Criminal and civil matters are heard by the same judges but in separate divisions of the courts. The District Court hearing criminal cases hears them at different times and sittings and sometimes in different courtrooms to civil cases. The same applies to the Circuit Court. There are also distinct criminal sittings. There is a separate Criminal Courts of Justice building in Dublin and most of the more serious criminal cases are heard there/
The High Court, when dealing with criminal matters is known as the Central Criminal Court. It deals only with the most serious offences such as murder, manslaughter, rape and some others.
The nature of criminal proceedings is broadly similar to that of civil proceedings. The standard of proof required for a criminal conviction is higher. The rules of evidence are stricter in criminal cases.
The District Judge decides matters of guilt or innocence. In the Circuit Court, the jury by its verdict determines the guilt or otherwise. Once there has been a finding of guilt, the judge imposes the sentence.
Summary Trial of Offences
Summary offences are heard in the District Court. The District Court comprises Dublin Metropolitan District and 23 Districts presided over by the president of District Court and 52 district judges. Each district is divided into district areas.
The District Court deals with the vast majority of offences other than the most serious. Approximately 500,000 minor offences are heard every year in the District Court. Non-minor offences must be heard in the Circuit Court, and in the case of some very serious offences the Central Criminal Court or the Special Criminal Court.
There are two forms of criminal prosecution in Ireland. The vast majority of offences are dealt with by the summary criminal procedure in the District Court.
The District judge hears the case. He hears the evidence and decides whether the prosecution has proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt. He decides the facts and applies the law. If the case is proved, the judge imposes the sanction.
Minor Offences & Jury Trial
In the case of more serious offences, so-called non-minor offence is, there is a right under the Constitution to a trial with a jury in the Circuit Court or the Central Criminal Court. The potential penalties are much higher in these courts.
Certain offences may be tried in the District Court only. Certain offences may be or must be tried in the Circuit Court or Central Criminal Court. A great many offences may be tried either summarily in the District Court or on indictment with a jury in the Circuit Court. The court in which the trial will be held depends on the seriousness of the offence.
In some cases, the prosecution or the accused have the right to decide whether in which court the case is to be heard. In other cases, the judge makes their decision having regard to the seriousness of the offence. The consent of any one or more of the prosecution, accused and the judge may be required. The position is determined by the applicable legislation.
Many regulatory offences can be tried either way usually at the option of the State prosecution authority. Cases are generally heard in the Circuit Court where they are serious instances of the offence concerned.
Typically legislation provides an alternative providing for an offence to be heard summarily in the District Court generally with a fine of the order of up to €5,000 and or imprisonment not exceeding 12 months or in the Circuit Court with imprisonment for a longer maximum term and/or limited or an unlimited fine.
Gardai & DPP
The majority of prosecutions are conducted by Garda Síochána and are minor offences. They investigate the offence and prosecute it in court. In practice in the case of minor offences, the Garda Síochána and State Solicitors determine which cases may be prosecuted.
In an increasing number of cases, in particular more serious cases, the case may be presented by a barrister or solicitor of the Chief State’s solicitor or the State Solicitor (for the County). The Chief State’s Solicitor’s office operates in Dublin and is a State body. Outside of Dublin a number of private solicitors offices hold a franchise as State Solicitors.
In more serious cases, usually, those prosecuted on indictment the file is sent to the Director of Public Prosecution. A member of the office, in the name of the DPP, decides whether criminal prosecution is initiated. The Chief State solicitor or local State Solicitor or a solicitor from their office appears or briefs counsel, to conduct the case for the prosecution.
In the case of a Circuit Court trial on indictment, the DPP initiates the case, based usually on the Garda file. The DPP has discretion as to whether or not to prosecute. They generally operate on the basis of whether there is sufficient evidence and the likelihood of a conviction. They also take account of the public interest.
Formerly the DPP did not publish reasons for prosecution under any circumstances. In certain limited circumstances, reasons may now be given to parties closely connected with the case. Generally, reasons are given in connection with a fatal injury.
It is possible for a member of the public to bring a summary prosecution. However, it is very unusual for private individuals to do so. The procedure available to Garda Síochána and state agencies is more streamlined. That available to others is more onerous and requires a prior compliant to the District Court Clerk or judge, for the issue of a summons
In the case of more serious offences triable in the Circuit Court or Central Criminal Court with a jury, members of the public may not initiate the prosecution.
Gardaí may initiate a complaint in the name of the DPP. The DPP may give directions in relation to prosecutions which Gardaí are obliged to follow. The DPP may take over the conduct of a case from Garda in any particular case.
The prosecution is initiated by the Garda applying to the District Court clerk (District Court office) . The court office issues a summons addressed to the accused. . It must notify him to turn up to a particular court at a particular hour for the hearing of the accusation.
The alleged offence must be particularised. The summons must state the offence in detail briefly stating the date and place of the alleged offence. It should refer to the legislative basis for the offence. It need not cite the legislation precisely This gives the person concerned notice of the charge and the alleged breach of the law.
Generally, no further information is provided. However, in certain circumstances, fair procedures may require that the defence is furnished with information that the prosecution proposes to rely on, at the hearing.
Sending Forward for Trial
In cases on indictment, the accused is generally brought to the District Court in the first instance. The case may be initiated by an ordinary summons. Depending on the offence, the District judge may be empowered to deal with the case summarily. Alternatively, the judge, depending on the type of trial and the options, may send the case forward for trial on indictment in the Circuit Court.
As mentioned above, certain offences may be tried either in the District Court or Circuit Court. The election or choice may lie with the accused, the prosecutor, or the court.
If the case cannot be dealt with summarily, the accused is sent for trial in the Circuit Court. A book of evidence must first be served. This must set out a statement of the charges, a list of witnesses, statements, a list of exhibits and material evidence.
The indictment sets out the addressee of the charge, details of the offence, the legislation of which is based and particulars including the place and particulars of the offence. The indictment may contain a number of counts or offences.
An indictment is made and preferred when a person is brought before the court of trial. This is a so-called arraignment. The indictment is read, and the accused is asked whether he pleads guilty or not guilty. If he pleads not guilty, the matter proceeds to trial by jury.
If the person pleads guilty, the trial judge imposes sentence. A range of factors will be considered including the fact of the guilty plea. There is no formal plea bargain system in Ireland. An informal plea bargain may be given effect.
Procedure and Evidence
As a very basic obligation under the Constitution, the court must adopt fair procedures at the hearing. It is an absolutely fundamental principle of constitutional law that a person has a right to a fair trial in accordance with the law. This implies and requires thoroughgoing fair procedures.
The rules of evidence are set out in separate chapters. Certain rules of evidence are designed to protect the accused in a criminal proceeding. Basic fair procedures require the full and free presentation of the accused’s case and evidence, cross-examination of witnesses and the right to challenge the prosecution’s evidence.
A person is generally presumed innocent and is presumptively entitled to bail pending a hearing of the case. There are specified grounds on which bail may be refused. Historically, its sole function was to secure the attendance of the accused to Following a Constitutional amendment the courts may refuse bail if it is considered reasonably necessary to prevent the commission of a serious offence by that person.