First instance courts are where a criminal case is first heard. They are to be distinguished from appeal courts. In Ireland, criminal cases can be first heard in the District Court, the Circuit Court, the Central Criminal Court or, rarely, in the non-jury Special Criminal Court.
The vast majority of criminal cases are tried in the District Court in Ireland. The country is divided into twenty-three districts, each with one or more judges permanently assigned to it and the Dublin Metropolitan District. Generally, the criminal jurisdiction of the District Court is local and summary. The venue at which a case is heard depends on where the offence was committed or where the defendant resides, carries on business or was arrested. The bulk of the work carried out by the District Court, when exercising its criminal jurisdiction, is the resolution of summary offences. Summary offences comprise all offences, contained in statute, for which there is no right to trial by jury. Summary offences tend to be relatively minor in nature, including such things as public order and road traffic offences as well as less serious violent and drug crimes. Offences dealt with by the District Court generally carry a maximum sentence of one year or a maximum fine.
To a limited degree, the District Court can also deal with indictable offences. Indictable offences are those that carry the right to trial by jury. They are generally more serious than summary offences, although the range of indictable offences is quite broad and diverse. An indictable offence can be tried summarily in the District Court with the consent of both the accused person and the Director of Public Prosecutions and the judge being of the opinion that the case is sufficiently minor in nature. If a defendant pleads guilty to an indictable offence, and the judge accepts this plea, s/he may be retained in the District Court for sentencing as long as the Director of Public Prosecutions consents. Certain offences, such as rape, murder, aggravated sexual assault, treason and piracy are excluded, however. In the case of indictable offences that are not tried summarily, a District Court judge must examine the Book of Evidence served on the accused, as well as any relevant submissions, and, if s/he is of the opinion that there is a sufficient case to answer, must send the case forward to the Circuit Court or the Central Criminal Court for trial.
The District Court sits as the Children Court when hearing charges against accused persons who are under the age of eighteen. It can hear cases for all offences except for manslaughter and those offences which can only be tried by the Central Criminal Court. In Dublin, the Children Court has a separate, specially designated building and sits on each day of the working week. Outside Dublin, the Children Court generally sits in the same venue as the District Courts, but on a specially designated day or time. The Children Court sits in private.
The Circuit Criminal Court is also a court of local and limited jurisdiction. The country is divided into eight circuits. There is one judge assigned to each circuit, except in Dublin and Cork, where ten and three judges may be assigned respectively. The court sits in different venues within each circuit, with sittings usually ranging in length from one day to three weeks. Dublin and Cork have continual sittings throughout the legal term, while sittings are generally held every two to four months in other venues. The Circuit Court deals with all indictable crimes except murder, rape aggravated sexual assault, treason, piracy and related offences. Cases are tried by a judge and jury although a defendant may plead guilty, thus dispensing with a trial completely. The Circuit Criminal Court also deals with appeals from the District Court, which proceed by way of full rehearing. The decision of the Circuit Court is final, unless the severity of sentence is the sole issue to be appealed.
The High Court, when exercising its criminal jurisdiction, is known as the Central Criminal Court. It tries all indictable offences which fall outside the jurisdiction of the Circuit Criminal Court, predominantly murder, rape and related offences. Trials are conducted by a judge and jury, although two or more judges may sit together in some instances, if so directed by the President of the High Court. The Central Criminal Court has jurisdiction in relation to the entire country. Traditionally, it sat exclusively in Dublin but, since 2004, it has sat in a number of different locations throughout the country.
The Offences Against the State Act 1939 provided for the establishment of Special Criminal Courts to deal with terrorism and offences against the State where the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) certifies that the ordinary courts are 'inadequate'. This court sits with three judges and no jury. The rules of evidence that apply in proceedings before the Special Criminal Court are the same as those applicable to trials in the Central Criminal Court and there is a right of appeal against its decisions to the Court of Criminal Appeal. These courts are used rarely, seeing only 26 cases in 2006.
For more information on Irish courts, please visit the Courts Service website (http://www.courts.ie) and/or see thsi website for some statistics about criminal cases appearing before the courts in Ireland.