Use of 'poor box' for driving offences makes a mockery of the law
Making our roads safer is a challenge. We have made remarkable progress in reducing death and serious injuries on our roads over the last three decades. This has come about by Government and State agencies taking a cross-sectoral, strategic approach. Better legislation, enforcement by gardaí and a concerted move by local authorities and the NRA in road improvement have been crucial elements of this strategy. The Road Safety Authority, which I now chair, was established in 2006 with a remit to make Ireland's roads safer.
Through constant advocacy, advertising, education, inspection of vehicles, better driving qualification monitoring and training, measurable improvements have taken place. The figures are compelling. In 1981, for example, there were 572 road fatalities; in November of that year alone 80 people died. Last year there were 185.
This progress has been hard won. Penalties have been increased for driver misbehaviour. The culture of drink driving, which was the scourge of earlier times has been aggressively tackled by the introduction of random breath testing for alcohol carrying mandatory penalties. So much so, that it has gradually become socially unacceptable for a person to drive with drink taken.
Tough enforcement of the law has been key to the success of the drink-driving laws. That is why the ruling by the High Court this week was such a setback for the Garda force and all of those committed to preventing and penalising drunk drivers. The requirement for the breath test results to be supplied both in English and Irish was clear in the Act.
Yet it was not happening and a conviction was voided, which could result in the possible voiding of hundreds of pending drink-driving cases.
Emergency legislation was rushed through this week to close the loophole and mitigate the damage.
It was, however, a regrettable lapse with serious implications. It suggests that a review and consolidation of our road traffic legislation should now take place to test for other such loopholes, linguistic or otherwise. Road traffic legislation is the most assiduously challenged in the courts.
Defendants will use every means to avoid penalties, such is the gravity of losing one's licence. So the State must be prescient in anticipating the legal capacity of offenders to escape convictions in this technical way.
Whatever about closing loopholes which defendants can legitimately use to avoid penalties, there are certain practices in some, but not all district courts, which are undermining road safety measures.
As was recently revealed in a parliamentary question tabled by Independent TD Tommy Broughan, hundreds of drivers are continuing to avoid penalty points in court by making a contribution to the 'poor box'. This is despite a High Court ruling in February 2014 by Mr Justice Gerard Hogan that such practice was "incorrect" in law.
The judge ruled that the use of the poor box in penalty point offences was specifically barred under the 2010 Road Traffic Act 2010, stressing that the district court "enjoys no jurisdiction to impose an informal sanction short of actual conviction such as accepting a donation to the poor box, as this would amount to an indirect circumvention of these statutory provisions".
Yet despite being circulated with the judgment, some judges are allowing offenders to buy their way out of trouble and penalty points.
Some 66 district courts used the poor box as a sanction for penalty point offences 996 times last year and 530 times this year.
This is a grave undermining of the purpose of the law, which is to save lives and make our roads safer.
However well motivated individual judges are in using this practice, it is unlawful and unacceptable.
Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe has stated unequivocally that he opposes the use of the poor box and the High Court has ruled on this matter. So why is it continuing?
As a director of a charity, I empathise with the difficulties facing all charities, particularly in the last few years.
And we Irish are a nation of givers to good causes. But it is misguided altruism to use the poor box instead of road traffic penalties. The poor box has no place in road traffic enforcement, given the overwhelming public interest of preventing death and serious injury on our roads.
Penalty points have proven to be an invaluable tool in society's assault on driver misbehaviour. Since their introduction in 2002, road deaths have fallen to their lowest level.
The cumulative effect of penalty points accruing works. The fear of being put off the road having reached the limit of penalty points on one's licence is a highly effective preventative measure.
Not to enforce it by an arbitrary and non-statutory practice like the poor box donation rides coach and horses through our national road safety strategy.
The recent political scandal over the cancellation of penalty points by the Garda caused major embarrassment and public controversy. Rightly so. And new measures have been introduced to severely restrict this discretionary practice which constituted an abuse of power on a grand scale.
While acknowledging the independence of the judiciary, I believe the courts must now address comprehensively this outstanding matter of poor box donations.
Public confidence requires that justice be dispensed fairly and equitably; the 'poor box' should not be an option in the gift of judges.