Micawber Down Under

Nineteenth-century migrants may have come here to escape oppressive laws, but the laws migrated too. It was late in the twentieth century that we abolished one of the most oppressive ones. Our origins are less humane than we like to pretend. 

Wilkens Micawber was incarcerated in a debtors' prison. It is said that he is modelled on Charles Dickens’ father, who suffered a similar fate. Meanwhile, his twelve-year-old son had to work in a factory. He hated the experience. A debtors’ prison appears in The Pickwick Papers, as well as David Copperfield, and most extensively in Little Dorrit. whose heroine, Amy, is born in one.

Micawber eventually migrated to Australia where he became a successful government magistrate. Which meant, I suppose, that he committed debtors to a local prison. For not only did people migrate to Australasia, so did may of the oppressive laws they were trying to escape.

The New Zealand experience is told in A Blot on the Statute Book: Imprisonment for Debt in New Zealand 1840-1990. It was initially written by Peter Coleman, a New Zealander who also researched the topic in the US. After his death, Ken Scadden finished the now published monograph.

Over the years, almost 20,000 debtors were incarcerated in NZ prisons – an average of nearly three committals a week. The vast majority were men but there were some women. (That could be especially tough because the nearest women’s prison could be distant. One wretched Invercargill woman imprisoned at Addington had added to her debt the cost of flying her there and back.) There is no comprehensive count of the number of Maori but where data is available (1945-1960) they amounted to almost half of the total. All of the debtors seem to have been from the poorest classes of the country; you did not see many businessmen incarcerated for their debts.

A charitable interpretation – which Coleman sets out – is that the state did not know what to do about civil debts. The practice of imprisoning failed debtors had arisen in medieval times and there was much subsequent development of debt law (such as provisions for bankruptcy). I suppose it was less inhumane than Shylock’s solution to the Merchant of Venice not paying his debt.

The book describes some of the writhings of the New Zealand courts to implement the law in a humane way, although it also instances cases of mean-spirited decisions. There is no hint that the courts took into consideration that the lender bringing the action could have behaved irresponsibly by making an advance to someone unlikely to repay.

It strikes me as a curious practice that failure to implement a civil contract between two ordinary persons could result in one being detained at the pleasure of Her (or His) Majesty. Indeed at one stage the New Zealand government became concerned that a civil action could result in a public cost from the incarceration. (Presumably that was why the airfares were added to the prisoner’s debt rather than the state’s.)

Perhaps the most extraordinary part of the story is that the laws on which the imprisonment were based were not really abolished until 1989; apparently tardily – after all, these debtors were not in the forefront of the government’s concerns at the time – following some remarkably effective agitation led by the Reverend Jim Consedine and his Lyttelton parish together with the prison chaplains. It was not that the practice was dying; in 1988 114 men and 23 women were binned for debts – still one every three days.

Even today you can end up in periodic detention if a court judges you have the means to pay off a debt and refuse to do so. And of course contempt of court over a debt may be rewarded by imprisonment.

(Additionally as a result of 2014 legislation, those with unpaid student debts may be arrested when they got through border control. A few have; none, as far as I know any have been jailed as a result although it is a criminal offence. Apparently there is a similar provision for those who have not met their child support obligations.)

Coleman’s book is a reminder that despite the national myth of New Zealand being founded as a progressive democracy with egalitarian and humanitarian ideals, it sometimes could be punitive and oppressive, especially to those at the bottom of the social ranking.