The Court Poor Box System
Many people are familiar with the basic concept of the Court Poor Box system: a person who has been charged with a minor criminal offence, usually a first time offender, may be given one chance to avoid a criminal record by making a contribution to charity through the court poor box. The Court Poor Box system has been in existence for many centuries and developed by the judges as a common law power; it is not regulated by any legislation.
The Court Poor Box is used most often in the District Court. Typical cases where the Court Poor Box is used include being drunk or disorderly in a public place, careless driving, petty larceny, minor assaults or cruelty to animals. Payments to the Court Poor Box are generally less than €1,000 in each case, but there is a great deal of variation. In 1989, a Court Poor Box payment of £25,000 was made in one case, while in 2003 a payment of €40,000 was made in another case. The amount paid to the Court Poor Box has grown steadily in recent years. In the last two years, close to €1 million has been donated to the Court Poor Box annually. Some of the main beneficiaries of these payments include the Society of St Vincent de Paul, the Garda Benevolent Fund, the North West Hospice and Victim Support.
Advantages of the Court Poor Box System
The benefits of giving a first-time minor offender a chance to avoid a conviction while at the same time benefiting certain charities are obvious. Amongst the advantages of the system are that it enables a court to determine an appropriate outcome having regard to all the circumstances of a case (thus avoiding or reducing the need to record a conviction or term of imprisonment). One important benefit of the Court Poor Box system is that the charities who receive Court Poor Box funds are sometimes linked to the type of crime which has been committed; for example, a charge of cruelty to animals might result in a payment to the ISPCA via the Court Poor Box. Indeed, the Law Reform Commission acknowledges in its Consultation Paper that one of the most important positive features of the Court Poor Box is that it reflects principles of restorative justice, in that the offender, by giving an earnest of remorse and of future good intention, may make some restoration for injury done to the community.
Disadvantages of the Court Poor Box system
The Commission also concludes that there are a number of disadvantages with the current system. For example, the Court Poor Box is not used by all judges of the District Court and so it is not universally available to first-time offenders. An argument commonly made is that it allows the rich to buy their way out of a conviction and/or term of imprisonment. The Commission does not accept that this is the case, but nevertheless believes that such negative public perception is damaging to the administration of justice. The Commission also noted that some judges may be using the Court Poor Box to impose an informal fine, greater than the maximum available under the relevant law: the potential diversion from the Exchequer of what might otherwise be collected in fines was also mentioned by the Comptroller and Auditor General in his 1999 Annual Report. The Commission also noted that it may not be appropriate for judges to be involved in the administration of the Court Poor Box funds and that there may be some Revenue-compliance difficulties with the current system.
While the Court Poor Box is usually used in minor cases where a conviction would not be appropriate (and is therefore often used in conjunction with the Probation Act to avoid a criminal record), the Commission points out that it has sometimes been used where a conviction is recorded, and the judge imposes a community service order with a contribution to charity in circumstances where a term of imprisonment had been considered.
Reform of the Court Poor Box
Some critics of the Court Poor Box system have called for its abolition; however, the Law Reform Commission has provisionally concluded that the current poor box system should be replaced by a statutory system which avoids these disadvantages while incorporating the positive aspects underlying the Court Poor Box disposition. This new scheme, the “Court Charity Fund”, reflects the general principles of restorative justice and provides a method of avoiding a conviction primarily in the case of first-time offenders who have committed a trivial offence and have expressed remorse for their actions.
Summary of key provisional recommendations
- Reformed Court Poor Box to become “Court Charity Fund”, to be placed on a statutory footing. This disposition will be available in the District Court and Circuit Court, in appropriate cases.
- The “Court Charity Fund” disposition will be available only in respect of summary offences subject to a prescribed list of factors which the judge may take into account, including the trivial nature of the offence, the personal circumstances of the offender including character, family circumstances, age or health, and the need to avoid an injustice in a particular case.
- If the court records a conviction, the “Court Charity Fund” disposition will not be available as a disposition.
- The maximum amount payable to the Court Charity Fund will have a ceiling at the limit of the court’s jurisdiction, being €6,350 in the District Court and €38,100 in the Circuit Court.
- Monies paid into the Court Charity Fund could perhaps be paid into a “ring fenced fund” managed by the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (which is responsible for charities generally). This means that the money would not form part of the general Exchequer funds, but rather will be held separately and applied for the purpose specified in the legislation, in this case to charities which are established for the relief of poverty. Funds may be disbursed on an annual basis by the Minister, subject to consultation with appropriate bodies.
The Consultation Paper also considers the issue of “spent convictions”. This issue is linked to the Court Poor Box because of the underlying concern of such schemes to mitigate the damage which can be caused because of the permanency of a criminal conviction. The Commission did not feel it appropriate to make any recommendations on this matter in the Consultation Paper on the Court Poor Box. However, the paper contains an overview of some of the issues involved in spent convictions schemes as the Commission, in addition to receiving submissions on the establishment of the Court Charity Fund, would also be interested to receive submissions from interested persons or organisations with a view to returning to a full consideration of these issues at a future date.
Consultation Paper on the Court Poor Box