No More Jail Time for Debtors

Israel is the only democracy in the West whose law books still retain imprisonment as a means for debt collection, but other, more ethical and appropriate means would be easy to find.

Uri Zamberg
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Uri Zamberg

A bill was recently drafted to amend the Execution Law such that debtors owing less than NIS 500,000 will no longer face imprisonment. Unfortunately, the proposed reform is partial and insufficient, since it does not confront the main question - whether civil imprisonment proceedings are an appropriate, moral and constitutional method for collecting debts, and are in line with Israel's ethics as a constitutional democracy and Jewish state.

In 1958, attorney general Chaim Cohen advocated cancellation of the civil imprisonment procedure. His address to a symposium on January 9, 1958 is as right and relevant as ever today.

"My respected colleague admits that if this civil imprisonment has an unethical side, its value must be weighed against its efficacy; and I admit that civil imprisonment is unparalleled as an efficient means of debt collection," Cohen said. "However, I can imagine other effective means, more cruel perhaps, but certainly not less cruel, and no one among us would consider using them. I contend that this imprisonment is unethical and is a stain on our law books."

Israel is the only democracy in the West whose law books still retain imprisonment as a means for debt collection. This is a stain on our law books, and if this debate were held in the 1950s, the arguments are doubly valid today. Imprisonment belongs in penal law. Therefore, as long as debt evasion is not a criminal offense, civil imprisonment proceedings are unethical and inappropriate. There is no disputing that taking away a man's freedom is a deterrent. Still, the main point remains whether this procedure is appropriate and ethical. Furthermore, far more cruel deterrent means could be conceived easily.

Effective, ethical and appropriate means are easy to find. Thus, for example, in addition to the existing and proposed methods, one can learn from the rabbinical courts, which allow restrictive orders to be issued against men who refuse to grant their wives a divorce including canceling their driver's license and passport, banning them from opening bank accounts, and banning them from working in licensed occupations. Another method is to institute bankruptcy proceedings.

Holding onto an anachronistic enforcement method such as imprisonment, however, is pure stupidity. A far better reform would be total cancellation of civil imprisonment, and the sooner the better.

The writer is an attorney who specializes in personal status and execution law.



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