The Irish Courts System exists in what is called a ‘common law’ jurisdiction. It shares this with other English speaking countries, such as the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; and some non-English speaking countries, such as India.
The system originates from the English legal system. Common-law legal systems place greater emphasis on previous court decisions than do ‘civil-law’ jurisdictions, such as those in France and other European countries. Those legal systems originate from Roman Law and, more recently, the legal framework put in place by Napoleon Bonaparte.
This means that lawyers working in common-law jurisdictions like Ireland need to work more closely with case-law (previous cases that have come before the courts) than do lawyers operating in civil-law countries. Irish courts are bound by their previous decisions and this is known as the principle of stare-decisis.
The Irish legal system is broadly divided into two branches: the civil side and the criminal side, each with its own specialised courts.
Civil courts hear cases involving disputes between individuals, organisations or the State. These disputes may concern anything from an injury caused in a car accident to a contested corporate take-over.
In civil cases the plaintiff (someone who takes a civil action in a court of law) sues the defendant (someone against whom an action or claim is brought) for compensation for the wrong caused. The compensation for damages caused is usually money. The different courts can hear cases for compensation of certain amounts. These are:
- in the District Court claims up to €15,000;
- in the Circuit Court claims between €15,000 and €75,000; and
- in the High Court claims above €75,000.
The Criminal Courts deal with prosecutions brought by the State against people accused of anti-social behaviour – from petty theft to murder.
The Supreme Court is the court of final appeal for both civil and criminal cases. It is an appellate court. This means that it hears appeals referred to it from lower courts.
Ireland is a member of the European Union. Disputes involving European law raised in the Irish courts may be referred to the European Court of First Instance and, or, the European Court of Justice.
Generally, the same judges deal with all classes of cases, sitting from time to time for civil or criminal cases, as needed.
The Supreme Court and the High Court are referred to as ‘The Superior Courts’. Separate rules apply to the Superior Courts, the Circuit Court and the District Court. They can be found at the website for the Irish Courts Service http://www.courts.ie
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