The District Court

The District Court summary criminal jurisdiction is the successor to that of the Justice of the Peace and the Resident Magistrate. The District Courts were created on the establishment of the State and formalised in legislation in 1924. This represented a significant break from the past.

The District Court has a legally qualified judge whereas the Justice of the Peace and lay magistrates, would not necessarily be legally trained. The later officers have continued in England and Wales and in  Northern Island, where they continue to hear most summary criminal matters.

Unlike the Justices of the Peace and magistrate, the District Court also exercise a very substantial civil jurisdiction in relation to a wide range of statutory matters. See the separate sections on the civil functions of the District Court.

The District Court consists of a president and 60 judges. The State is divided into 23 Districts, which are each in turn divided into a number of District Court area. District judges must be a solicitor or barrister of at least 10 years’ standing.


A District Court may hear cases where the offence has been committed within their District or where the accused resides there. If judges are unavailable or unassigned, any judge may hear the case in any place in the State. A case may be remitted to the appropriate District Court. These provisions apply to the whole of the District rather than to the “areas” into which Districts are divided. The areas are matters of administrative convenience.

There are special provisions for where an accused does not reside in the State and where there are uncertainties as to where the crime was committed. There is provision for a person to be tried in the Dublin Metropolitan District in these circumstances.


A person may appear at District Court proceedings and represents himself or be represented by a solicitor or barrister. Member of the Garda Síochána and persons appearing on behalf of prosecuting authorities may also appear.

A family member, with the leave of court, may appear on behalf of the party if the party is unable to appear due to infirmity or other unavoidable cause.


District Court proceedings may be adjourned from time to time. The proceedings may be adjourned and may continue on a different day.

Proceedings may be adjourned generally with liberty to reenter. This means they may be reinitiated by lodging a notice with the District Court office.

Fair Hearing

The matter of adjournment of cases is within the discretion of the judge. However, he must act fairly and respect principles of constitutional justice.

The basic principles of constitutional justice require an impartial judge and that each side is given the fair opportunity to make his case with legal representation as appropriate.

In the District Court the order embodying the court decision is definitive in proceedings relating to the decision. It is the sole and relevant record.


A summons is a command to attend court to answer a complaint. A summons is issued on foot of the complaint made by a prosecuting officer or other authority. It may also be issued under an alternative more automated procedure. The summons is issued by the District Court office.

Generally, a defect in a summons is not critical if the person in fact appears in order to answer the complaint.

While generally, a defect in the summons is fatal to the proceedings, a fundamental defect summons being issued out of time, may not be rectified by the defendant’s appearance.

A person appears solely for the purpose of objecting to a defect if it relates to the question of jurisdiction or the power of the court to hear the matter. However, a technical or procedural defect will not be fatal to the validity of the proceedings.

If a summons is amended, the court may adjourn the proceedings in order to ensure that the accused is not prejudiced.

Issue of Summons

There are two separate methods available for the issue of a summons. The more modern automatic system is available only to members of an Garda Siochana and persons exercising statutory authority.

The traditional method involves the making of a complaint to the District Court Clerk or a peace commissioner setting out a prima facie case. The District Court clerk, police commissioner or the judge sign and issue the summons provided they are satisfied that there is a basis for the complaint.

A summons is issued automatically under this procedure automatically are found to be invalid so that in 1986 an alternative basis for summons issues was enacted. An application is made for the court offices and it does not need to be considered in any sense by the District Court Clerk in the same manner as the older procedure which continue to exist in parallel.

Content of Summons

The summons must set out details of the applicant, the accused and a brief description of the offence.  It must notify the accused that he or she will be accused of the offence of the district on a particular date and place.

A summons may set out offence in ordinary language. It must specify the offence with sufficient particularity e.g. the time and place of the alleged offence so as to enable the accused to understand the nature of the accusation concerned. Multiple complaints may be set out in the same summons.

Complaint & Time

The date of the application for the summons or complaint is usually the critical date for the relevant time limits. Generally, a complaint must be made within 6 months of the relevant offence. It is a matter for the defence to object to the issue of a late compliant / issue.

The “complaint” is made to the relevant District Court office. See above in relation to the relevant jurisdiction, which is normally done where the crime occurred or where the accused reside.  The summons is issued in duplicate with a  copy for service.

The general time limit for making a complaint is six months from the time of the relevant offence. Many statutes may extent or on less frequently shorten the time limits for making the complaint. This time limit does not apply to indictable offences which may be tried summarily. They are subject to no time limit whatsoever.

As an alternative to a summons, a person arrested may be summoned to court by means of a charge sheet. In the case of a person charged in a Garda Station, they will be given a charge sheet instead of a summons. The charge sheet sets out the complaint in the same way as a summons. It may, for example, be given to the accused upon being released from Garda custody.

The court may amend a summons. If the error t is such as to mislead, prejudice the accused or might affect the merits of the case, it may refuse the amendment. In this instance, the complaint may be dismissed finally or without prejudice to its being taken again.


A summons must be served. It should be served personally. If the person concerned cannot be so served, it may be left at his last or most usual place of residence or workplace. It may be left with a person at the place of residence over 16 years of age or who so appears.

A summons may also be served by prepaid registered post or another system of recorded delivery or by hand. It must be addressed to the defendant at his last known or usual place of residence or business in the State. Service is presumed good unless it is proved the person addressed did not receive the summons.

Generally where a summons has been served by one of the authorised means and the defendant does not appear, the court may proceed to hear the case. If, however, it is undesirable in the interest of justice, due for example, to the severity of the offence and potential sanction or otherwise, it may adjourn the hearing, to enable the person to be notified in such manner as maybe directed.

If the person does not appear, he may apply within 21 days after the matter comes to his attention to have the proceedings set aside.

Where the charge sheet procedure is used, a copy of the particulars must be delivered to the person charged and to copy lodged with the District Court office.

Arrest & Charge

A person arrested without a warrant and charged must be brought to the District Court as soon as practicable.

Where the court does not deal with offence in the absence of the accused on account of gravity, it may adjourn the hearing to enable the person to be notified, in which event the clerk shall issue and serve notice at least 14 days prior to the adjourned hearing.

A summary trial in the District Court is treated in the same manner as any criminal prosecution. The prosecution bears the onus of proof. The District Judge decides matters of fact and law in the District Court.

The prosecution must give evidence through its witnesses or otherwise showing the accused to be guilty of the offence concerned beyond a reasonable doubt. Upon conclusion of the case, the judge may convict or dismiss the complaint and summons. If the requisite proof and evidence is not given, the charge is dismissed.

Witnesses may not generally be recalled unless the omitted evidence is related to formal matters than matter bearing on essential merits of the case.

Clerical errors, accidental slips and omissions in orders and warrants may be corrected by the court at any time.

Strike Out & Dismissal

If the complaint has no foundation in law, it should be struck out. The striking out of proceedings is in the nature of a nullification. It may be contrasted with a dismissal which implies that the complaint has been adjudicated upon its merits.

Generally, a dismissal on the merits is a bar to fresh prosecution. This is the fundamental criminal principle that a person should not be jeopardized twice for the one offence.

If proceedings are struck out, a new complaint may be brought in respect of the same subject matter based on the complaint made which are


requisite. If a summons is dismissed without prejudice, a new prosecution may be issued in front of the original complaint.

A District Court order of conviction must show jurisdiction and the relevant offence on its face. It should contain sufficient information to identify the offence including the date and place committed. No formal records of the proceedings are kept in summary offences. The parties are free to engage a stenographer if they desire, although this would be very rare. An appeal is by way of rehearing in the Circuit Court, in contrast to a High Court Appeal.


Evidence is offered in the District Court as in other courts, under oath. As an alternative to a religious oath, it is possible to make an affirmation.

The right to give evidence on affirmation applies if the witness has no religious belief or if taking the oath is contrary to his beliefs. If a person objects to the standard form of oath, he may take an oath in a form binding on his conscience.

A court may admit an electronic recording of questioning of an accused or transcript of such recording. A statement made by a person that is recorded is admissible as evidence. Notwithstanding that it was not taken down in writing at the time it was made or it’s not in writing and signed by the persons who made it or both

It is perjury to give false evidence under oath knowing it to be false. It is an offence.

See our separate chapters on criminal evidence rules in relation to the types of evidence that may be offered to any resident.


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