The Criminal Courts
The structure of the criminal court system in Ireland is hierarchical, with the District Court dealing with minor offences (generally those that carry a maximum sentence of 1 year or a maximum fine). It sits without a jury and cases are usually brought before it by means of a document called a summons. Certain offences, although they are normally to be tried on indictment with a jury in the Circuit Court, may be heard in the District Court if certain conditions are fulfilled. The District Court also deals with minor offences alleged to have been committed by children (children are defined as persons under 16 for this purpose). When dealing with these cases it is known as the Childrenís Court. An important part of the District Courtís criminal work is that all criminal matters start there. It is effectively a clearing house for major criminal cases. The District Judge conducts a preliminary examination of such charges and then sends those cases forward either to the Circuit Court, the Central Criminal Court or the Special Criminal Court to be tried by that court.
The Circuit Court deals with more serious offences, known as indictable offences, and in such cases a judge sits with a jury, while the Central Criminal Court (which is the High Court dealing with criminal cases) deals with more serious crimes that, by law, only it can deal with, such as rape and murder, and sits with a jury.
Just as in civil cases, an appeal lies from the District Court to the Circuit Court. This involves a full rehearing of the case. However, unlike in civil cases, only the defendant can in general bring an appeal in the Circuit Court. Generally, if the defendant is acquitted in the District Court, the prosecutor has no right of appeal to the Circuit Court. The decision of the Circuit Court on appeal is final and cannot be further appealed.
As in civil cases, an application may be made to the High Court by way of consultative case stated on a point of law prior to a final decision of the court or such a case may be stated by way of appeal to determine whether a final decision is correct in law. Such an application can be made by the prosecutor or the defendant. There is an appeal from this decision of the High Court to the Supreme Court.
The Special Criminal Court was specially established by Act of Oireachtas to deal with terrorism and offences against the State. It can also be used where the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) certifies that the ordinary courts are inadequate. It lies outside the normal hierarchical structure outlined above and a panel of three judges sits on it, normally one High Court judge, one Circuit Court judge and one District Court judge. There is a right of appeal against its decisions to the Court of Criminal Appeal.
A person who wishes to appeal after a trial on indictment, appeals to the Court of Criminal Appeal where the appeal is conducted on a transcript of the evidence at trial. The Court of Criminal Appeal hears appeals from the:
- Circuit Criminal Court;
- Central Criminal Court, and;
- Special Criminal Court.
It consists of one Supreme Court and two High Court judges. A defendant may appeal against conviction and/or sentence. In such circumstances, the Court of Criminal Appeal may either dismiss the appeal, quash the conviction and order a retrial or quash the conviction and release the defendant. Appeals against sentence only may be taken by the DPP. On any appeal against sentence such sentence may be reduced or increased.. A further appeal lies from the Court of Criminal Appeal to the Supreme Court, but only if the DPP or Attorney General or the Court of Criminal Appeal itself certify that a point of law of exceptional public importance arises.
The Supreme Court is the court of final appeal for both civil and criminal cases.
Criminal Appeals to the Supreme Court
An appeal to the Supreme Court can be taken from the decision of the Court of Criminal Appeal, but only where the Court of Criminal Appeal, the Director of Public Prosecutions or the Attorney General certify that a point of law of exceptional public importance arises. On a further appeal to the Supreme Court from the Court of Criminal Appeal, it has three options: dismiss the appeal, quash the conviction and release the defendant or quash the conviction and order a re-trial. It can, of course, also deal with sentence on the same basis as the Court of Criminal Appeal.
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