Equal before the Law?

This article, by Fr Peter McVerry SJ, originally appeared Reality magazine in 2016. Eight years on and it is as relevant as it ever was. This week Ireland was told to shore up corporate tax laws to prevent wealthy from committing tax fraud and evasion. At the same time, we are rapidly expanding our prison capacity to house the huge numbers of people sentenced to 6 months or less for minor offences.


Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through – Jonathan Swift, “A Critical Essay upon the Faculties of the Mind”, 1707.

Last year, a landlord was discovered to have evaded income tax to the value of €1.14 million.  He settled with the Revenue for €3.08 million, including interest and penalties.  He was not prosecuted or jailed.  He has a clean criminal record.

Last year, a father of three who committed €25,000 worth of social welfare fraud appeared before the courts. The Judge described it as a serious offence but accepted that the defendant was “highly unlikely to do it again”.  He acknowledged that the defendant lives in “pretty poor conditions and lives a pretty miserable life”, that he only has minor previous convictions and had co-operated with the Garda investigation.  Nevertheless “the Court must give a message to the general population that you will pay a price if you are caught committing social welfare fraud,” said the Judge.  He was jailed for 18 months.

Last year, a company director was discovered to have evaded tax to the value of €1.11 million.  He settled with the Revenue for €2.30 million, including interest and penalties.   He was not prosecuted or jailed.  He has a clean criminal record.

Software used by the Department of Social Protection to analyse profile pictures and signatures helped to uncover the theft of €16,000 in welfare benefits by a Ukrainian man, Dublin Circuit Criminal Court was told.    The man, who had no previous convictions, was jailed for 18 months.

In 2015, The Revenue Commissioners’ list of tax defaulters showed that over €70.5 million was collected from 385 individuals or companies in respect of evasion of taxes, 13 of whom settled for over €1 million each.  In fact, far more was collected, as settlements with the Revenue are only published when voluntary disclosure options are not availed of.  None of the 385 were prosecuted or sent to jail.

In November 2015, the Department of Social Protection confirmed that almost 600 people were before the courts on social welfare fraud charges. These figures do not include cases of welfare fraud that have been brought by Gardaí under the Criminal Justice and Theft Acts.  A department spokeswoman said: “It is the department’s policy to consider for prosecution cases of fraud against the social welfare system.”

“All are equal before the law, but some are more equal than others,” – with apologies to George Orwell!

As of March 10th, €4,000 was owed to the Oireachtas bar with 20 TDs and 13 Senators among the debtors.  One individual owed €802.   There is no mechanism for enforcing repayment of these debts – the taxpayer has to pick up the tab.

A single mother from Donegal who had been fined €450 for failing to pay a TV licence was woken at 7am by Gardai.  She was brought by two Gardai from Donegal to Mounjoy Prison in Dublin by taxi.  She was held in prison for three hours and given a bus ticket back to Donegal.

Last year, 27 people were committed to prison every single day of the year for non-payment of fines.  One in four were women. Many of those committed to prison for non-payment of fines were unable to pay.

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to … steal bread.  – Anatole France, The Red Lily, 1894, French novelist (1844 – 1924)

A young homeless man came into me one morning in January and showed me his charge sheet.  He had been charged with theft of four bars of chocolate from a shop to the value of €3.  He was granted free legal aid, which cost the tax payer at least €400, as well as the cost of Garda time involved in arresting him, processing him in a Garda station and attending court.  The taxpayer also had to pay for court administrative costs.  I do not know the outcome of that case.

Another formerly homeless man received a summons in February to appear in court, charged with the theft of two packets of silk cut cigarettes, value €20, from a shop, twelve months previously.  He pleaded not guilty on the grounds that he doesn’t smoke silk cut!   The case was dismissed, at a cost to the taxpayer of about €1,000.