Summary v. Indictable: choices in the disposal of criminal cases

AuthorThomas E. O'Donnell
PositionJudge of the District Court. LL.M in International Human Rights Law
2006] Summary v. Indictable 15
Article 38.2 of the Constitution provides that: “Minor
offences may be tried by courts of summary jurisdiction.” The
Article goes on to provide that with this exception and with the
exception of offences tried by special courts and military
tribunals, no person may be tried on any criminal charge without
a jury.
In Conroy v. Attorney General1 Walsh J. stated:
The Constitution does not give an accused person
the right to a trial by jury for a minor offence or a
right to trial in a court of summary jurisdiction for
a minor offence. The provisions of section 2 in
relation to minor offences are permissive. The
Oireachtas may determine that minor offences may
be tried with a jury or without a jury.
In accordance with s. 4(5) of the Interpretation Act 1923,
the expression “court of summary jurisdiction” means the District
Court. Jurisdiction to hear and determine criminal cases will
depend on the nature of the offence. The statute conferring
jurisdiction will prescribe the maximum penalty which may be
imposed upon conviction.
The phrase “minor offence” is not defined in the Constitution or
by any Statute and is therefore a matter of legal interpretation.
* Judge of the District Court. LL.M in International Human Rights Law. This
article is based on a paper presented at the National Judicial Studies Institute
Conference, Dublin Castle, on 18 November 2005.
1 [1965] I.R. 411 at 434 (S.C.).
Judicial Studies Institute Journal [6:1
The essence of a summary trial in the District Court has
been aptly described by Gannon J. in Clune v. DPP and Clifford2
as follows:
A summary trial is a trial which could be
undertaken with some degree of expedition and
informality without departing from the principles
of justice. The purpose of summary procedures for
minor offences is to ensure that such offences are
charged and tried as soon as reasonably possible
after their alleged commission so that the
recollection of witnesses may still be reasonably
clear, that the attendance of witnesses and
presentation of evidence may be procured and
presented without great difficulty or complexity
and that there should be minimal delay in the
disposal of the work load of minor offences.3
In effect summary trial means primarily the right to hear and
determine a criminal charge in a summary way; that is without a
The present District Court came into existence by virtue of
s.5 of the Courts (Establishment and Constitution) Act 1961. The
District Court is a court of local and limited jurisdiction. It has
jurisdiction to try persons charged with offences which can be
categorised as follows:
A. Offences triable summarily only
Offences triable summarily only include:
ƔRoad Traffic Acts 1961-2004
s. 47: Speeding Offences
s. 52: Careless Driving
3 [1981] I.L.R.M. 17 at 19 (H.C.).

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