At the heart of the Irish legal system are the courts as provided for by the Constitution. Currently there are seven courts (soon to be eight) in Ireland being the:-
Special Criminal Court
Central Criminal Court
Court of Criminal Appeal
The last three i.e. the Special Criminal Court, Central Criminal Court and Court of Criminal Appeal only deal with criminal matters. The other courts being the District Court, Circuit Court, High Court and Supreme Court have jurisdiction over both civil and criminal matters.
So how does one decide within which court their complaint falls?
The District Court
The District Court is the court that most people are familiar with. Ireland is divided into twenty three districts with one or more judges permanently assigned to each district. There are sixty four judges in the District Court system.
The District Court deals with civil cases, some family law applications, criminal cases, the licensing of bars and restaurants, issues pursuant to the Control of Dogs Acts, applications to amend birth and marriage certificates and applications under the Environmental Protection Act 1992 for orders in connection with noise reduction.
A civil case can arise from breach of contract, non payment of a debt, personal injuries* or property damage. All such claims up to a value of €15,000.00 can be taken in the District Court.
The family law jurisdiction in the District Court is limited to maintenance, custody, access and domestic violence applications.
The District Court also deals with criminal matters by way of non jury trials of minor offences which include most road traffic offences, TV licensing offences and parking fines.
The Circuit Court
Ireland is divided into eight circuits with one judge assigned to each Circuit Court except in Dublin where ten judges may be assigned and Cork where there are three judges.
The Circuit Court deals with criminal, civil and family law matters.
Criminal matters that come before the Circuit Court are what are called indictable or serious offences with the exception of murder, rape, aggravated sexual assault, treason and piracy. For the most part criminal trials in the Circuit Criminal Court will be heard by a judge and jury although an accused can plead guilty and dispense with a trial.
In relation to civil matters the Circuit Court deals with all breach of contract, property damage where the claim does not exceed €75,000.00 and personal injury* cases where the claim does not exceed €60,000.00. All hearings in respect of civil matters will be heard by a judge only.
The Circuit Court has jurisdiction in a wide range of family law matters including judicial separation, divorce and nullity.
The Circuit Court acts as an appeal court from the District Court and most decisions of the District Court can be appealed to the Circuit Court for a full rehearing of the case. The Circuit Court also acts as an appeal court from decisions of the Labour Court and the Employment Appeals Tribunal.
The High Court
The High Court is based in Dublin and consists of the President of the High Court and thirty six judges.
The High Court has full jurisdiction to determine all civil or criminal matters. The Central Criminal Court is the criminal division of the High Court and mainly deals with murder trial, rape trials, applications to vary bail conditions and appeals from District Court decisions not to grant bail.
The High Court is based in Dublin but a division of the High Court sits in several provincial locations such as Cork, Galway, Limerick, Waterford, Sligo, Dundalk, Kilkenny and Ennis at specified times during the year to deal with personal injury* and fatal injury* cases and appeals from the various Circuit Courts in civil and family law matters.
Most of the time, the High Court civil side sits with a judge only. A notable exception to this is defamation cases which can be heard by a jury.
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is a court of final appeal and is based in the Four Courts complex in Dublin.
The Supreme Court consists of the Chief Justice and nine judges.
The Supreme Court hears appeals from decisions of the High Court in both civil and criminal matters.
The Supreme Court can also hear cases referred to by way of a case stated from a judge of one of the Circuit Courts (i.e where a question of law arises in the Circuit Court and there is a request that the question should be submitted to the Supreme Court for its opinion)
In limited circumstances, an appeal can also be brought to the Supreme Court from the Court of Criminal Appeal.
Furthermore the Supreme Court can review a Bill referred to it directly by the President of Ireland as to whether or not such a Bill is repugnant to the Constitution.
The Supreme Court does not hear the oral evidence of witnesses. There is in fact no witness box in the Supreme Court. Appeals are heard on the basis of the documents that were before the original court and a transcript of the oral evidence that was given in the original court.
As set out previously there are three courts that specifically deal with criminal matters and these are the Central Criminal Court, Special Criminal Court and Court of Criminal Appeal.
The Central Criminal Court is a division of the High Court that tries serious criminal cases including murder, rape, treason and piracy.
The Special Criminal Court was established under the constitution for very special and unusual cases. For the most part the Special Criminal Court has been used to deal with offences involving explosives or fire arms, offences against the State, membership of unlawful organisations and other issues where the ordinary courts may be deemed inadequate to deal with the matter.
The Court of Criminal Appeal deals with all appeals by persons convicted in the Central Criminal Court or the Special Criminal Court.
In very exceptional circumstances the Supreme Court can deal with appeals from the Court of Criminal Appeal.
New Court of Civil Appeal
Following the referendum in October 2013 a new Court of Appeal is due to be set up by the end of 2014.
Concerns had been raised regarding a four year backlog of civil cases in the Supreme Court and the new Court of Appeal will deal with appeals of civil cases from the High Court and hopefully ease the backlog. Ten judges will be appointed to the new Court of Appeal and it is intended that in most cases an appeal from the High Court will go before the new Court of Appeal in the first instance.
For the majority of people attending court can be a daunting experience but it doesn’t have to be. As your legal advisors we will review and decide which court is the most applicable and will guide you through the process thoughtfully and efficiently.
Contact us at Cantillons Solicitors at +353 (0)21 -4275673 or [email protected] if you would like more information.
* In contentious business, a solicitor may not calculate fees or other charges as a percentage of any award or settlement.