Law banning use of poor box in traffic cases widely ignored

Motorists are still avoiding points three years after the rules changed

Speeding fines: last year 1,754 drivers escaped points after making a poor-box contribution. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Speeding fines: last year 1,754 drivers escaped points after making a poor-box contribution. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Last week the property developer Niall Mellon appeared in court for not paying an €80 fixed-penalty notice for speeding. Judge Michael Coghlan told him to pay €250 to the court poor box and struck out the case. End of story.

Except that since 2011 judges have lost their power to use the poor box in traffic cases, to stop motorists avoiding penalty points. Yet judges have continued to let thousands of motorists make a poor-box donation.

Last month Minister for Justice Alan Shatter said that 1,754 drivers escaped points in 2013 after making a poor-box contribution. His statement, in response to a question from Tommy Broughan TD, also showed differences in use of the poor box across the 26 district courts. In 10 of them last year fewer than 16 drivers escaped points after a poor-box contribution. In five the poor-box option was not used at all. So how can the Oireachtas pass a law to close a loophole yet the issue remain unresolved three years later?

Senior gardaí say they have been aware since 2012 that drivers are still allowed to contribute to the poor box but cannot raise it with the courts because of the separation of powers.

A penalty-points working group, including the Departments of Transport and Justice, the Courts Service and the Garda, was set up to examine the system, but the poor box was not among the problems raised.

Ministers’ statements can convey the Oireachtas view on a legal issue, although there is little evidence of the Ministers for Justice or Transport pointing out that use of the poor box contravenes the Road Traffic Act 2010.

Legal sources say the Garda or Chief State Solicitor’s Office can query a judgment, but in practice gardaí rarely do so.

Last month Mr Justice Gerard Hogan ruled it “incorrect” to allow motorists to avoid conviction via the poor box. His decision was forwarded to all District Court judges. The Director of Public Prosecutions declined to say if it will revisit the thousands of poor-box cases.

Parc Road Safety Group says that it is unbelievable that the law is not being properly enforced and that the mechanism for informing judges of new legislation needs to be re-examined.

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