By George Psyllides
ALMOST 300 people have been jailed so far this year for debts worth between €300 and €30,000, the House legal affairs committee heard on Wednesday, as they discussed ways to prevent imprisoning individuals for financial debts.
The justice ministry said it was looking at other ways of executing court orders such as community service.
MPs were told that the ministry had instructed police on September 15 to look into the possibility of a settlement through instalments and to execute imprisonment orders only when it concerned large amounts of money.
Deputy prison governor Anna Aristotelous said 289 people were jailed in the first 10 months of the year for debts ranging between €300 and €30,000. The prison administration was in constant contact with the state Legal Service so that such individuals spent as little time as possible behind bars
Prison authorities also placed such individuals in the open prison, Aristotelous said.
The prison chief said other ways should be found such as community service. She said decision-makers should also take into account the cost of arrest, transport, incarceration, and healthcare of these prisoners.
A labour ministry representative said they sought to make arrangements with people who owed money to social insurance. Even after the six-month grace period granted by the courts, the ministry comes to an arrangement with them so they do not end up in jail.
They do the same if they are notified before the debtor is led to prison, MPs heard.
The finance ministry said the debts in question did not concern it since they were not tax related. However, the ministry has the discretionary power to write off debts for humanitarian reasons.
The state Legal Service told the committee that the two proposals they were discussing conflicted with Article 53.4 of the constitution, which gives the president the power to remit, suspend, or commute any sentence passed by a court.
Reservations were also expressed by the Bar Association, which said imprisonment was the last resort in a series of legal proceedings in which debtors can defend themselves.
MPs should also bear in mind, an association representative said, that the debts in question did not only concern state fines but also civil suits.
Committee chairman Sotiris Sampson said discussion would continue. The aim, he said, was to prevent people from going to jail if they could prove they could not pay their debts.
He said judges must be able to impose sentences other than jail, adding that ways must be found so that people do not end up in jail for a €500 debt.
By George Psyllides