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Ireland: Reform of Begging Laws

(July 14, 2011) On February 2, 2011, the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) enacted the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 2011, No. 5/2011 (Office of the Attorney General of Ireland, Irish Statute Book website (last visited July 6, 2011)). Almost two months after the Act's adoption, nearly 180 arrests were made under its provisions. (Jamie Smyth, Garda Arrested 177 Under 'Aggressive Begging' Law, THE IRISH TIMES (Apr. 1, 2011).) On May 24, 2011, a Roma woman was the first person to be convicted under the new anti-begging legislation for begging in an intimidating manner. (Jim Cusack, Roma Gypsy First to Be Convicted for Begging, INDEPENDENT.IE (May 29, 2011).)

The Act had been introduced in the Oireachtas in January 27, 2010, by Dermot Ahern, the former Minister for Justice and Law Reform, for the purpose of cracking down on begging in Ireland. It was the first reform of the legislation regulating begging since the Great Famine in Ireland and was necessitated by the ruling of the High Court in Niall Dillon – v – the Director of Public Prosecutions, on December 4, 2007, that section 3 of the Vagrancy (Ireland) Act 1847 was unconstitutional. This Act had been adopted during that first year of the Great Famine to deal with the begging that had become widespread in Ireland at that time. Justice Eamon De Valera held in that case that the legislation defined begging too vaguely and that it disproportionately interfered with the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression and communication. (Dillon – v – DPP, Courts Service website (Dec. 4, 2007).)

The new Act thus does not criminalize the act of begging itself, but applies when begging becomes a public nuisance or there is intimidation or organization involved in begging. Under section 2 of the Act, a person who begs in an intimidating or aggressive manner is guilty of an offense and can be summarily convicted; the offense carries the penalty of a Class E fine or imprisonment not exceeding one month, or both.

There are two new offenses created by the Act under sections 5 and 6. Under section 5, there is the offense of organizing and directing begging. A person guilty of this offense is liable on summary conviction to a Class A fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or both, or on conviction to a fine not exceeding €200,000 (about US$282,000) or imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years, or both. The second offense is living off the proceeds of the begging of another person. A person guilty of such an offense is liable on summary conviction to a fine of up to €500 (about US$706) or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months.

There is also a provision in the new Act giving the national police force, the Gardai Siochanna, the power to move beggars when they are begging in specific locations, such as near ATMs, night safes, entrances to dwellings, and vending machines. In the Seanad (the Irish Senate) discussion of the bill, Senator Brendan Smith recognized that this approach reflects efforts by the authorities to avoid prosecution of beggars. (207 No. 7, Seanad Deb., Criminal Justice (Public Order) Bill 2010: Second Stage (Jan. 27 2011).) The former Minister for Justice and Law Reform, Dermot Ahern, has emphasized that the Act does not apply, for example, to a young person who asks others for some change because he or she does not have enough money to pay for a bus fare home late at night. (Press Release, Department of Justice and Equality, Crime and Enforcement (Jan. 29, 2011).)

The primary reason behind the legislation, set out by Ahern when he introduced the bill, is to prevent the more vulnerable members of society from being made subject to fear when they are approached by beggars on the street. It is to ensure that members of the public do not feel intimidated by beggars, he explained. Ahern also highlighted the detrimental effect that begging can have on tourism and business in Ireland. (New Laws to Crack Down on Begging, RTE NEWS – IRELAND (Nov. 24, 2008).) A SUNDAY INDEPENDENT poll found that 86% of the public in Ireland wanted more restrictions on begging. (Tom Prendeville & Craig Hughes, Vast Majority Favour Tougher Begging Laws, INDEPENDENT.IE (Aug. 29, 2011).) The combined approach of trying to control aggressive begging without having to bring extreme numbers of convictions should allow the Gardai to reduce aggressive and intimidating begging across Ireland.

Prepared by Roisin Fitzpatrick, summer intern at the Law Library of Congress, under the guidance of Stephen Clarke, Senior Foreign Law Specialist. Ms. Fitzpatrick is a participant in the Washington-Ireland Program.