Informal justice administered via the court poor box

There is a case for flexibility on convictions but a “fair, equitable and transparent system” is long overdue

 

Few would disagree that judges presiding in the lower courts – mainly the District Courts – should have some discretion in deciding appropriate penalties for relatively minor offences. Judges often exercise that discretion where first-time offenders are involved in minor breaches of road traffic law or of public order. In such cases, a financial penalty may be more appropriate than a conviction, resulting in a possible prison sentence or a statutory fine.

The judge –while accepting that the prosecution has proven its case – may order a defendant to make a donation to the court poor box. A court conviction can admittedly blight an individual’s career and damage his or her employment prospects. Accordingly, the judge may regard conviction as an inappropriate sanction for one that is unlikely to re-offend. Last year over €2 million was collected in poor box payments – a sum that continues to rise each year.

This increasing reliance on financial penalties, via the court poor box, to charities that are nominated by judges, however, does raise issues of fairness, and accountability. For those who can afford the donation, this is a way of avoiding conviction. But what of those who cannot afford the donation? A conviction will then be registered against them. Also, while the money raised through donations to the court poor box benefits charities in general, it also deprives the State of the revenue from fines that could otherwise have been imposed.

Tralee District Court directed 70 offenders to pay more than €880,000 to charities last year, and accounted for 42 per cent of all national donations. Aspects of the administration of justice in Tralee clearly differ from the rest of the country.

For more than a decade reform of the court poor box has been under consideration. First, by the Law Reform Commission in 2005. In 2014, Alan Shatter as minister of justice proposed legislation to replace the court poor box with a reparation fund for the victims of crime. A “fair, equitable and transparent system,” as promised by his successor, Frances Fitzgerald, remains long overdue.

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