Establishment of Superior Courts
The Courts of Justice Act, 1924 reestablished the courts under the Irish Free State Constitution. Most of the courts and court offices as then established have continued to the present day. The Courts of Justice Acts, amended from time to time, regulate the courts, court officers and court business. See generally the sections on the courts of justice legislation.
The Supreme Court found in the 1950s that the 1937 Constitution contemplated the reestablishment of the High Court, Supreme Court and courts of local and limited jurisdiction (namely, the Circuit and District Courts). Accordingly, the Courts (Establishment and Constitution) Act, 1961 reestablished the courts in line with the terms laid out in the Constitution. The High Court was reestablished as the Court of First Instance.
The Courts (Supplemental Provisions) Act, 1961 as contemplated by the Constitution, provides for the qualification, appointment, remuneration, pension, retirement and office of judges of the courts reestablished by the above Act.
The High Court is established by the Constitution as having unlimited jurisdiction which cannot be abridged by legislation. The District Court and Circuit Court’s jurisdiction is dependent on legislation and may be limited accordingly. There are financial limits in respect of most of the major types of civil action in the District and Circuit Courts.
The other courts must be limited and local. This in effect requires that there be a connection between cases in the courts concerned. This accords with the organisation of the District Court and Circuit Court’s jurisdiction in that each case has a connection with the relevant district or circuit.
Circuit and District Court judges are appointed by the President in much the same way as High Court judges. They make a declaration equivalent to that provided in the Constitution for High and Supreme Court judges (Article 34.5).
No question shall be raised, whether in pleading, argument or otherwise, in any court other than in the High Court or Supreme Court in relation to the constitutionality of the law. The Circuit Court and District Court are bound, at least by post-1937 legislation, which is presumed to be compatible with Constitution until established as invalid in accordance with the constitutional provisions in respect of judicial review.
It appears that the Circuit and District Courts may not question pre-1937 legislation or rules of common law on the grounds of constitutionality. This has been held to prevent a reference as to constitutionality on foot of a case stated procedure. A challenge to post-1937 legislation must be brought by way of constitutional judicial review proceedings in the High Court.
Judges in the lower courts may adjourn cases if a question is pending as to the constitutionality of the relevant statute in High Court proceedings. It is not obliged to adjourn cases, including prosecutions, where the case is pending.
Constitutional fair procedures principles are a part of the fundamental law of the State and should be applied by the District and Circuit Court in the application of law.
The High Court
The Constitution establishes the High Court as the court of first instance, with full original jurisdiction and power to determine all matters in question, whether of law or fact, civil or criminal. Accordingly, provisions as to jurisdiction in legislation do not limit its inherent constitutionally conferred jurisdiction.
The ostensibly ‘full’ jurisdiction is to be read subject to the overall scheme of the Constitution which itself contemplates courts of local and limited jurisdiction. In many cases, legislation confers, both in civil and criminal matters, exclusive jurisdiction on the lower courts. The Courts have accepted that exclusive jurisdiction may be conferred on lower courts such as the District Court in respect of certain categories of matters and offences, provided that the High Court retains supervisory jurisdiction. In practice, a cost penalty arises if a person proceeds in the High Court where he could have proceeded in a lower court.
The same principle applies to civil and criminal proceedings. Provided the High Court is capable of reviewing the lower court’s decisions, the Constitution is satisfied. This includes the possibility of judicial review by way of certiorari, prohibition, mandamus, declaration or injunction. There is provision for direct appeal from the Circuit Court and the judicial review remedies are involved and available in respect of some courts of summary jurisdiction, including in particular the District Court.
The High Court has jurisdiction under Article 34.3.1 in respect of the constitutionality of post-1937 legislation. In the case of pre-1937 legislation, its authority is derived from Article 34.3.1 and common law.
The Court of Criminal Appeal was established by the Court of Justice Acts, without being specifically referred to in the Constitution. A 2013 amendment to the Constitution provides specifically for a new Court of Appeal, which embraces both a civil court of appeal and the court of criminal appeal in a single new court. Prior to this amendment, the Supreme Court had held that the Constitution allowed the Oireachtas to provide for a court of appeal other than the High Court or Supreme Court.
The Court of Appeal
According to Article 34.4, the Court of Appeal has appellate jurisdiction, “with such exceptions and subject to such regulations as may be prescribed by law”, from all decisions of the High Court, as well as from any other courts as may be prescribed, including the Circuit, Central and Special Criminal Courts.
No law shall be enacted excepting from the appellate jurisdiction of the Court of Appeal cases which involve questions as to the validity of any law. The decision of the Court of Appeal shall be final and conclusive, save for in exceptional circumstances where the Supreme Court has jurisdiction from decisions of the Court of Appeal.
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court, subject to such regulations as may be prescribed by law, has appellate jurisdiction from a decision of the Court of Appeal if the Supreme Court is satisfied that the decision involves a matter of general public importance or if in the interests of justice it is necessary that there be an appeal to the Supreme Court.
Similarly, the Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction from a decision of the High Court if the Supreme Court is satisfied that there are exceptional circumstances warranting a direct appeal to it for the same reasons as above.
Under Article 26, on reference by the President, the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in matters relating to the Constitution and in a handful of other more limited circumstances. The appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court reflected in the Constitution is acknowledged in the Courts (Supplemental Provisions) Act, 1961. The courts have held that additional jurisdiction may be granted by Acts of the Oireachtas.
At one time, there was a constitutional right of appeal from the decision of the High Court to the Supreme Court. It covered all decisions of the High Court. This was interpreted widely. It was even decided that an acquittal might be appealed from a direction of a High Court judge (Central Criminal Court) to the Supreme Court.It appears that a decision of the High Court may in principle be appealed even if it is an interlocutory or in relation to an ancillary decision or matters such as costs.
Exceptions to the right of appeal may be defined by law/legislation. Sometimes appeals are to be on a point of law or sometimes the legislation provides that appeals are to be on a point of law. Sometimes the leave of the High Court is required.
Some legislation in areas where it is feared that there may be a prospect of long delays such as compulsory purchase, immigration and planning, may be appealed only where it is certified that a point of exceptional public importance arises and that it is desirable in the public interest that an appeal should be taken. These restrictions have been upheld by the courts. They also apply to extradition and the European arrest warrant.
It appears that restrictions on the right of appeal must be contained in post-1937 legislation only, in order to be consistent with the constitutional scheme.
Legislation which limits the right or scope of appeal must be very clearly expressed. Accordingly, although an appeal may require a certificate from the High Court, the Supreme Court will be presumptively free to deal with the matter on any grounds available.
A right of appeal to the Supreme Court does not apply where there is a right of reference to the European Court of Justice now the Court of Justice of the European Union under the European Union law. This is necessitated by the membership of European Union and treaty obligations.
The decision of the High Court is final and conclusive in the particular matter. See generally the principle of res judicata. There are limited exceptions as to when judgments may be set aside.
The provisions on appointment of judges are provided under the courts of justice legislation. It limits the number of High Court judges. Accordingly, an increase in the size of the High Court bench requires amendment of the Courts of Justice Act.
A judge may not be removed from office except for stated misbehaviour or incapacity and then only on resolution passed by Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann for his removal.
The constitutional protection of the provision of judges is one of the longest standing basic features of the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary.
The provisions for removal of a judge are provided for in the Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Act 2003, Part 3. It provides for fair procedures. This includes the appointment of a subcommittee by the Houses. There is provision for a report of the Houses, provision for witnesses to be compelled, privileges and immunity.
Several of the questions arose in the notorious case of Curtin v Dáil Éireann, which involved a Circuit Court judge, who had been acquitted of possessing child pornography. It was found that the seizure of evidence was unlawful and the judge was acquitted. Motions for removal of the judge were proposed by both Houses and were adjourned. A sSubcommittee was established to examine the legislation and committees sought to obtain access to the computer. Ultimately, the judge resigned. However, the proceedings continued.
The Supreme Court held that the Constitution contemplated that the Oireachtas Committee was entitled to organise evidence in a manageable form, point out issues on the evidence, act as a guide to the members when debating the resolution and to the applicant and his advisors in rebutting his defence. The courts would review an irrational and irresponsible use of the power where it was exercised maliciously or in bad faith. The courts were required to guarantee fair procedures and preserve a constitutional balance and protect the judge from an abuse of power.
Independence of Judges
The Constitution provides that no judge shall hold any other office or position of emolument. The general principle is that the remuneration of judges cannot be reduced during continuance in office. A 2011 constitutional amendment allowed judicial remuneration to be reduced in line with comparable reductions in public service. It also confirmed that the remuneration of the judges is subject to the imposition of tax, levies and other charges imposed by law on persons generally or persons belonging to a particular class.
It further confirmed that where a reduction is made to remuneration belonging to classes of persons whose remuneration is paid out of public money and such law states that those reductions are in the public interest, provision shall also be made by the law to make proportionate reduction in the remuneration of judges.
It has been held by the Supreme Court that there is a duty on the government to keep judges’ remuneration under review so that they do not fall out in line with historical and other remuneration in the economy, such as to jeopardise judicial independence. Judge’s pension rights must be rational. It must not be irrational and inequitable.
The independence of the judges is an essential cornerstone of the rule of law. The Constitution provides that all judges shall be independent in the exercise of their judicial functions and subject only to this Constitution and the law. They are independent of the government and the executive, the Oireachtas and parties to litigation.
Generally, a judge does not join in proceedings, where his decision is challenged. Costs will not be awarded against a judge where he is a party. Where there are allegations of bad faith or impropriety, it appears he must be joined in the proceedings in order to make representations if he choose to do so and defend himself.
Judges may be conferred with other functions. For example, judges have been appointed head to Referendum Commission, Standards in Public Office Commission, Constituency Commissions and to chairs of numerous tribunals and commissions of inquiries. In some instances, the judges are members of committees which have a role in various functions. These are typicall those intimately associated with the administration of law.