The District Court hears cases in open court. This accords with the general constitutional principle that justice is to be administered by courts established by law and save in such special and limited cases as may be prescribed by law shall be administered in public.
There are limited provisions whereby the public may be excluded. This may arise if the matter is of an indecent or obscene nature, cases involving children or where children are witnesses, certain bail applications and certain other cases where the interests of justice so require.
A person may use either official language (English or Irish) in pleadings or documents arising in court proceedings. The court, however, has a duty to ensure that any person appearing and giving evidence before it may be heard in the official language of his choice and in so being heard, the person shall not be placed at a disadvantage by not being heard in the other official language.
For the purpose of ensuring that no person is placed at a disadvantage, the Courts may course such facilities to be made available as it considers appropriate for the simultaneous or consecutive interpretation of proceedings from one official language to the other.
Where the State or a public body is a party to civil proceedings before the Court, the State or public body shall use the official language chosen by the other party. If two or more persons other than the State body are a party and they fail to choose or agree on the official language to be used in the proceedings, the State or the public body shall use in the proceedings such official language as appears reasonable, having regard to the circumstances.
A person shall not be compelled to give evidence in any particular official language in any proceeding. By choosing to use an official language in any proceedings, a person shall not be put by the court or a public body to any inconvenience and expense over and above that which he would have been incurred if he had chosen to use the other official language.
Apart from issues concerning the Irish language, where it is in the interests of justice, the court may authorise an interpreter in proceedings. The interpreter must make an oath to fully and truthfully interpret the evidence.
Parties and Representatives
Parties to the proceedings and their solicitor or barrister are entitled to appear in court, address the court and conduct the proceedings. In prosecutions at the suit of the DPP, the Director or members of An Garda Síochána or other person appearing in the name of the Director, may appear and conduct the proceedings.
In Revenue cases, a duly authorised solicitor, officer of the Revenue or the Revenue solicitor may appear. Legislation may authorise officers of particular departments or bodies to prosecute particular offences in the area which they regulate.
Apart from the above, the mother, father, son, daughter, husband, wife, brother or sister of any party may appear on their behalf provided they have the leave of court to appear and be heard, and the court is satisfied that the party is from infirmity or other unavoidable cause unable to appear.
Where the accused is under 21 years of age or where the offence is of an indecent or obscene nature, and the person against whom it is alleged to be committed is under 21 or is a female, a parent or other relative of that friend shall be entitled to remain in court during the hearing.
A person may be accompanied by so-called “McKenzie Friend” even where the law prescribes that the matter should be heard other than in public. This is a person who may accompany the party to proceedings as a friend. He or she may take notes and may quietly make suggestions and assist generally. He or she may not act as an advocate.
Where a party appearing before the court is blind or partially sighted and requires assistance, the court may at the request of the party, counsel, or solicitor, authorise another person to assist them. Counsel or solicitor in the proceedings may provide such assistance, subject to such directions as the court may give.
Legal representatives are not required to wear a ceremonial wig or robes. Judges shall wear a black coat and gown of uniform nature. Wigs and gowns are not sworn in cases involving children and young persons.
The judge is addressed as “Judge” or in Irish, “Bhreithimh”. This replaces the former practice of referring to District Justices or Judges as, “Your Honour” in accordance with the traditional mode of address.
Solicitors and barristers are the only persons who may provide a range of services, including the conduct of litigation for reward. Under EU law, visiting lawyers may be entitled to represent clients subject to conditions. The courts are entitled to require that lawyers appearing before them authenticate their qualifications.
Solicitors and barristers as officers of the court are subject to the control of the court and have ethical obligations to the court. See generally the chapters in relation to the duties of solicitors and barristers.
As set out in the chapter in relation to the commencement of proceedings, a summons is a mechanism to secure the appearance of the accused before the court. Generally, an appearance will cure the defect in the proceedings. A person may attend by solicitor or counsel to argue the invalidity of the summons and this may not amount to an appearance in the sense of a submission to jurisdiction.
If the accused does not appear in person or by solicitor or counsel, the court, if satisfied that the summons has been duly served, may proceed to deal with the complaint in his absence. This is commonly the approach with very minor offences. If the complaint is proved, the accused may be convicted in his absence.
Alternatively, it may issue a warrant and adjourn the matter. If the defendant fails to appear, the complaint should be vouched on oath before a warrant may issue.
If the judge believes that the applicant did not know about the case, the more appropriate course is to adjourn the matter or to make further enquiries regarding service.
If the offence is one which is sufficiently serious for the judge to consider a prison sentence, fair procedures and natural justice are more likely to require adjournment to ensure that the accused is present. However, there is not necessarily an obligation to secure attendance.
A District Judge may issue a bench warrant if a person fails to appear to a summons, is evading service or is about to abscond. The court may direct or endorse on the warrant that the accused when arrested may be released on entering a recognisance with or without a surety for appearance before the court.
In this case, a member of An Garda Síochána who arrests the person shall discharge him on his entering a recognisance as the case may be. Provision may be made for payment of a sum by way of security in lieu of a recognisance.
The legislation provides in order to safeguard time that where a person first appears before District Court charged with an offence, a certificate purporting to be signed by a member of An Garda Síochána, stating that he did at the specified time, arrest the person for the specified offence, charge and caution him, is admissible as evidence of the matters certified.
In the laying of a charge sheet and recognisance before the District Court, the court shall require the person present on whom the charge sheet and recognisance relate, to identify himself. He is obliged to so do to the court. District Judge is entitled to ask questions and take steps to ensure the identity of persons in court.
Prosecutor may add charges or make new charges against a person who is present in court. They may be dealt with, or the accused may request and is generally entitled to an adjournment in these circumstances. The fresh complaint is subject to the general time limits for making a complaint. In the absence of a fresh complaint, the court has no jurisdiction to substitute charges.
If the accused is present and that the prosecutor is not present, the court may strike out, dismiss the summons or adjourn the matter. If the court is satisfied that the complaint discloses no offence at law, it may strike out or dismiss the complaint, with or without awarding costs.
The court may accept a guilty plea and proceed to sentence or sanction. Generally, a plea of guilty will be a mitigating factor. The making of a guilty plea does not preclude the imposition of the maximum penalty.
A person does not plead guilty to an offence unless he clearly indicated so. Where he pleads guilty to one offence but not to another, the court may proceed to consider the offences to which he has not pleaded guilty. It appears that where a person has pleaded guilty to a charge, he may withdraw his plea if it later appears that the possibility of a custodial sentence arises.
The courts have the discretion to hear a number of charges together if there are common facts and circumstances. Alternatively, in other cases, it may be necessary to have them heard separately. Where the charges are too numerous and complicated, or where joint trials would be prejudicial or embarrassing to the accused, separate trials may be required in the interest of justice.
Where a number of persons are charged in separate summonses with a similar offence arising out of the same facts, each is entitled to a separate trial in the absence of consent otherwise. Persons who are charged jointly are not entitled to separate trials. This is a matter for the judge’s discretion.
Each charge is to be considered separately. The onus of proof lies on the prosecutor in each case. A separate sanction or penalty may be imposed for each charge.
Certain proceedings may be heard in part through video link. In particular, prisons legislation allows certain applications to the court in criminal proceedings to be undertaken by of video link.
A challenge to the validity of proceedings may be taken before they commence. They may be on any grounds, such as lack of jurisdiction, undue delay causing prejudice etc. Generally, an objection to jurisdiction is waived unless made at the outset.
Objection to specific evidence may be taken before the evidence is adduced by the other party.
Powers of Court
The District Court is a court of summary jurisdiction and does not have the power to determine the validity or invalidity of legislation under the Constitution. This is reserved to the superior courts (High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court) exclusively.
Where the accused attends in person or through a solicitor or counsel and admits the complaint, the court, unless there is reason to the contrary, may convict him and make the appropriate order. If the offence charged is not admitted, the court is to proceed to hear the matter.