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
- in the High Court claims above €75,000
The Court System
The Constitution outlines the structure of the court system in Ireland by expressly establishing the Supreme Court, a court of final appeal in all matters of constitutional, civil and criminal law, the Court of Appeal in matters of constitutional, civil and criminal law, and the High Court, a court of first instance with full jurisdiction in all criminal and civil matters. Provision is also made in Article 34.3.4 for the establishment of courts of local and limited jurisdiction, on the basis of which the Circuit Court and the District Court, which are organised on a regional basis, were established by statute.
(i) The District Court
The District Court is a court of local and limited jurisdiction, having the authority to deal only with certain matters arising within its functional area. The District Court’s jurisdictional powers are conferred upon it by statute and it may not, therefore, deal with any matters which fall outside its statutory remit. In civil matters, the District Court has jurisdiction to deal with claims which are not in excess of €15,000 (and €2,000 in small claims).
In matters of family law, the District Court has jurisdiction in matters concerning maintenance, custody of, and access to, children and may make orders pertaining to domestic violence. In criminal matters, the District Court is a court of summary jurisdiction and deals with the non-jury trial of persons charged with minor offences. The District Court also has jurisdiction to grant bail in most cases and deals with the issue of sending an accused forward for trial in cases involving criminal offences outside its jurisdiction.
(ii) The Circuit Court
The Circuit Court is also a court of local and limited jurisdiction, with appellate jurisdiction of all matters arising in the District Court. The Circuit Court has jurisdiction in civil matters where the claim exceeds the jurisdiction of the District Court but where it is not in excess of €75,000 (and €60,000 in personal injuries). In family law matters, the Circuit Court may grant orders of divorce, judicial separation and nullity as well as any ancillary orders. In criminal matters, the Circuit Court has jurisdiction to deal with all offences except those over which the Central Criminal Court has jurisdiction. Criminal trials in the Circuit Court are heard by a judge sitting with a jury.
(iii) The High Court/Central Criminal Court
The High Court has full original jurisdiction in all matters, civil and criminal. In civil matters, there is no upper limit on the amount of damages that may be awarded. When exercising its criminal jurisdiction, the High Court is known as the Central Criminal Court and, in this capacity, has jurisdiction to try the most serious of offences such as murder, manslaughter, rape, aggravated sexual assault, treason, genocide and piracy. Criminal trials are held before a judge sitting with a jury. The President of the High Court may, in some circumstances, direct that the Court sits with two or more judges. In these circumstances, the High Court is referred to as a Divisional High Court.
The High Court also hears appeals from the Circuit Court in civil matters. In addition to its jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters, the High Court also exercises a supervisory jurisdiction, in cases of Judicial Review, in which it has the authority to determine the validity of any law having regard to the provisions of the Constitution.
Judicial review of any law in the High Court is governed by Articles 34 or 50 of the Constitution, depending on the vintage of the impugned law. A law passed by the Oireachtas since enactment of the Constitution of 1937, to which the presumption of constitutionality applies, is challenged under Article 34. Laws passed prior to enactment of the Constitution of 1937, to which no such presumption of constitutionality applies, are challenged under Article 50.
(iv) The Special Criminal Court
The Special Criminal Court was established under the terms of the Offences Against the State Act, 1939 and deals with two categories of offence; those which are known as ‘scheduled offences’ and those in respect of which the Director of Public Prosecutions has certified that the ordinary courts are inadequate to secure the effective administration of justice. The Special Criminal Court sits with three judges and no jury.
The three judges invariably comprise a judge of the High Court, of the Circuit Court and of the District Court. The Special Criminal Court functions subject to the Constitution and the ordinary law, its only substantive distinguishing feature being that there is no jury.
(v) The Court of Appeal
The Court of Appeal has no original jurisdiction, being solely an appellate court. It sits in divisions of three judges. In constitutional law and civil law matters it hears and determines appeals from the High Court. In criminal law matters it hears and determines appeals from the Circuit Court, the Central Criminal Court and the Special Criminal Court and applications for review of convictions or sentences alleged to result from a miscarriage of justice. It also hears and determines appeals from courts-martial. Appeals may be against conviction or against the severity or lenience of the sentences.
The Court of Appeal may also deal with “cases stated” from the Circuit Court, and the High Court.
The Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal 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.
Some of the above content reflects the content at www.supremecourt.ie