Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Inmates should pay debts

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A private member's bill designed to divert money won by inmates in legal actions to their victims and creditors passed third reading in the House of Commons last month. The proposed new law, Bill C-350, sponsored by Ontario Conservative MP Guy Lauzon, is welcome, and long overdue.

Just how overdue is measured by its support in the Commons. The Conservatives, NDP, Liberals and Bloc Québécois all backed it. The House vote was, in fact, unanimous. The bill has now gone to the Senate, where it's expected to meet little, if any, opposition en route to final approval.

The proposed law will ensure prisoners who've won damages awards against the federal government won't ever see the cash, or at least most of it, if they already owe money to their families, victims or creditors.

The legislation details both who gets the funds and priority of payment where there are conflicting claims. Money due from a court or administrative tribunal must be paid first to satisfy arrears of maintenance or alimony for a prisoner's spouse, common-law spouse or children, second to pay the outstanding balance under a restitution order in favour of the inmate's victim, third to any unpaid victim surcharge (essentially a tax levied on conviction, the money going into a pooled government fund to help all victims of crime) and lastly to unpaid civil judgments.

The bill also features a simplified collection scheme. All a creditor has to do to receive payment of monies due from the federal government to a prisoner is give prior written notice and proof of the debt to Correctional Service of Canada.

The idea is to get the money to those who are owed it promptly, and without recourse to the courts. A good idea, because there's no guarantee of success via the courts, particularly with prisoners.

Chasing inmates through the civil justice system to collect a debt is often an exercise in throwing good money after bad.

Prisoners usually don't have bank accounts, investments or wage-paying employers that are easily garnished.

And anyone who's ever tried to collect on a monetary-award judgment when a con does come into a large lump sum fast learns prisoners are notoriously deceptive debtors. They're quick to move money into the hands of third parties, or dissipate the funds. For good reason, legal academics classify them as "recalcitrant debtors."

Because the proposed legislation isn't a government-sponsored bill, it didn't face Department of Justice scrutiny, as most bills do. It therefore wasn't subject to the department's routine review for constitutionality or regulatory impact.

More critically, there wasn't any cost-benefit analysis.

It would have been helpful to know just how many people win cash awards from the courts while behind bars.

The House of Commons committee looking at the bill asked the justice department and the Correctional Service of Canada for statistics on the frequency of prisoners winning monetary damages. However, none were available.

Regardless, an expedited debt-recovery scheme against inmates is an idea whose time has come. Ordinary Canadians who don't pay maintenance or support orders or civil judgments face a broad range of legal collection remedies -- garnishment, seizure and sale of assets, diversion of income tax and GST refunds.

Convicts, likewise, should be liable to ready collection of their lawful debts.

But more to the point, if inmates can collect damages for wrongs done to them, they shouldn't have near immunity when it's their turn to compensate their victims.

Bill C-350, if passed, will finally make the doors of justice swing both ways.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 26, 2012 0

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