Use of ‘poor box’ for driving offences persists despite ruling

Drivers still avoiding penalty points despite practice being barred by Road Traffic Act

Tommy Broughan: Documents show more than 1,500 drivers avoided penalty points between 2014 and May 2015 after they made a poor box donation. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Tommy Broughan: Documents show more than 1,500 drivers avoided penalty points between 2014 and May 2015 after they made a poor box donation. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

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Hundreds of drivers are continuing to avoid penalty points in court by making a contribution to the poor box despite a High Court ruling last year stating the practice was “incorrect”.

In a judicial review hearing in February 2014, Mr Justice Gerard Hogan ruled that use of the poor box for penalty point offences was specifically barred under the Road Traffic Act 2010. This legislation made the imposition of penalty points and a fine mandatory on conviction.

The poor box is a non-statutory system used by the District Courts to impose a fine to be given to charity instead of a criminal conviction. Mr Justice Hogan ruled this legislation removed the discretion of judges to use the poor box for penalty point offences and said to do so was “incorrect”.

“In such cases it must accordingly be concluded that the District Court enjoys no jurisdiction to impose an informal sanction short of actual conviction such as accepting a donation to the poor box,” he said. “This would amount to an indirect circumvention of these statutory provisions.”

Donation

Despite this judgment being immediately sent to all District Court judges, figures released from the Department of Justice to Independent TD Tommy Broughan show more than 1,500 drivers avoided penalty points between 2014 and May 2015 after they made a poor box donation.

In most cases a driver faces the imposition of four or five points if convicted in court.

A spokeswoman for Minister for Transport Paschal Donohoe, who is responsible for the penalty point system, said he was “unequivocally against the use of the poor box” for penalty point offences and was disappointed it appeared to be still happening.

Mr Donohoe said the judicial ruling on the matter had been brought to the attention of the courts and he would raise the issue at the next Cabinet sub-committee meeting on road safety.

An analysis of how the 66 District Courts dealt with penalty points shows the poor box was used as a sanction for penalty point offences 996 times in 2014 and 530 times in the first five months of this year.

Offenders

Some courts – including Dungloe and Falcarragh, Co Donegal, Ballina,Co Mayo, Cork city, Galway City, Wexford city and Gort, Co Galway – did not use it.

In other courts, the poor box was used extensively. In Ballyshannon, Co Donegal and Kilkenny city, almost half of all penalty point offenders were given the poor box option. In Mallow, Co Cork more than a third received the poor box and in Dungarvan, Co Waterford and Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim, three in every ten convicted drivers escaped penalty points after making a contribution to the poor box.

In the first five months of 2015 the number of courts yet to use the poor box for penalty point offences rose to 24. In some courts, including Ballyshannon and Sligo, the percentage of penalty point cases dealt with by the poor box increased during the early part of 2015, compared with the previous year.

The Dublin Metropolitan courts had the highest number of motorists given the poor box, with 330 avoiding points after making a donation between 2014 and May 2015.

Mr Broughan said granting errant motorists the poor box instead of points “eviscerates efforts made by legislators and undermines efforts to improve road safety”.

Susan Gray, spokeswoman and founder of Road Safety group Parc, said she was disappointed to see such a high rate of usage of the poor box, against the express intentions of the legislation.

“"We still have too many people getting away with the court poor box instead of having penalty points applied to their licence.” The points system was designed to act as a deterrent for those breaking road traffic laws and to save lives. “Contributions to a poor box will never achieve this.”

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