Can’t pay the fine? Don’t do the crime.

By Josh Roberts

Thirty degrees in the August heat, and I’m sitting in a restaurant in Greece having a chat with an eighteen-year-old bloke who has just been accepted to Trinity. His parents, the mum in particular, asked me to explain to their son all the various oddities of Trinity life, “so everything will be a little a less daunting when he arrives”. It was the third time over the summer that I had been asked to give this chat and between you and me I really couldn’t be bothered. Just give him the set menu, I thought – you know, “Join as many societies as you can, don’t worry about making friends because everyone will be in the same boat”.

But after dropping as many platitudes (“you only get out what you put in”) as a politician on Paxman, our conversation took a distinct turn towards the a la carte. “Looking back, do you think Trinity Hall is the best place to live as a fresher?” enquired the mum.

Weighing up the pros and cons I decided that it definitely was. The pros seemed numerous: the fact that all your friends are within a two-minute walk, the fact that the JCR organise near nightly fun and the fact that the on-site provision of stuff like the Internet and laundrette made living in Halls largely hassle-free, not to mention a right laugh.

The only negative which I felt was worth mentioning was the issue of discipline, or more specifically the fact that almost all of my friends had, at some point over the year, been summoned to the Warden’s office for “breaking the peace”. On several occasions they found themselves paying hefty financial fines for their sins.

I must investigate this further, I remember thinking. I should try to find out what other people think about them. I wonder where the money goes. I wonder if the system is fair. Maybe write something for the paper. And, three months later, here it is.

The first thing I wanted to find out was whether or not the system of punitive fines followed any sort of structure. What offences merit someone being fined? Is there a rigid process by which the level of a fine is set? Is there an effective appeals process by which someone can argue against a fine?

Remembering back to my first night in Halls, I can recall the Warden, Brendan Tangney, telling us that the first (and only) rule of Halls is not, that “on your first night you must fight” (Fight Club, 1999), but instead that residents have “to be reasonable”.

At first glance this relaxed maxim might seem fair enough. But as a direct result of its broad nature some feel that this phrase prevents there being a rigid system for punishment, and instead permits wide and varied interpretation by those charged with maintaining good discipline – one person’s “reasonable” may be another person’s very unreasonable.

Second year Politics student Magnus Williams, who was fined €100 for hosting a gathering in his apartment, is one person who sees the system as unfair. “An Assistant Warden came into our flat at ten thirty in the evening and requested that everyone leave,” he said. “Which they did, and yet I was still fined €100. €100 for obeying the rules is utterly unreasonable”. Was there an adequate system of appeal? “Certainly not. I was simply instructed not to give backchat and pay the fine.”

He believes that the disciplinary framework is hypocritical. “Not necessarily in a malicious way. But asking residents to be reasonable, and then fining them extortionate amounts for petty violations does stink of hypocrisy”.

Tangney himself doesn’t see the potential for unfairness in the system, saying, “I do not subscribe to the minimum sentencing philosophy, but believe each case needs to be dealt with on its own merits.”

Phillip Blake, another ex-Halls resident, disagrees. He was ordered to pay a total of over €150 what he refers to as “very trivial issues” (such as failing to attend a fire safety talk) and he blames the lack of “an encompassing list of offences and their respective punishments” for much of the confusion and anger among residents. “The current framework allows those in power too much leeway,” Blake said. “There is a culture of ‘fine first, discuss later’ which needs to be changed.”

Not only do residents seem to be riled by the reasons and structure through which fines are doled out, but the level of fines themselves also appears highly contentious. According to Tangney, “fines start at €10”, but fines of this size are rarely seen and those for more serious offences have been known to reach much higher sums.

One such example is that of BESS student Niall Knox who was fined a whopping €500 for allowing three non-residents into Halls. He argues that the amounts given out to people “often don’t justify the crime”, and says, “I was fined a huge amount of money for a crime that I didn’t even know I was committing. Luckily a friend knew the three guys and they thankfully paid the fine between them. But the issue remains – the fines are far too big, not to mention regressive”.

This more theoretical argument against fines on the basis of their being regressive is rarely mentioned but is, nevertheless, compelling. In Knox’s opinion “the Warden is essentially saying, ‘If you’re rich you can do whatever you like’. Surely there is another fairer and more constructive mechanism”.

Perhaps the most obvious alternative to the current system is one based around the idea of community service hinging on the principle that you should give back to the community which you have damaged. Within this framework those found to be in violation of the rules are ordered to take part in manual or other work in Halls and the surrounding area – it could be cleaning litter off the street, it could be removing graffiti from the bus shelters, or it could be repainting the squash court.
The arguments in favour of such a system number many. Primarily it effectively ends the question of punishment being financially regressive and, from my discussions with residents, is a much greater deterrent of disruptive behaviour (surely the main aim of disciplinary procedures).

One current resident, who asked not to be named, endorsed this approach saying, “If I was at a party in an apartment and the Warden simply asked me to pay €20 to carry on I might go along with it. If I had to spend two hours of the next two Saturdays sweeping Dartry road I certainly wouldn’t”.

As Tangney states, “Fines are just one of a variety of mechanisms used in the disciplinary system in Halls,” but the community service approach has only been rarely implemented. Switching to a full-blown community service-based framework backed up by fines is seen by many as the fairest and most civic minded way of solving the problem of antisocial behaviour.

That said, and as mentioned briefly above, a community service-orientated approach to punishment would need to be backed up with hefty fines to ensure that people do actually complete the sentence passed down to them. This raises the important question of where this money should be spent.

At present, the money raised (which totalled €7315 last year) is donated to the Senior Tutor’s Hardship Fund. According to Senior Tutor, Dr Claire Laudet, “this money is a great help to us as it allows us to support more students”. But, as worthy a cause as it is, many residents believe that money raised in Halls should be spent in Halls.

One proponent of this view, Geography student Oli Cassels, says “it seems bizarre that money raised in Halls is spent in College”. He added: “Commendable as it is, the Hardship Fund appears to be using Halls residents as a cash cow”.

Others disagree and feel that putting people through college or providing the financially unstable short-term loans is a much better use of the money. They argue that yes, the music room could do with a new keyboard, but providing textbooks to those who can’t afford them is clearly a better allocation of the resources.

Whatever your view, the issue of fines in Halls is important. If the level of discontent among the many residents I spoke to is reflective of the wider community, there is an urgent need for far more open and frank dialogue between those living in Halls and those governing them.

Without exception, everyone I spoke to insisted that Halls is a wonderful place to start your college career, to live and to work. However, if the issue of discipline isn’t dealt with swiftly, there may be trouble ahead for this slice of paradise in Dublin 8.