Having covered the District, Circuit, and High Courts, I will now round out the series by outlining the main features of the Supreme Court, which was established under section 1 of the Courts (Establishment and Constitution) Act, 1961. The Supreme Court, which sits in the Four Courts in Dublin, is the court of final appeal in Ireland.
The Supreme Court is comprised of a President, known as the Chief Justice (currently Her Honour Ms. Justice Susan Denham, appointed in July 2012, and the first ever female Chief Justice), and 7 ordinary judges. As befits his office, the President of the High Court is also an ex officio member of the Supreme Court. In certain circumstances, it is permissible for extra judges to sit, for example, if one of the Supreme Court judges is president of the Law Reform Commission, where a former Chief Justice serves as a Supreme Court judge, or where there are insufficient numbers for the hearing of a matter, whether by reason of illness or otherwise. The judges are ranked as follows:-
(i) The Chief Justice;
(ii) The President of the High Court;
(iii) Judges who were former Chief Justices, according to date of appointment; and
(iv) Other Supreme Court judges, according to date of appointment.
In procedural matters of no major legal import, three judges sit. For matters involving a constitutional challenge to a statute, or where an important question of law arises, five judges sit. In cases of extreme importance, for example if a Bill is referred to the Supreme Court under Article 26 of the Constitution, seven judges sit. (The Chief Justice can sit alone for applications for the appointment of Notaries Public and Commissioners for Oaths, or for case management lists.)
Function & Jurisdiction
In essence, the Supreme Court only deals with cases involving a point of law of exceptional importance, cases where the legality or constitutionality of a statute or Bill is called into question, or the question of whether the President of Ireland has become permanently incapacitated.
The main day-to-day business of the Supreme Court is to hear appeals from the High Court, and cases stated from the Circuit and High Courts. The trial judge must approve all such appeals before sending them to the Supreme Court. Appeals from the Court of Criminal Appeal can be brought where the Attorney General or Directory of Public Prosecutions certifies that the case involves a matter of exceptional public importance. (It is worth noting that the Supreme Court rarely hears evidence from witnesses; instead, appeals are based on documents and transcripts of oral evidence and, where the trial judge approves them, legal counsels’ notes of the evidence.)
Decisions are made based on a majority ruling, though each judge is entitled to deliver a separate judgement, regardless of whether or not it agrees with the majority ruling. There are two exceptions to this – where deciding on the validity of a law or on the constitutionality or otherwise of a Bill, the majority decision is the only one pronounced.
These decisions are sometimes given ex tempore, or immediately after the hearing of the matter. However, more often, the Supreme Court reserves its decision, whereby the judges will take some time to consider the issues before them, and will deliver a decision at a later date.
Being the highest court in Ireland, decisions of the Supreme Court are final and binding and cannot be appealed.
As with previous posts of mine on the Irish courts, the above represents a very simplified view of the Supreme Court. An exhaustive description of its workings would be nigh on impossible, given the ever-changing nature of the law, and the diversity of facts in each of the cases that come before the Supreme Court on a daily basis. However, for some more information, including judgements of the Supreme Court, see here or leave a comment below.