Court poor box
In criminal prosecutions heard in lower courts (usually the District Court), the judge may order the defendant to place a donation in the court poor box in lieu of conviction. This means that instead of being convicted and facing imprisonment or a statutory fine, the defendant donates a sum of money to a charity decided by the judge.
The sum can vary in amount, depending on the offence. This donation is then lodged by the defendant with the court and paid over by the Fines Office of the Court to the charity.
There is no legislation guiding the use of court poor boxes. The current system has evolved over the years. It stems from the judge's common law jurisdiction to exercise their discretion in imposing penalties. Where an accused makes a payment to the poor box, the judge usually applies the Probation of Offenders Act 1907 or imposes a suspended sentence.
In 2005 the Law Reform Commission
published their Report on
the court poor box: probation of offenders (pdf). In February 2014 the
Department of Justice published the General Scheme of Criminal
Justice (Community Sanctions) Bill. This Bill proposes to abolish the court
poor box and replace it with a statutory Reparation Fund that will apply to
minor offences dealt with by the District Court. The Bill is expected to be
published towards the end of 2022.
The most common reason for using the court poor box is that, in the opinion of the judge, while the prosecution has proven its case, it is not appropriate to enter a conviction. For example, because it is a minor or first offence.
Having a conviction registered against you can significantly affect your life by damaging employment prospects, careers and social relationships. For this reason, where the court feels that the citizen will not re-offend, the judge can choose to impose a donation to the court poor box.
Objections to the court poor box
The Law Reform Commission found that the system is unfair for offenders from different economic backgrounds. Offenders who can afford to pay the fine can avoid conviction while people who cannot have no choice but to have the conviction registered against them. The court poor box is also not universally used, so some offenders may not have the option available to them depending on where they are tried.
There are also concerns as to the lack of accountability regarding the use of funds, as well as concerns that donations to the court poor box deprive the Irish Government of the fines that would normally be imposed. It has been suggested that a new system where the money collected went to victims of crime would be more appropriate.
There is no set procedure for how the court will handle the process. Generally, if a judge orders that you make a donation to the court poor box and you have the funds to pay, the Court Registrar will collect the payment and issue you with a receipt. If you do not have the funds with you but you can afford to pay, then arrangements will be made for you to pay at a later date. Donations are forwarded to the relevant charity/organisation by the court. If you do not have the funds to pay or you choose not to make a donation, a conviction for your offence will be registered against you.
Further information about the court poor box in your area is available from your local court. Contact information for courts throughout Ireland is available here.