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Irish law is based on Common Law as modified by subsequent legislation and by the Constitution of 1937. Statutes passed by the British parliament before 1921 have the force of law unless repealed by the Irish Parliament. In accordance with the Constitution, justice is administered in public in courts established by law. Judges are appointed by the President on the advice of the Government. They are invariably senior practising members of the legal profession. They are guaranteed independence in the exercise of their functions and can be removed from office for misbehaviour or incapacity only by resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas (the National Parliament).
The court of summary jurisdiction is the District Court. The country is divided into 23 District Court districts. There are 46 judges of the District Court including the President of the District Court. A District Court is presided over by a District Court judge sitting without a jury. It tries minor criminal offences and has powers to impose fines of up to IR£1,000 or prison sentences up to a maximum of two years or both. The District Court also handles minor civil cases.
More serious cases are tried by the Circuit Court. The country is divided into eight Circuit Court circuits. There are 18 Judges of the Circuit Court including the President of the Court. The Circuit Court can try all criminal cases except murder, treason, piracy and allied offences. The jurisdiction of the Circuit Court in civil cases is limited to IR£30,000 unless both parties consent to its jurisdiction being unlimited. It also acts as an appeal court from the District Court. In criminal cases the Circuit Court is presided over by a judge sitting with a jury of twelve ordinary citizens. In other cases the Court is presided over by a judge sitting alone.
The High Court has full original jurisdiction and determining power in all matters of law or fact, civil or criminal. It can decide the validity of any law, having regard to the provisions of the Constitution. When trying criminal cases the High Court is known as the Central Criminal Court.
The High Court hears appeals from the Circuit Court in civil cases. In criminal cases, and in a limited number of civil cases, the Court is presided over by a judge sitting with a jury of twelve ordinary citizens. In other cases the Court is presided over by a judge sitting alone. There are 17 judges of the High Court including the President of the Court.
Legislation provides for the establishment of Special Criminal Courts whenever the Government is satisfied that the ordinary courts are inadequate to secure the effective administration of justice and the preservation of public peace and order. The Special Criminal Court is presided over by three serving judges drawn from the High Court, the Circuit Court and the District Court sitting together. There is no jury in the Special Criminal Court but, in most other respects, procedure governing this Court is the same as in criminal trials generally.
Criminal appeals from the Circuit Court, the Central Criminal Court and the Special Criminal Court are heard by the Court of Criminal Appeal, a court consisting of three judges drawn from the High Court and Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court is the court of final appeal. It consists of the Chief Justice, four other judges and, in an ex-officio capacity, the President of the High Court. The Court hears appeals from the High Court and the Court of Criminal Appeal. The Court is empowered to decide if the provisions of any statute are repugnant to the Constitution in the event of the President referring such provisions to the Court prior to the statute becoming law.
Although there is a limited right of private prosecution, most criminal prosecutions are instituted by the Director of Public Prosecutions on behalf of the State. The Director is a State official but is independent of Government in the performance of his or her functions.
The legal profession is divided into solicitors and barristers. Solicitors deal with legal business outside the courts such as transfer of land ownership, administration of the assets of deceased persons, and formation of limited companies. They also attend Court and while they have a right of audience before all courts, most of their work in this area comprises District Court cases and appeals to the Circuit Court. The Incorporated Law Society of Ireland, founded in 1852, acts as a regulatory body for the solicitors’ profession.
In the higher courts, cases are normally conducted by barristers who are either junior or senior counsel. Barristers are advised by, and in most cases can only be retained by, solicitors. The Benchers of the Honorable Society of King’s Inns constitute the governing body of the Bar of Ireland.
Free legal aid is available, where necessary, in criminal cases and, on a more limited scale, in civil cases.