The Courts

The Constitution of Ireland specifies that the Courts shall comprise Courts of First Instance and a Court of Final Appeal. It further specifies that 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. The Court of Final Appeal is the Supreme Court which, subject to certain specific exceptions, has appellate jurisdiction only. The Constitution also provides for the establishment of courts of local and limited jurisdiction. The Circuit Court, The District Court, The Special Criminal Court, the Court of Criminal Appeal and the Courts-Martial Appeal Court are courts of local and/or limited jurisdiction.

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Structure of the Courts – Civil

SUPREME COURT

Comprised of Chief Justice, her immediate predecessor as Chief Justice, six ordinary Supreme Court Judges and the President of the High Court as an ex-officio member.

The Supreme Court can sit as a bench of seven judges but normally sits as a bench of five, alternatively of three, judges.

The Supreme Court is the court of final appeal and predominantly exercises appellate jurisdiction. In addition to its appellate jurisdiction, the Supreme Court also has some original jurisdiction under the Constitution. Article 12 of the Constitution provides that only the Supreme Court, consisting of not less that five judges, can establish whether the President of Ireland has become permanently incapacitated. Article 26 provides for a reference to the Supreme Court by the President (after consultation with the Council of State) of Bills of the type prescribed in the Article for a decision as to whether any such Bill or a specified provision or provisions of the Bill is or are repugnant to the Constitution.

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HIGH COURT

Comprised of the President of the High Court, and thirty five ordinary High Court Judges. In addition, the current Chief Justice, her immediate predecessor as Chief Justice, and the President of the Circuit Court are ex-officio members of the High Court.

In the High Court each judge normally sits alone, but for important cases it may sit as a bench of three judges.

The High Court is a Court of full original jurisdiction and also exercises appellate jurisdiction in appeals from the Circuit Court.

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CIRCUIT COURT

Comprised of the President of the Circuit Court, his immediate predecessor as President of the Circuit Court, thirty six ordinary Circuit Court Judges, and the President of the District Court as an ex-officio member.

In the Circuit Court each judge sits alone.

The Circuit Court is a court of local and limited jurisdiction. It has original jurisdiction in certain civil matters up to specified statutory limits, and within specified geographical limits. It also exercises appellate jurisdiction in appeals from the District Court.

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DISTRICT COURT

Comprised of the President of the District Court, her immediate predecessor as President of the District Court, and sixty two other District Court Judges.

In the District Court each judge sits alone.

The District Court is a court of local and limited jurisdiction, having original jurisdiction in certain civil matters up to specified statutory limits, and within specified geographical limits.

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Structure of the Courts – Criminal

SUPREME COURT

Comprised of Chief Justice, her immediate predecessor as Chief Justice, six ordinary Supreme Court Judges and the President of the High Court as an ex-officio member.

The Supreme Court can sit as a bench of seven judges but normally sits as a bench of five, alternatively of three, judges.

The Supreme Court is the court of final appeal and exercises appellate jurisdiction in criminal matters. An appeal can only be brought to the Supreme Court from a decision of the Court of Criminal Appeal where the Court of Criminal Appeal itself, or the Attorney General, or Director of Public Prosecutions, certifies that the matter involves a point of law of exceptional public importance and that it is desirable, in the public interest, that an appeal should be taken to the Supreme Court on that point of law. In addition, section 34 of the Criminal Procedure Act 1967 provides that where, on a question on law, a verdict in favour of an accused person is found by direction of the trial judge, the Attorney General in any case or, if he or she is the prosecuting authority in the trial, the Director of Public Prosecutions, may, without prejudice to the verdict in favour of the accused, refer the question of law to the Supreme Court for determination.

A decision of the Courts-Martial Appeal Court can also be appealed to the Supreme Court where the Courts-Martial Appeal Court itself, or the Attorney General, certifies that the decision involves a point of law of exceptional public importance and that it is desirable in the public interest that an appeal be taken to the Supreme Court.

There is no direct right of appeal to the Supreme Court from the Central Criminal Court save in the case of a reference by the Attorney General or the Director of Public Prosecutions of a question of law under section 34 of the Criminal Procedure Act 1967 or in so far as the decision of the Central Criminal Court relates to the validity of any law having regard to the provisions of the Constitution.

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COURT OF CRIMINAL APPEAL

Comprised of one judge of the Supreme Court and two judges of the High Court.

It hears appeals from people convicted on indictment in the Circuit or Central Criminal Court, or the Special Criminal Court, where they (the appellant) obtain a certificate from the trial judge/court that the case is a fit one for appeal. Also, where this certificate is refused, the Court of Criminal Appeal itself, on appeal from this refusal, may grant leave to appeal. An appeal may be made to the Court of Criminal Appeal against sentence only, conviction only or against both sentence and conviction. The DPP may also appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeal on grounds of alleged undue leniency of sentence under the Criminal Justice Act 1993, Section 2. In the case of an alleged miscarriage of justice, an appeal may be lodged under Section 2 of the Criminal Procedure Act 1993.

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COURTS-MARTIAL APPEAL COURT

Comprised of one judge of the Supreme Court and two judges of the High Court.

The Courts-Martial Appeal Court hears appeals by persons convicted by court-martial. The appeal is determined on a record of the proceedings at the court-martial with power to hear new or additional evidence or to refer any matter for report to the president or the judge advocate of the court-martial. The decision of the Courts-Martial Appeal Court is final unless the court or the Attorney General certifies that the decision involves a point of law of exceptional public importance and that it is desirable in the public interest that an appeal be taken to the Supreme Court.

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CENTRAL CRIMINAL COURT

When the High Court sits in exercise of its criminal jurisdiction it is known as the Central Criminal Court. The Central Criminal Court tries criminal cases on indictment which are outside the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court, typically cases involving murder, rape or aggravated sexual assault and, less frequently, cases involving certain criminal offences under competition law. It also has jurisdiction in cases of piracy, genocide and treason but such cases are very rare.

Normally trials are conducted by a single judge sitting with a jury of twelve lay persons. Exceptionally, the President of the High Court may direct two or more judges to sit together for the purpose of a particular trial. The court sits at such time and in such places as the President of the High Court may direct.

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SPECIAL CRIMINAL COURT

The Offences against the State Act 1939 provides for the establishment of Special Criminal Courts.  The Act also provides that the Government shall appoint serving judges to sit in the Special Criminal Court.

There is a panel of 11 judges appointed to the court who are drawn from the High, Circuit and District Courts. The court sits with three judges and no jury. Although any three judges from the panel can constitute the court, in practice the three judge bench is usually comprised of a High Court Judge, a Circuit Court Judge and a District Court Judge. Occasionally, the court is otherwise constituted for brief procedural hearings.

The Special Criminal Court has jurisdiction to conduct trials on indictment without a jury in the case of offences scheduled under the Offences against the State Acts 1939 – 1998. It also has jurisdiction to conduct trials on indictment without a jury in other cases where the Director of Public Prosecutions has certified that they are unsuitable for trial in the ordinary courts.

An appeal against conviction or sentence by a Special Criminal Court may be taken to the Court of Criminal Appeal.

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CIRCUIT CRIMINAL COURT

In criminal matters the Circuit Court has jurisdiction in all indictable offences except in the case of the small number of offences where jurisdiction is reserved to the Central Criminal Court.

Trials on indictment in the Circuit Court are conducted by a single judge sitting with a jury of twelve lay persons.

This jurisdiction is exercisable in the area where the offence has been committed or where the accused person has been arrested or resides. However in Circuit Courts outside Dublin, the trial judge may transfer a trial to the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court on application by the prosecution or the defence and if satisfied that it would be unjust not to do so.

The Circuit Criminal Court also has an appellate jurisdiction to hear appeals against convictions or sentences imposed by the District Court in criminal matters.

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DISTRICT COURT

The District Court exercising its criminal jurisdiction deals with four particular types of cases.

Trial of summary offences - these are offences for which there is no right of trial by judge and jury. This makes up the bulk of the criminal work of the District Court.

Trial of indictable offences triable summarily - with the consent of the accused and the Director of Public Prosecutions, and the judge being of the opinion that the facts constitute a minor offence.

Sentencing in the case of indictable offences not triable summarily - where an accused pleads guilty in the District Court to an indictable offence (except in the case of certain offences including rape, aggravated sexual assault, murder, treason and piracy), and the Director of Public Prosecutions consents, and the judge is prepared to accept the guilty plea, the accused may be sentenced in the District Court. Otherwise, the accused is sent forward to the Circuit Court on his signed plea of guilty for sentencing.

Returning for trial in the case of indictable offences not triable summarily - where the judge is of the opinion that there is a sufficient case to answer. In such cases a Book of Evidence is served on the accused. The judge considers the Book of Evidence and any submissions on behalf of the defence or the prosecution. If the judge is of the opinion that there is a sufficient case to answer, the accused is sent forward to the Circuit Court or Central Criminal Court for trial.

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