Defendants have paid almost €7.5 million in fines to court poor boxes since 2014 instead of receiving a criminal conviction, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan has confirmed.Mr Flanagan who had previously informed the Dáil of his plan to “do away with” the court poor box said the Government has approved the drafting of legislation to abolish the practice of defendants making a donation rather than receiving a criminal conviction.
The Minister has repeatedly said he was unhappy with the way it was being administered, and he believed it had “no longer a fit place in justice administration”.
The proposed legislation will replace the court poor box with a statutory reparation fund “to provide for a fair, equitable and transparent system of reparation that will apply only to minor offences dealt with by the District Court”. The new legislation, the Criminal Justice (Community Sanctions) Bill, is currently being drafted to introduce “modern provisions dealing with community sanctions and the role of the Probation Service in the criminal justice system”.
Four years ago the High Court ruled “the District Court enjoys no jurisdiction to impose an informal sanction such as accepting a donation to the poor box, as this would amount to an indirect circumvention of the law”.
But the poor box continues to be used, rising from €1.69 million in 2014 to €2.01 million last year.
In the first six months of 2018, defendants paid just under €800,000 in fines for charitable purposes rather than face a conviction.
Previous figures from 2016 showed that the court poor box in Kerry was worth nearly €400,000, just under a quarter of the overall total of €1.72 million while in Mayo the poor box totalled just under €10,000 for that year.
Depending on the judge, the poor box has been used to replace convictions for a myriad of offences including road traffic offences such as speeding, for possession of drugs and for the offence of refusing to fill in a census form.
Mr Flanagan told Independent TD Mattie McGrath in a reply to a parliamentary question that the court poor box was a “non-statutory system used by the District Court to impose a fine on a defendant that would be used for a charitable purpose usually instead of imposing a criminal conviction”.
He listed some of the reasons the procedure might be used by judges. These included that “the accused may never previously have been before the courts, the accused may have pleaded guilty, a conviction might be inappropriate, or might adversely affect employment, career or working abroad prospects, and/or the offence may be of a minor or trivial nature”.Mr Flanagan added that sometimes it could be a “more meaningful punishment than the maximum fine where the value of a maximum fine may have been eroded by inflation”.
Mr McGrath has said he favours the use of the poor box for the benefit of charities.
The Tipperary TD has previously cited charities such as the Jack & Jill Foundation, which he said received about €50,000 a year through the court poor box.
Mr McGrath said “now the money will just go into central funds and be lost and the charities will be the one to lose and the sick children, the ones from Jack & Jill, will be the ones to lose.”