short, sharp shock.”
He said the court needed to keep its powers to force people to pay.
PLP MP Michael Scott said the Bill was aimed at protecting “victims of awful financial circumstances” and said that the jailing of debtors marred Bermuda’s democracy.
“Our statistics say 115 people and it’s not going to improve,” he added.
Opposition MP Jamahl Simmons praised Mr Furbert for bringing the Bill to the House, asking, “What is an OBA promise worth?” in light of the pre-election pledge.
Expressing sympathy for Mr Furbert’s argument, Shawn Crockwell, the Minister for Transport and Tourism Development, said that it was nonetheless important for the courts to keep their power.
“I have never seen a party who cannot pay be committed to jail,” Mr Crockwell said. “I have seen individuals who can pay be threatened with jail — and all of a sudden the money turns up.”
Noting that he had worked in the courts in the past, he told the Opposition: “It just does not happen.”
However, PLP MP Derrick Burgess maintained that it did. “I support the Bill because it’s foolishness to anyone to incarcerate a person who cannot pay,” he said. “When you see a lady with five children and not working, and the magistrate tells her to make a phone call — she was not in contempt of court; she cannot pay. We are asking for the magistrates to use their hearts, particularly when it comes to females.”
Mr Burgess was backed by PLP MP Zane DeSilva, who said that it cost $80,000 a year to incarcerate someone, and implored Government to “show the people of this country some compassion”.
As the debate continued, both Mr Pettingill and Public Works Minister Patricia Gordon-Pamplin accused the Opposition of indulging in a political ploy with the Bill.
Mr Furbert replied that he had expected OBA support, questioning whether the 2012 promise had been true or not. He noted that there would be a bipartisan consultation before bringing the Bill back to Parliament.