Criminal Law in the District Court

Most of us are familiar with the type of offences which are commonly prosecuted in the District Court. These offences include, but are not limited to, public order matters such as intoxication in a public place, use of threatening⁄abusive⁄insulting behaviour in a public place, failure to comply with the direction of the Gardai and road traffic matters such as, drink driving, driving without insurance, careless driving and dangerous driving. Persons in possession of controlled substances such as, cannabis and cocaine, can also be prosecuted in the District Court.
The offences dealt with in the District Court are usually minor offences in view of the fact that a District Court Judge cannot impose a custodial sentence of more than 2 years on an accused person. Accordingly, more serious criminal offences are prosecuted in higher Courts such as the Circuit Criminal Court and the Central Criminal Court. The type of serious offences dealt with in these Courts include murder, rape, dangerous driving causing death and serious assault cases.
There are two methods of bringing a person before the District Court to answer a charge. The first is by way of summons served on an accused person directing their attendance before a District Court to answer a complaint. A Summons must contain certain information in order to be valid and it must also issue within the time limits provided for in legislation. Usually this is six months from the date that the alleged offence is committed. If there is a fundamental defect on the face of a summons, it can be successfully argued before the Court that the proceedings must be struck out. It is important to note however, that a District Court Judge may remedy superficial defects on a summons if they are of the view that to do so, will not prejudice an accused person.
The second method to bring a person before the District Court is by way of a charge sheet. This is a document given to an accused person who is charged with a criminal offence at a Garda Station. It must contain certain information and the remarks of an accused person, if any, when charged with an offence must be noted by the Gardai. Once charged, an accused person is either brought before the District Court or released on station bail. Where a person is released on bail they are required to enter a bail bond known as a recognisance. This bond obliges them to attend the District Court on a specific date and time. If a person fails to answer their bail, they are committing a separate offence in addition to that with which they were initially charged.
Where a person is required to attend the District Court, whether by way of summons or charge sheet, they should consult with a Solicitor who will advise them on important matters such as; the validity of the summons/charge sheet, the procedure usually involved in the District Court, whether or not they are likely to qualify for Legal Aid, the penalties which the offence attracts and the probable outcome of their case having regard to the nature and gravity of the offence and the previous record of the individual.
While, without doubt, it can be a very daunting prospect to be compelled to attend the District Court, one should remember that failure to attend will only make a situation worse. In such circumstances a District Judge is likely to issue a bench warrant which will entitle the Gardai to arrest an accused person and bring them before the District Court. So if you receive a summons or charge sheet it is advisable to consult a Solicitor to ensure your rights are properly protected and to attend the District Court on the required date.
-Helena O’Carroll