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Oxfam, Focus and Garda Trust all benefit from €2m 'Poor Box' fund

The ‘Poor Box’ option can be used by judges for a variety of reasons, including cases where a conviction might be inappropriate or adversely affect employment.

Image: gavel via Shutterstock

NEW FIGURES FROM the Courts Service detailing some €2 million paid out to charities from the courts ‘Poor Box’ show that Oxfam Ireland was the biggest beneficiary of the fund in 2012.

The charity received €126,200 from the courts system, with five other organisations also receiving donations above €50,000: they were the Friends of St. Patrick’s, the Cappuchin Day Centre, Sightsavers International, the Christian Blind Mission and Action Aid Ireland.

The Garda Benevolent Trust Fund, Aware and the Jack and Jill Foundation were all inside the top 20, and received donations of over €20,000 each.

Overall, €2,009,445 was paid out to over 700 charities, groups and individuals over the 12 month period, the Courts Service confirmed.

Historical precedent

The practice of courts directing that money be paid into a poor box in lieu of, or in conjunction with another penalty, is a practice that pre-dates the foundation of the State.

It’s predominantly used by the District Courts who deal with criminal offences of a less serious nature than other jurisdictions.  The individual amounts can vary substantially depending on factors like ability to pay, other penalties imposed and the nature of the offences committed.

The option is generally used where the offence is minor in nature and wouldn’t attract a jail sentence. It’s most frequently used by judges dealing with public order offences, including breaches of the peace, disorderly conduct or failure to comply with a direction from the gardaí

It’s also sometimes utilised for road traffic incidents — last month, Monegall resident and eighth cousin of Barack Obama  Henry Healy was ordered to pay €500 into the Poor Box after pleading guilty to careless driving in May of last year.  The judge in the case described him as a man who had “an impeccable record in terms of road safety” and “an impeccable record of service to the Irish State”.

A spokesperson for the Courts Service said there were many reasons the poor-box option may be used, including cases where the accused had never previously been before the courts or where a conviction might be inappropriate, or might adversely affect employment.

The Law Reform Commission recommended in 2005 that the operation of the poor box be put on a statutory footing and updated in the context of a reformed Probation of Offenders Act, which covers cases where offenders are considered unlikely to be in trouble with the law again.

Judge Catherine McGuinness, a former chair of the Commission, said the body had made a number of recommendations to make the system more accountable.

“We felt was that it was a fairly arbitary system,” McGuinness told Newstalk Breakfast.

“But it has its virtues certainly — the Commission recommended that it should be put on a statutory basis that would make it more transparent and that there would be proper rules.

“It was recommended that rather than leaving it to individual judges to decide what charities would benefit, all the money should be paid into one pot and a committee should be set up to administer that and decide which charities should benefit.”

McGuinness said that while the list of the top 20 organisations named in the 2012 list were all “highly virtuous”, some “rather odd” choices of charity had been made by judges over the years.

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