I have already covered the District Court and Circuit Court in previous posts, so the next logical step is to examine the High Court. Legally established by section 2 of the Courts (Establishment and Constitution) Act, 1961, it is empowered with full original jurisdiction by Article 34.3.1 of Bunreacht na hEireann. This means that it has full power “to determine all matters and questions whether of law or fact, civil or criminal”.
The High Court consists of a President (currently the Honourable Mr. Justice Nicholas Kearns, appointed in October 2009) and 36 ordinary judges. The Chief Justice and the President of the Circuit Court are ex officio members.
Civil cases are usually heard by one judge sitting alone, although cases of defamation, assault and battery, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution all require a jury. Though rare, cases of particular importance (for example, a constitutional issue which is in the public interest) are heard by three judges. Criminal matters require a judge and jury.
The High Court sits in Dublin, with only two annual exceptions, when it will travel to provincial areas around the country to hear appeals and personal injuries matters. During this time, it is referred to as the High Court on Circuit.
Function & Jurisdiction
As mentioned, the High Court has full original jurisdiction meaning, essentially, that it has no jurisdictional limits on the type of case it can hear. (There are a very small number of exceptions to this, the most notable being in respect of an Article 26 reference where, before signing a Bill into law, the President of Ireland can refer it to the Supreme Court to ensure that it complies with the Constitution. See here for a list of all such references to date.)
The High Court also hears de novo appeals from the Circuit Court in civil matters (criminal matters being heard by the Court of Criminal Appeal), and appeals on a point of law from the District Court.
Arguably, one of the most important functions of the High Court is to determine the constitutionality of any law, as set out in Article 34.3.2 of the Constitution. It also hears a variety of commercial issues, including applications to wind up a company, and bankruptcy matters. Other common types of cases to come before the High Court include personal injuries, defamation, and contract cases. Further, the High Court can hear judicial review applications in respect of government bodies, various tribunals, and even decisions of lower courts.
It is worth noting that, though it can technically hear any case, the reality is that the High Court usually only hears civil cases which fall beyond the jurisdiction of the District and Circuit Courts. Thus, any claim for more than €38,092.14 should end up in a High Court list. A claim which, taken at its highest, could never have fetched that amount, could lead to penalties for the Plaintiff in terms of legal costs, regardless of whether his or her claim was successful.
When hearing criminal matters, the High Court is referred to as the Central Criminal Court. Again, although not restrained by jurisdiction, in practice it only hears the more serious cases that cannot be dealt with in lower courts. Examples include murder, rape, aggravated sexual assault, treason, and piracy.
The Master of the High Court has a similar function to the County Registrar of the Circuit Court, in that he is empowered to deal with various administrative matters in civil cases. (Note that, as of June 2011, the Master no longer hears Motions for Discover; these are now heard by a High Court judge.)
Unlike the District and Circuit Courts, there is only one type of appeal from the High Court in civil cases, and it is on a point of law to the Supreme Court. As the Supreme Court does not conduct trials, there are no de novo appeals from the High Court.
(Appeals from the Master are to a High Court judge.)
All appeals from the Central Criminal Court are heard by the Court of Criminal Appeal. Such appeals can be in respect of conviction, sentence, or both.
Although the structure and jurisdiction of the High Court are relatively straightforward matters, a discussion of its function inevitably has its limitations. I hope the above serves to highlight some of the salient points but, unfortunately, it can never cover every single aspect. Thus, as usual, if you require clarification or further information on any matter, please do so by leaving a question in the comment section below.