Article 34 of the Constitution deals with the composition of the courts system of Ireland. It sets up not only the High Court (34.3.1) and Supreme Court (34.4.1), but also other courts “of local and limited jurisdiction” (34.3.4). However, it was only in 1961 with the passing of the Courts (Establishment and Constitution) Act that an official structure was put in place – that of the District Court, Circuit Court, Court of Criminal Appeal, High Court, and Supreme Court. What follows is a brief summary of the structure, function and jurisdiction of the District Court:
The District Court was established by section 5 of the 1961 Act. It consists of a President (currently Judge Rosemary Horgan, appointed in June 2012), and 63 ordinary judges. There are 24 Districts in Ireland, including the Dublin Metropolitan District, each with its own court being presided over by a judge sitting alone (that is, one judge, no jury).
Function & Jurisdiction
The District Court hears civil and criminal matters of a relatively minor nature.
In civil cases, its monetary jurisdiction is limited to €6,348.69*, meaning that that is the maximum award a judge can make in respect of a civil case. It can grant liquor and lottery licences, and can hear certain family matters, including issues relating to maintenance (limited to €150 per week per child, and €500 per week in respect of a spouse), access and guardianship, and can grant Barring and Safety Orders in matters of domestic violence.
* Note that this is accurate as at September 2012, but is due to increase to €20,000 in the near future.
In criminal matters, its jurisdiction is limited to cases which do not require a jury and for which the maximum penalty is 12 months’ imprisonment. (In the case of indictable offences, which are more serious in nature, the District Court can hear such matters if the judge, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), and the accused all consent. Again, the maximum penalty is 12 months’ imprisonment. Exceptions include rape, treason, murder, aggravated sexual assault, and piracy, which can never be heard in the District Court.) In respect of other indictable offences, a District Court Judge will be presented with the Book of Evidence and will hear submissions from the prosecution and defence, including bail applications, before deciding whether there is a sufficient case to answer. If so, the accused will the sent forward for trial to the Circuit Court or the Central Criminal Court, depending on the severity of the offence.
There are, essentially, two types of appeal: a de novo appeal, and an appeal on a point of law.
A de novo appeal means that the case is completely re-heard from the beginning by a higher court. For District Court cases, all de novo appeals are heard by the Circuit Court. The Circuit Court’s determination is final and cannot be appealed.
On a point of law
These are heard by the High Court, and can occur either during the case (referred to as a “consultative case stated”) or after the case has been heard in full (referred to as “an appeal by way of case stated”). In such appeals, the High Court accepts the factual findings of the District Court, and is only concerned with the legal issues. An example of this would be where there was some confusion as to the meaning of a particular piece of legislation. In such an instance, the matter could be sent to the High Court to clear up any ambiguity. The matter is usually then sent back to the District Court so that the case may proceed, or so that any relevant adjustments to the ruling can be made.
Although not strictly an appeal, there also exists a remedy in law known as judicial review (see Order 84 rules 18-26 of the Rules of the Superior Courts). In the District Court, this means that, where an individual is of the belief that a judge or other administrative body has acted in excess of its jurisdiction or contrary to its duty, that person can query or challenge that action in the High Court.
The above is a brief summary of the operation of the District Court in Ireland. It is by no means exhaustive, but I hope it captures the main points and gives a clearer picture of its function in our judicial system. Some further information can be found here, or you can leave a question in the comment section below and I will do my best to answer it.