Punishing bounced cheques with fines is a welcome measure of leniency

Sending debtors to prison benefits neither the courts, the banks nor individuals

A closeup shot shows the facade of the Dubai Courts building during a hearing on April 04, 2010 in the case of a British couple sentenced to a month in jail after being convicted of kissing in public in a restaurant in the Muslim Gulf emirate. The couple's lawyer said the appeals court upheld the one-month prison sentence against the two, named by the British press as Ayman Najafi, 24, a British expat, and tourist Charlotte Lewis, 25. The couple were arrested in November 2009, after they were accused of consuming alcohol and kissing in a restaurant in the trendy Jumeirah Beach Residence neighbourhood.     AFP PHOTO/STR / AFP PHOTO

There was a time when the thought of writing a large cheque would fill the chequebook holder with dread: would there be enough funds in their bank account to cover it? Even those with ample means have had a moment of hesitation and fear in handing over that tiny slip of paper, which could have meant all the difference between freedom and spending months behind bars before deportation. Courtrooms have in the past been crammed with defendants who have made genuine mistakes, been over-optimistic in estimating their bank balance or been afraid to admit they have fallen on hard times. The announcement by Dubai Courts to issue fines instead of jail terms for bounced cheques from December is therefore a step in the right direction and will alleviate thousands of the fear of being branded criminals.

There is, of course, a world of difference between those who make an honest mistake and fraudsters writing dud cheques to rip people off and the Dh200,000 cap on bouncing cheques which are punishable by fine will weed out those who seek to take advantage of the new law. It is often low-income workers falling behind on debt repayments or struggling to meet single-cheque payments for rent who are most likely to find themselves in trouble. A measure of leniency is a step in the right direction and a signal of a mature legislative procedure capable of recognising everyone has the potential to slip through the net. Sending debtors to prison for falling on hard times benefits no one; it causes the courts to become clogged with unnecessary paperwork, burdens overworked judges, whose time is taken up with needless cases and serves no purpose to the banks which are owed money, as they have no way of recouping their losses. The recognition that anyone can find themselves facing difficult circumstances or struggling to make ends meet is a welcome move which will alleviate the stress and burden on both individuals and the courts.

As judge Ayman Abdul Hakam has said, bouncing cheques made up 80 per cent of the 6,000 cases he dealt with in the first two months of Dubai's One Day Court opening, a workload which had him putting in 12-hour days to process cases swiftly and justly. The threat of going to prison has in the past caused debtors to flee the country or see the life they hoped to create for themselves in the UAE in tatters. For those already being punished by finding themselves mired in debt, a stiff fine is penalty enough. Giving them a sensible means of dealing with the crisis they find themselves in will ensure a lot more people in the UAE don't suffer sleepless nights – on both sides of the dock.