Jan Macháček

Hledání

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Czech Business Weekly

Too much distraint, little restraint in debt chases

04. 06. 2007
The business of distraint—seizing and holding some form of a person’s property to compel the payment of a debt—threatens to run out of control. There’ve already been nearly a million such acts in this country, and one wonders how many people have been fairly targeted.

Hana Čápová, of daily Lidové noviny, is one reporter working exceptionally hard at exposing the frequent misuses of power by court-sanctioned distrainors. At the end of May she told the story of a man mistaken for someone with the same name. It took him months to reclaim his property. The distrainor responsible for this mistake happens to be the president of the chamber of judicial distrainors.

A butcher, meanwhile, simply owed a few pieces of meat to a business partner. Imagine his horror when property worth hundreds of thousands of crowns was taken away from him. People involved in such cases can find their reputations have been irreversibly broken.

TV documentaries also frequently tackle the alarming practices of distrainors while daily Pravo described how a father had his property seized after his son, who had not lived at his parents’ address for seven years, became indebted. No apology was forthcoming.

So many distraints have occurred that some of your fellow bus passengers, a colleague or a neighbor have probably suffered one. The shame usually precludes talking about it. Failure to pay a dog tax, TV fees, garbage collection charges or a tram ticket fine can trigger a case. Change addresses, forget to pay a simple debt and a distrainor can freeze your bank account without warning. This can block regular payments leading to a long sequence of further distraints.

Even welfare paid to families in social distress can be grabbed. Thus thousands of families, including Roma who find themselves pushed further into islands of social exclusion, don’t receive a crown. But nobody cares to intervene.

Secret police background

Dirty, cheap tricks are terribly common. A distrainor can journey from one corner of the country to another and overcharge on travel expenses. There’s almost no real control on such fraud; unsurprising, considering how many distrainors are former communist secret policemen skilled in shabby methods.

Some MPs seem concerned. But the distrainors’ lobbyists are hitting back and, worryingly, some politicians call distrainors “entrepreneurs.”

Distrainors, of course, aren’t all bad. Their existence makes credit cheaper and loans more widely available and teaches us to pay bills on time. But this society always lurches from one extreme to another.

I recently read an article on how Russian elites are simply not subject to the rule of law. The state keeps the poor and middle class within its grasp, but the financial and political elites are allowed to do as they may. Russia often serves as a magnifying glass enabling us to better understand our own problems. This applies where distraint is concerned.

Unlike in America—remember the scandals at Enron and Worldcom—there’s no sign here that laws such as those on debt repayment are being brought to bear on the big fish and high-level white-collar criminals. Those allowing this status quo to continue should note the risk involved—the people might lose patience.

So, how to fight this state of affairs? Certainly via good reporting.

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