Court poor box: An intolerable situation

The perception is created that offenders can buy their way out of more serious trouble

The poor box is operated at the discretion of a judge. It is supposed to be used for minor public order offences and, sometimes, for motoring and drug offences.

The poor box is operated at the discretion of a judge. It is supposed to be used for minor public order offences and, sometimes, for motoring and drug offences.

 

There is something seriously wrong when a Kerry District Court poor box attracts donations of almost €400,000 in a single year, as a way of reducing judicial penalties. The fact the money goes to deserving charities is beside the point: the perception is created that offenders can buy their way out of more serious trouble. It has been going on nationally for years and it must stop. The impartiality of the law is threatened when offenders in one court jurisdiction attract dramatically different punishments from those in another. When judicial leniency can be traced to the payment of money to a court poor box, the situation becomes intolerable.

That was recognised by the High Court in 2014, when it ruled the poor box should not be used to avoid penalty points for motoring offences. In spite of that direction, however, the practice continues. The latest figures show that more than €1.5 million was paid into the court poor box across district courts in 2016, an increase of €200,000 on the previous year, despite calls for the practice to be curtailed.

There are instances when such payments may be justified because of mitigating factors involving first offenders. But, in Kerry, use of the poor box has become an integral part of court practice.

The poor box is operated at the discretion of a judge. It is supposed to be used for minor public order offences and, sometimes, for motoring and drug offences. If judges decide to ignore the decisions of superior courts, on the grounds of their independence under the Constitution, nothing can be done. Former chief justice Susan Denham, over more than a decade, urged successive governments to establish a judicial council, which would be an important advance in ensuring consistency of approach across the judiciary. Legislation is still awaited. Use of the poor box has knock-on effects involving gardaí. It is hardly a coincidence that Co Kerry has a successful prosecution rate of 29 per cent for drunk driving while the conviction figure in Offaly reaches 68 per cent. Consistency in detection and enforcement are required.

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