The court poor box into which defendants in Kerry could pay money to avoid convictions has been scrapped.
Local lawyers and Courts Service sources say it is now no longer being used, in contrast to previous years, when the amounts paid into it were often higher than any other court district in Ireland.
Some €458,000 was paid out to 66 charities, schools and individuals from the District Court poor box in Kerry last year.
This was just €60,000 less than the amount paid in 2017 but it was also a quarter of the total €1.74m paid into court poor boxes nationally.
It is understood the reason for the demise of the court poor box, which has been used since at least the 1800s, appears to be Judge David Waters.
He instead has been asking people to donate direct to mainly one of two named charities since he started presiding over the District Court in Kerry in January 2018.
The judge succeeded Judge James O’Connor, who took ill in January 2018 and retired seven months later.
It is understood the majority of payments made in 2018 relate to commitments made the previous year by Judge O’Connor.
Under him, the money was accumulated over a year and then divided up among a number of individuals and organisations.
As a result, the details were collated and recorded by the Courts Service and details released each year.
However, under Judge Waters, charitable donations nowjust go to the charities directly.
A Court Service source said: “We think the total money disbursed by the court poor box in Kerry will probably amount to somewhere near zero in 2019.
“This is because we are hearing the money is going to charities direct.”
Killarney solicitor Padraig O’Connell said: “There is no such thing as the poor box anymore. It is a misnomer. It doesn’t exist.
“The money is now going nowhere near Court Services and most certainly goes nowhere near the judge.
“The money now instead goes directly to drugs treatment centres run by Cuan Mhuire if the case involves drugs.
“And for minor public order offences, it goes to the Garda Benevolent Trust Fund.”
Leading barrister and legal commentator Paul Anthony McDermott said: “Over the years, it allowed an element of discretion we have always had in our approach to the legal system.
“But in the modern era of auditing and accountability it is probably hard for something as quaint as that to survive.”
It is understood that most of the money involving drugs offences in Kerry now goes to the Cuan Mhuire centre in Bruree, Co Limerick. How much, however, is a mystery.
Sr Agnes, at the charity, said: “We are very grateful for the money we have received but other than that, we cannot comment.”
The court poor box payment is accompanied by a dismissal of the charge against whoever makes the payment under S1 of the Probation of Offenders Act 1907.
The effect of a dismissal is that no criminal conviction is entered against the defendant.
The court poor box is used primarily in relation to public order offences and largely in respect of first-time offenders, although its use is not strictly confined to such situations.
Poor box a centuries-old practice
Nobody appears to be able to pinpoint the exact origins of the court poor box, but that it has been around for centuries, long before the foundation of the State is accepted by most historians.
And it invariably has links to anything from alms boxes in churches to levies on landowners for the maintenance of the ‘wretched and wandering poor’.
This is according to a 2004 Law Reform Commission Consultation Paper on The Court Poor Box.
It says the relief of the poor with a court box probably evolved from a practice in the British courts that was then applied in Ireland.
The practice of allowing prisoners to have their freedom on payment of a sum of money commenced as far back as 1275, according to an article published in 2001.
It was also noted that, around 1576, it was “frequent practice to appropriate some part of the penalty to the poor of the parish where the offence is committed”.
The Law Reform Commission’s Consultation Paper notes the 1601 Poor Relief Act allows for ‘justices of the peace’ discretion in distributing fines for minor offences for the relief of the poor.
In the 1886 Summary Jurisdiction Acts 1848-1884, the adoption of this practice was noted in a variety of laws.
One such law provided that where a person was convicted under it, half the penalty was to be paid over to the poor of the parish where the offence was committed.