Court poor box
Sometimes in criminal prosecutions heard in lower courts, the judge may order the defendant to place a donation in the court poor box in lieu of conviction. In other words, instead of being convicted and facing imprisonment or a statutory fine, the judge can order that the defendant donate a sum to a charity nominated by the judge. This sum of money is then lodged by the defendant with the court and paid over by the Fines Office of the Court to the charity in question.
There is no apparent law in place that gives the judge this discretion. The use of the court poor box, however, is a process that has evolved over the years. It appears to stem from the judge's common law jurisdiction to exercise his or her discretion in imposing penalties and/or other conditions. In particular, this process often occurs in the lower courts (i.e., the District Court).
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 and Equality 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 being drafted by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel.
Until new legislation is introduced however, the following information describes the current situation with regard to the court poor box.
The most common reason for making a decision such as this 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, the judge may anticipate that the defendant will not commit any other offence.
For example, on the one hand, it could be argued that the prospect of appearing in court is a significant deterrent from crime for some citizens. The fact that details of their personal lives and activities may become public knowledge can sometimes be enough to deter them from committing a crime again. In addition, having a conviction registered against you can significantly affect your life (i.e., employment prospects, career, business and social relationships, etc.). 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.
On the other hand, however, concerns have been expressed in Ireland as to the need to ensure equal treatment for offenders from different economic backgrounds. There is also a significant question as to the lack of accountability regarding the use of funds. For example, some people feel that having a court poor box is a way out of conviction for some citizens who can afford to pay the fine. Other individuals who cannot afford the fine may have no option but to have their conviction registered against them. There are also concerns that donations to the court poor box deprives the Irish Government of fines that should in ordinary circumstances be imposed.
There is currently no specific law governing court poor boxes. Where an accused makes a payment to the poor box, the judge usually applies the Probation of Offenders Act 1908 or imposes a suspended sentence.
It is intended to reform the current court poor box system. Until new legislation is in place, the court poor box system is still in force.
Donations to the court poor box imposed by a judge can vary in amount, depending on the offence.
How to apply
If a judge orders that you make a donation to the court poor box and you have the funds to pay, the Court Registrar in court on the day will collect the payment and issue you with a receipt. If you do not have the funds with you on the day but can afford to pay, your case may be adjourned for a period (i.e., a month, three months, etc.). You are then recalled to court and you pay the donation. Donations are then 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.