Understanding Ireland’s Legal System: A Comprehensive Guide
Whether or not (hopefully not!) you get embroiled in a legal conflict, having a good understanding of Ireland’s legal system is important knowledge.
As such, this guide will walk you through a couple of things you’ll need to know more about the legal system here in the Emerald Isle, such as the five main courts, legal service costs, the types of legal fields, and so on.
Without further ado, let’s begin!
Background of Ireland’s Legal System
Ireland officially became a republic in the year 1949, ending its membership with the British Commonwealth.
Parliamentary democracy is its form of government. Its national parliament is made up of the President and two houses, namely, the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Ireland has five main courts which are the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, High Court, Circuit Court, and District Court.
1. District Court
Starting with the lowest court in the Irish court system, the District Court is made up of 64 judges plus its president.
For a case to be heard, it has to be conducted in the correct District Court area. As regards civil matters, this would depend on a number of factors.
For respondents, the right District Court area should be either where you or one of the respondents lives or works.
For claimants, you can select depending on the type of case:
- Proceedings based on contract – where the contract was made
- Proceedings based on tort – where the injury happened
- Proceedings to evict a person – location of land or property
On the other hand, for criminal cases, the right District Court area may be where the crime happened; where the accused lives/works; or where the accused was arrested.
Meanwhile, there are limitations as to what type of cases a District Court can hear out.
Concerning civil cases, the amount of damages/compensation demanded should not go beyond €15,000. On criminal cases, the District Court primarily tackles summary offences—cases where a judge sits alone.
It also deals with indictable (more serious cases). This type of criminal offence can be tried with both a judge and a jury.
2. Circuit Court
If the results of your case were not in your favour in the District Court, you can appeal this to the Circuit Court.
37 judges and the president of the court make up the Circuit Court. Generally, the Circuit Court covers cases in which the claim’s amount does not go over €75,000. (€60,000 for personal injury actions.)
For cases involving property, the market value of the property involved should not exceed €3,000,000.
Whereas civil cases are tried in this court without a jury, criminal cases are tried with 12 juries.
Some of the non-minor offences the Circuit Court are not permitted to have jurisdiction over include rape, murder, piracy, treason, and aggravated sexual assault.
3. High Court
Comprising 36 judges and its president, the High Court has “full jurisdiction to determine all matters on civil and criminal questions,” according to The Courts Service.
Thus, it’s further up the ladder of Irish courts. Its power to hear cases is not dependent on location or extent of damages/compensation to be given.
This is in contrast to the District and Circuit Courts, which are characterised as being a court of local and limited jurisdiction.
It even has power to hear questions on the validity of any law.
The High Court is referred to as the Central Criminal Court when dealing with criminal offences. And naturally, it has jurisdiction to hear cases not permitted in the Circuit Court, such as murder and rape.
Moreover, you may apply for bail in the High Court if you were not granted bail in the District Court. And if allowed bail in the District Court, you may apply to the High Court for changes to be made to your bail conditions.
Also, it is only to the High Court that you can seek bail if you were charged with murder and other particular serious offences.
4. Court of Appeal
Just recently established in 2014, the Court of Appeal is the second-to-highest court in the country’s court system. Consisting of 15 judges and its president, it is not a court of local and limited jurisdiction, just like the High Court.
Needless to say, the Court of Appeal stands to hear appeals from the High Court, among other things, such as “rule on a question of law submitted to it by the Circuit Court.”
Moreover, it hears cases from the Circuit Criminal Court, the Central Criminal Court, and the Special Criminal Court.
The Court of Appeal can also hear appeals from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) on a number of things, such as an appeal on a point of law from a trial on indictment.
And if you’ve been convicted by a court-martial (military court), you can appeal to the Court of Appeal. This applies to Defence Force members who have committed an offence against military law.
5. Supreme Court
Furthest up Ireland’s court ladder is the Supreme Court or Cúirt Uachtarach na hÉireann. Established in 1961, it is composed of 9 judges and the Chief Justice who is its president.
It hears appeals from the Court of Appeal but only under certain circumstances.
To accept an appeal, it must be convinced that the decision made by the Court of Appeal “involves a matter of general public importance” or “in the interests of justice it is necessary that there is an appeal to the Supreme Court.”
Although rarely, the Supreme Court can also hear an appeal directly from the High Court. This is called a ‘leapfrog appeal.’ However, the same conditions stated above have to be met.
It also has other functions, such as having the power to end the President’s term of office.
Need more info on the different Irish courts? You can check out the website of The Courts Service, which is an independent state agency that manages the courts, among other functions.
Primary source on Ireland’s court system: Citizens Information
Legal Representation Costs in Ireland
This section will give you an idea of how much you may need to spend as regards legal representation. Just a heads up, though—Ireland actually has one of the most expensive legal rates in Europe, according to Corporate Legal.
However, there are ways for you to obtain legal aid in the country, which we will discuss later.
As regards actual numbers, it would be difficult to gauge how much you may have to spend for legal costs as multiple factors contribute to lawyer rates.
One common pricing model legal practitioners enforce is the hourly rate. Here are some hourly rates we found online:
- €400 – average hourly rate for a partner in a medium-sized Dublin law firm
- €300 – average rate for an associate solicitor (one step below partner level)
- €200 – average for junior counsel
Tipperary-based law firm
- €95 to €350 (different rates for partners, solicitors, trainee solicitors, and support staff)
Dublin-based law firm
- €350 (principal)
- €250 (solicitor)
- €120 (legal executive/secretary)
On the other hand, lawyers may also apply a fixed fee.
Meanwhile, you may have heard of the “no win, no fee” basis. To put it simply, you won’t have to pay any legal fees to your solicitor if he or she fails to win your case.
Nevertheless, a solicitor obviously wouldn’t agree to this payment scheme all the time, especially if the chances for a case’s success isn’t that high.
Factors that affect rates
What are the factors that your lawyer should consider when calculating charges?
According to the Legal Services Regulatory Authority, there are 10 specific factors set out in law that a solicitor must use to determine his or her calculations.
These 10 factors are:
- The complexity and novelty of the issues involved;
- The skill or specialised knowledge applied;
- The amount of time and labour reasonably spent;
- The urgency attached by the client to the matter;
- The place and circumstances in which the matter was transacted;
- The number, importance and complexity of documents;
- The amounts or values of money, property or an interest in property;
- Whether or not there is an agreement to limit the liability of the solicitor;
- Any research or investigative work undertaken and the time spent on it;
- The use and costs of expert witnesses or other expertise.
If you look at number 10, you will have to consider other costs aside from lawyer fees, such as the use of witnesses. Other fees to note include:
- Court fees
- Land registry fees
- Stamp duty
- Fees for medico-legal reports given by doctors
Acquiring legal aid
Naturally, getting caught in a legal battle can be a money drainer. And for those who live on tight budgets, it most certainly is harder.
Legal Aid Board
The good news is you can seek legal aid and advice for a smaller price from the Legal Aid Board if eligible. The Legal Aid Board is a statutory body headquartered in Co. Kerry.
As explained by Citizens Information, legal aid refers to “representation by a barrister or solicitor in civil proceedings in court or before the International Protection Appeals Tribunal, in addition to the preparatory work this entails.”
Legal advice, on the other hand, “includes any oral or written advice provided by a solicitor or barrister.”
However, while one of the Board’s main functions is to give legal aid and advice in civil cases, it is not allowed to render legal aid in some areas.
Some of these are defamation claims, licensing, election petitions, and land disputes.
Meanwhile, it administers three ad-hoc criminal legal aid schemes, namely, the Garda Station Legal Advice Revised Scheme; Legal Aid – Custody Issues Scheme; and the Criminal Assets Bureau Ad-hoc Legal Aid Scheme.
Different Types of Legal Practice Areas
Lawyers are also like doctors. If there are doctors who handle a specific branch of medicine (e.g. dermatology, psychiatry, dentistry, paediatrics) there are also lawyers who deal with a particular area of law.
While this is by no means an exhaustive list, here are several types of legal practice areas:
1. Criminal law
One of the most well-known practice areas, criminal law deals with punishing people who have conducted a crime.
In the courtroom, the defence attorney advocates for the accused (the one who has allegedly committed the crime). On the other side is the prosecutor who is representing the public.
2. Personal injury
Personal injury lawyers help victims seek damages or compensation from the party who has caused them harm.
Personal injury claims are an extensive list and include:
- Road accidents
- Medical negligence
- Accidents in public areas
- Harmful products
- Accidents from area of work
- Illness acquired from work and more
3. Employment law
Employment lawyers help employees resolve conflicts between their employers and vice-versa, among other things.
Some of the issues they deal with include wrongful dismissal, workplace defamation, workplace discrimination, and such.
They also provide advice on matters such as contracts of employment, settlement agreements, protected disclosures, employment immigration law, and more.
4. Banking and finance law
According to The Lawyer Portal, banking and finance law “involves the regulation of financial products and is primarily focused on loan transactions.”
This type of law is broad and concerns areas such as loans, bank lending, derivatives, property finance, capital markets, and so on.
5. Corporate law
As stated by The Lawyer Portal, “corporate law governs the functioning of companies; from how they are formed to the transactions they are permitted to engage in.”
Thus, it’s also known as company law. Some of the matters involved in this legal field include merging companies, restructuring companies, etc.
6. Family law
Of course, there’s also a legal field concerning familial relationships. For instance, if you’re going through a divorce, you’ll most probably need a family lawyer.
But aside from divorce, family law also deals with matters such as domestic abuse, guardianship, juvenile justice, child abuse, prenuptial agreements, etc.
7. Environmental law
Environmental law concerns areas such as recycling, climate change, waste disposal, pollution, among others.
Environmental lawyers help protect nature and are also called upon to make sure companies follow local and national legislation.
And that’s a wrap for our guide on Ireland’s legal system! If this article has inspired you to enter the legal field, you might want to take a look at our list of Dublin’s best colleges to start your degree.
Got anything to add to this guide? Reach out to us, so we can check out your ideas!