The irish courts system in the 21st century: planning for the future

AuthorRonan Keane
PositionChief Justice
The Irish courts system, since it was first established
in 1924, has never been subjected to any critical analysis
conducted with a view to ascertaining how far it falls short of
achieving the presumed objectives of any such system. I do
not suggest for a moment that within the compass of a short
paper I can hope to fill that remarkable void. What I hope to
do is to survey the structure itself, compare it with those that
exist in other countries and identify what seem to be any
problem areas. Again, it would be over ambitious to suggest
any detailed solutions to such problems as appear to arise: I
will content myself with indicating possible strategies that
might at least be considered.
As to the objectives, it would probably be generally
agreed that it is the duty of the State to provide the citizens
with a system of civil and criminal justice that is accessible to
all and which functions in a manner that is impartial, open
and expeditious. As a preliminary to assessing the extent to
which the Irish system falls short of achieving those
objectives, it may be helpful to begin with a summary of its
history and the changes it has undergone.
As with much of the rest of the Irish mechanics of
government, the current court structure can be traced to a
combination of what was in place under British rule and the
consequences of the turbulence of the War of Independence
and the Civil War. The British legal system was considerably
reformed during the 1870s, a period best remembered in legal
2001] Planning for the Future 1
* Chief Justice. This paper was originally given as a lecture to UCC Law
Society on 23 March 2001.
circles for the fusion of the jurisdictions of equity and
common law. These changes were also reflected in Ireland,
where there was established a unified court called the
Supreme Court of Judicature, comprising the High Court of
Justice and the Court of Appeal. There was a final right of
appeal to the judicial committee of the House of Lords. A
further rationalisation between 1897 and 1907 resulted in a
new structure: a High Court of Justice, divided into the
King’s Bench Division and Chancery Division, along with
two judicial commissioners of the Irish Land Commission
who were High Court judges and the Court of Appeal. The
right of appeal to the House of Lords remained.
At the lower levels, there was a three tier structure.
First, there were the assize courts which dealt with important
civil and criminal cases outside Dublin. The quarter sessions,
presided over by judges known as justices of the peace, sat
about four times a year to deal with less serious criminal
matters. These judges also sat at what were called the petty
sessions, dealing with minor civil and criminal matters. The
preliminary hearing for indictable crimes was before the body
known as the “Grand Jury”, a group of property owners who,
until the reform of local government in 1898, also struck the
rate for their area. A person did not have to be legally
qualified to sit as a justice of the peace and the institution -
which survives, of course, in the United Kingdom to this day
- was regarded with suspicion by Irish nationalists because of
their doubts as to its genuine independence. In some cases,
they were replaced by resident magistrates sitting outside
Dublin. Finally, the county courts dealt with minor civil
In 1920, Dáil Éireann (which was technically a
seditious gathering) passed a decree establishing a court
system. This existed in parallel to the British system and in
practice supplanted it throughout much of the country,
despite operating under constant threat of suppression by the
forces of the Crown. It established a four tier system: at the
bottom were the parish courts, which met weekly and dealt
2Judicial Studies Institute Journal [1:1

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