U.S. bankruptcy filings in 2003 were barely changed from record 12-month highs reported three months earlier, a government report released on Wednesday showed.

Personal bankruptcies for all of 2003 rose 5.6 percent to 1.63 million from a year earlier while business filings fell 9.1 percent to 35,037, according to data from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

Total calendar 2003 bankruptcy filings of 1,660,245 were up 5.2 percent from 2002 but were just shy of the 1,661,996 historic high reported for the courts’ fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2003.

“Today’s announcement underscores the continued hangover effect of high levels of consumer spending and debt acquired over the last decade,” said Samuel Gerdano, executive director of the American Bankruptcy Institute.

Long-stalled legislation that would make it harder for consumers to invoke bankruptcy to avoid paying off debts is in limbo in Congress because of conflicts over how the code would treat abortion protesters’ court fines.

The overhaul of bankruptcy laws has come close to passage several times in recent years, only to stall at the last minute.

The bill would make it harder for individuals judged able to pay some of their bills to wipe out all of their debts. Instead, they would be put on a five-year repayment plan.

Banks, retailers, credit card companies and auto lenders say the legislation would stop consumers from running up massive debts only to turn to the courthouse and file for bankruptcy to avoid their repayments.

Consumer advocates, labor unions and civil rights and women’s groups say the measure is needlessly harsh on people already hit by job uncertainty, while rewarding businesses such as credit card companies that aggressively market consumer loans.

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