There is no jury for District Court cases.
This court hears minor or summary offences (summary offences are tried by a judge sitting alone) to do with traffic, drugs and criminal damage.
There is a jury for Circuit Court cases.
This court hears ‘indictable offences’ – a person who commits an indictable offence can be charged with a serious crime in a court with a jury.
The Circuit Court hears cases concerning manslaughter, robbery and serious offences against person and property.
Central Criminal Court
A jury sits for Central Criminal Court cases.
When the High Court hears criminal cases it is known as the Central Criminal Court.
The Central Criminal Court handles reserved offences like treason, piracy, murder, conspiracy and attempt to commit murder, genocide, rape and aggravated sexual assault.
Special Criminal Court
This court sits with three judges and no jury.
The Special Criminal Court sits when the ordinary courts cannot effectively do justice because the jury or witnesses are at risk of being intimidated.
Offences involving Explosives or firearms, under Off v State Act, certificate of the DPP that the ordinary courts are inadequate.
For more information see www.courts.ie
The Legal Diary is also maintained on the Courts.ie website.
The District Court
The District Court can hear cases within its own geographical area and award compensation of up to €15,000. However, this can be increased if the parties involved in the case agree in writing.
The State is divided into 23 different districts.
The details of how the District Court is structured are in legislation. The District Court can hear cases involving disputes over contracts and claims in tort, however, it cannot hear certain types of tort (civil) cases such as defamation. Neither can it grant decrees of judicial separation or divorce, but it can change maintenance awards up to a certain limit.
The District Court is limited in the types of landlord and tenant cases it can handle. For example, it can deal with actions to eject tenants who have not paid their rent, provided the rent is less than €15,000 per year.
The District Court can also deal with the renewal of liquor licences.
In environmental matters, the District Court can deal with claims for compensation under the Local Government Water Pollution Acts 1977-1990 that are limited to €15,000 in damages.
District Court appeals go to the Circuit Court.
The Circuit Court
The Circuit Court can hear cases within its own geographical area and award compensation of up to €75,000. However, this amount can be increased if the parties involved in the case agree in writing.
The details of how the Circuit Court is structured are in legislation.
Unlike the District Court, the Circuit Court can hear all types of claims in contract and tort, so for example, a plaintiff can seek damages for defamation provided they are only seeking up to €75,000.
When dealing with family law matters, the Circuit Court is referred to as the Circuit Family Court. In such cases barristers do not wear wigs or gowns to make the atmosphere more suitable.
Decrees of judicial separation, nullity (when a marriage is ruled to be not legally binding) and divorce can be made in the Circuit Court just as they can in the High Court.
The Circuit Court can deal with land disputes where the rateable valuation of land involved is less than €253.95. In disputes between landlords and tenants, the Circuit Court can hear any case, provided the rateable valuation is less than £200. The Circuit Court does not have jurisdiction to award more than €75,000 for arrears of rent and ‘mesne rates’. (‘mesne rates’ are damages for occupation after a tenancy has been legally terminated.)
The Circuit Court can also hear certain ‘cases in equity’ (when someone wants a remedy other than damages). For example, it may:
- grant an injunction;
- make orders about how an estate (the money and property of someone who has died) should be handled; or
- decide how a partnership should be dissolved.
Any land involved must have a rateable valuation of less than €253.95.
The Circuit Court can grant or refuse certain applications for new liquor licences.
The Circuit Court can deal with environmental claims that are limited to €75,000.
Someone taking part in a District Court action may appeal to the Circuit Court for a full rehearing to look again at the facts of the case and the law in relation to it. The decision of the Circuit Court, on appeal, is final and cannot be appealed.
The Circuit Court also hears appeals from the Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) and the Equality Tribunal.
An appeal usually lies from a Circuit Court at first instance to the High Court on Circuit.
The High Court
Unlike the Circuit Court or District Court, the High Court has full ‘original jurisdiction’. The ‘original jurisdiction’ of a court is the right to hear a case for the first time as opposed to ‘appellate jurisdiction’ when a court has the right to review the decision of a previous, lower-level court.
According to Article 34.3.1 of the Constitution, “The Courts of First Instance shall include a High Court invested with full original jurisdiction in and power to determine all matters and questions, whether of law or fact, civil or criminal".
In practice, the 1991 Courts Act means that the High Court is the appropriate court for claims of any amount more than €50,000.
The High Court can determine at ‘first instance’ (when the case is first heard) whether an Act of the Oireachtas or any other piece of legislation is unconstitutional or not. It can also hear petitions in relation to elections and referenda.
The High Court has full power to deal with family law cases, although most are heard in the Circuit Court.
Only the High Court can order a company to be wound up under the Companies Acts and deal with issues like ‘examinership’ and bankruptcy. Examinership is a way to rescue or reconstruct viable companies. When a company is in ‘examinership’ an ‘examiner’ is appointed and the company is put under the protection of the court.
The High Court can also deal with all land disputes.
The High Court handles Wardship applications – where an application is made to make a child or a person of unsound mind a ward of court. The Court then looks after their affairs.
In certain cases the Circuit Court can make someone a ward of court.
Only the High Court can perform judicial reviews of decisions of inferior (lower) courts and tribunals, for example, the District Court, Circuit Court and other partly-judicial groups like An Bord Pleanala.
Appeals from the Circuit Court are brought to the High Court on Circuit or by case stated on a point of law to the Supreme Court. Appeals from the District Court are brought to the Circuit Court or directly to the High Court by way of case stated on a point of law only.
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is established as directed by the Constitution. It is the Court of Final Appeal. It mainly handles appeals and therefore its ‘original jurisdiction’ (cases not yet heard before another court) is very limited.
However, the Supreme Court does have the important role of deciding whether a Bill (proposed legislation) is constitutional.
Article 26 of the Constitution says that the President may refer Bills to the Supreme Court to get a ruling on whether or not they are constitutional. If the Supreme Court rules that the Bill is constitutional, that Bill cannot be challenged again on its constitutionality.
If the District Court refers a case to the High Court to get clarification on a point of law, there may be a further appeal to the Supreme Court on that point of law.
When a case is appealed from the Circuit Court to the High Court on Circuit for a full rehearing, the decision of the High Court may be further appealed to the Supreme Court.
All appeals from the High Court to the Supreme Court are on a point of law only as there can be no de novo rehearing (full fresh rehearing).
The Criminal Courts
The criminal court system in Ireland is hierarchical.
The District Court
The District Court deals with minor offences (generally those that carry a maximum sentence of one 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 tried with a jury in the Circuit Court, may be heard in the District Court if some conditions are fulfilled.
The District Court also deals with minor offences alleged to have been committed by children (in this context children are defined as people under 16).
When dealing with these cases it is known as the Children’s Court.
An important part of the District Court’s 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 the 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
The Circuit Court deals with more serious offences, known as indictable offences, which are tried by a judge and jury.
Central Criminal Court
The Central Criminal Court (which is what the High Court is called when it deals with criminal cases) deals with more serious crimes that, by law, only it can deal with, such as rape and murder. It sits with a jury.
Just as in civil cases, an appeal goes from the District Court to the Circuit Court. This involves a full rehearing of the case. However, unlike civil cases, generally only the defendant can bring an appeal to the Circuit Court. Generally, if the defendant is acquitted (found not guilty) in the District Court, the prosecutor cannot 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. Alternatively, such a case may be appealed to determine whether a final decision is correct in law. This type of appeal can be made by the prosecutor or the defendant. There is an appeal from this decision of the High Court to the Supreme Court.
Special Criminal Court
The Special Criminal Court was specially established by an Act of the 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 court structure. 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 heard using 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.
The Court of Criminal Appeal consists of one Supreme Court and two High Court judges. A defendant may appeal against conviction and, or, the prison sentence. In such circumstances, the Court of Criminal Appeal may:
- dismiss the appeal;
- quash the conviction and order a retrial; or
- quash the conviction and release the defendant.
Only the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) can appeal against the length of a prison sentence. Any sentence that is appealed may be reduced or increased.
A further appeal can be made by the Court of Criminal Appeal to the Supreme Court, but only if the DPP or Attorney General or the Court of Criminal Appeal itself certifies 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
In summary District Court criminal trials (trials before a judge but without a jury) where someone takes a case to the High Court to clarify a point of law, the High Court decision can be appealed to the Supreme Court.
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, a decision of the Court of Criminal Appeal can be taken to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court then has three options, it can:
- 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 the sentence on the same basis as the Court of Criminal Appeal.
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