Clients often ask why cases are taken in certain Courts rather than others and why some are heard locally and others in Limerick or Dublin. A brief review of the Irish Courts and their functions, therefore, might be useful.
The Irish Courts system originated with the 1922 Constitution which established Courts to take over from the British administration on the establishment of the State. Our present Courts are established under Article 34 of the Constitution of 1937.
The Courts deal with both civil and criminal cases. Civil actions are those where a person sues for compensation for a wrong caused or some loss suffered. Criminal cases are prosecutions brought by the State against people accused of crimes where the seriousness of the crime will indicate the Court in which the case is to be tried. The Courts are:-
The District Court
This is the Court probably best known to most people from reports of its cases in the local papers. The District Court can hear civil claims where the amount being claimed does not exceed €6,348.69. It also deals with Family Law matters of maintenance, custody, access and domestic violence and has wide powers in relation to licensing matters under the Intoxicating Liquor Acts such as transfers of publican’s licences and special exemption orders.
All criminal matters start in this Court. It can, itself, deal with certain minor offences or can send more serious cases forward to the Circuit Court, the Central Criminal Court or the Special Criminal Court.
The Circuit Court
The Circuit Court can hear civil claims where the amount being claimed is less than €38,092.14. It also deals with family law matters such as divorce, judicial separation and nullity. In criminal matters it can hear jury trials of serious offences other than offences which must be tried in the Central Criminal Court (such as murder and rape). The country is divided into circuits. Kerry is within the South Western Circuit which includes counties Clare, Limerick and Kerry. The Circuit Court can also hear appeals from the District Court and from the Employment Appeals Tribunal (in matters such as unfair dismissals).
The High Court
The High Court is the principal Court of the land for all practical purposes as it has unlimited jurisdiction to hear all claims, both civil or criminal. It sits full-time in Dublin and also, periodically, at provincial venues, Cork, Galway, Limerick, Waterford, Sligo, Dundalk, Kilkenny and Ennis. It also hears appeals from the Circuit Court. It has power to determine the validity of any Law having regard to the Constitution and can review the decisions of tribunals.
The Central Criminal Court
This Court is actually the High Court exercising its criminal jurisdiction and hears serious cases such as murder and rape jury trials. Recently it has begun to sit in venues outside Dublin, in Limerick, Sligo, Ennis, Cork and Castlebar.
The Supreme Court
This is the Court of final appeal in our Courts system. It hears appeals from the High Court or cases referred to it by the lower Courts for its opinion on a point of law. The President can refer proposed legislation to the Court for a decision as to whether it is constitutional. The Court itself, composed of not less than five Judges, can also determine a question as to whether the President has become permanently incapacitated.
The Court of Criminal Appeal
This Court hears appeals from persons convicted on indictment in the Circuit Court or the Central Criminal Court where leave to appeal is granted or where the Court itself grants leave to appeal.
The Special Criminal Court
This Court was specially established to deal with terrorism and offences against the State. It can also sit where the Director of Public Prosecutions certifies that the ordinary Courts are inadequate to secure the effective administration of justice and the preservation of public peace and order. It sits with three Judges, normally a High Court, Circuit Court and District Court Judge. Its decisions can be appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeal.
The Childrens Court
This is a special section of the District Court dealing with offences by children or young persons under the age of 16 except where the Judge considers the charges too serious. The Courts sit in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Waterford. Elsewhere, such cases are dealt with by the Judge otherwise than in open Court and is referred to as a Juvenile Court.
Every Judge, in whatever Court he or she sits, must be completely independent in the performance of his duties as a Judge and, on appointment, must take the following Oath under the constitution:
“in the presence of almighty God, I do solemnly and sincerely promise and declare that I will duly and faithfully and to the best of my knowledge and power execute the office of [Judge] without fear or favour, affection or ill will towards any man, and that I will uphold the Constitution and the laws. May God direct and sustain me.”
Open to the Public
Justice must be administered in public and, therefore, everyone is free in most cases to enter the Courts and listen to the cases except in cases such as Family Law matters where these are heard in private with only the persons involved present. These cases are said to be held “In Camera”.