Abuse of ‘poor box’ in district courts must stop

Archaic system undermines confidence in penalty points system

Some district court judges use the archaic poor box system as an alternative to motoring convictions and the recording of penalty points on licences. Their behaviour reflects a sense of utter impunity. The Road Traffic Act of 2010 prohibits the use of the poor box for these offences and the High Court ruled that district courts have no right to impose such informal sanctions. Judges have been notified of this reality and ministers made encouraging statements. Yet nothing has changed.

Chief Justice Susan Denham warned recently that the absence of a Judicial Council is affecting the administration of justice. Removal from office is the sole disciplinary sanction currently available in cases of judicial misconduct and it requires resolutions by both Houses of the Oireachtas. As a 'nuclear option', it has never been used. This lack of disciplinary structures encourages inconsistency in sentencing between court districts and facilitates unacceptable behaviour by individual judges. It cannot be allowed to continue.

Public confidence in the penalty points system was badly shaken when it was found that senior gardaí had intervened improperly to prevent prosecutions while their junior colleagues had allowed cases to lapse. Reforms were introduced. But loopholes remained for the well-advised. Motorists who fail to produce driving licences in court continue to avoid penalty points being recorded because of a defect in the summons.

The Road Safety Authority has warned that a reduction in road deaths cannot be sustained in the absence of strict enforcement of traffic legislation and a visible garda presence on the roads. Any interference that thwarts the purpose of the law by judges, gardaí or others undermines public confidence and reinforces an 'us and them' mentality that is corrosive of social responsibility. Why should drink driving conviction rates vary so greatly from district to district? Is it because the poor box in those areas with the lowest rates is stuffed to the brim with the money of law-breakers? Whatever the reason, urgent change is required.