Irish Criminal Justice System

Irish Criminal Justice System

This entry gives a general account of the overall criminal system and outline the political and legal structure and the history of the Irish criminal justice system to help account for the unique aspects that may help to bind the many parts of this criminal justice system together, and to show the extent to how this criminal justice system plays in the overall social control of Ireland. The section on crime definitions and statistic provides some basis of “output” of the criminal justice bureaucracies of the country.


1. Political System.

According to the Irish Constitution there is
a tripartite division of power: legislative,
executive and judicial. Legislative power
consists of the power to make laws. This power is
held by the Oireachtas, comprised of a President
elected by direct vote of the people, the Seanad
(upper house) and the Dail (lower house) elected
by proportional representation. As an elected
body, the Constitution gives the Dail the most
power, while the Seanad is only in a position to
disrupt or delay the passing of a Bill.
Therefore, the Oireachtas has the power to enact
unlimited laws except those which offend any
provision of the Constitution. Since the
Constitution is the superior law, a referendum
must be passed to change it.
The government (cabinet) has executive power
and thus is entrusted with carrying laws into
effect. Judicial power, or the power to
administer justice, is reserved to the courts.
Judges are appointed by the President and are
independent in exercising the power of their
judicial functions. They can guard against any
intervention from legislators or executives.
Judges can only be removed from office for any
stated misbehavior and only then by resolution
passed by the Oireachtas and signed by the
These three government bodies are not
completely independent from each other. They
overlap, coordinate and often have concurrent
power, preventing any one branch from securing too
much power.

2. Legal System.

The meaning of Irish law is essentially
derived from the written Constitution of 1937,
statute law and judicial decisions. Aside from the
Irish Constitution, government legislation is the
most important source of Irish law. There are 5
main legislative influences in Irish Law: the
statutes of the old Irish parliament prior to
1800, the statutes of the English parliament
(1719-1782) the statutes of the United Kingdom
parliament (1800-1922) the statutes enacted by the
Irish Free State (1922) and the enactments
established by the 1937 Constitution.
The Irish legal system is adversarial and
based on English common law. Although there has
been an increase in the use of arbitrators, mainly
for minor offenses, it has not altered the
structure of the legal system in any way.

3. History of the Criminal Justice System.

Ireland does not have an indigenous body of
law. Foreign legal systems exerted a massive
influence and destroyed what was, historically, a
highly developed system of Breton law. With
political domination came the common law of
Although the establishment of the Irish Free
State in 1922 led to a new Constitution, the
system of law it provided for was not completely
new. This Constitution did not meet the approval
of all political groups, and was eventually
dismantled. In 1937, a new Constitution was
passed by a referendum, becoming the basic legal
document in Ireland. Over the following years, it
has been amended a number of times by the people
and interpreted by the courts on numerous


1. Classification of Crime.

*Legal classification. For trial purposes, the
Irish Constitution distinguishes between minor
offenses and others. However, no definition of
minor offenses is provided therein. For all
practical purposes, the common law distinction of
felonies or indictable offenses and misdemeanors
or nonindictable offenses is employed.
Misdemeanors are the less serious offenses
and are often referred to as summary offenses.
Misdemeanor offenses include traffic violations
and are tried in the lower district court without
a jury. Indictable offenses are eligible for
trial by jury and include murder, rape, armed
robbery and kidnapping. As in Northern Ireland,
the Republic classifies certain offenses as
scheduled offenses, such as terrorist offenses.
Scheduled offenses are tried in the Special
Criminal Court.

*Age of criminal responsibility. The age of
criminal responsibility in Ireland is 7. More
specifically, criminal responsibility is refutable
between the ages 7 and 14. Full criminal
responsibility is reached at the age of 14.

*Drug offenses. Ireland utilizes the same drug
classification system as England and Wales. Drugs
are listed as class A, class B and class C
according to their relative harmfulness.
Production, supply, possession, possession with
intent to supply, and offenses related to the
importation and exportation of controlled drugs
are illegal. Generally, only the possession of
small quantities of cannabis (for personal use)
will be treated as a summary offense.

2. Crime Statistics.

The following statistics were gathered from
the 1992 Annual Garda Crime Report.

*Murder. In 1992, there were 25 murders and 7
attempted murders recorded by police. (In 1992,
there were 17 manslaughters. There were a total
of 1,298 recorded offenses against the person with
a detection rate of 77.4%. These offenses included
murder, manslaughter, dangerous driving causing
death, traffic fatalities and possession of a
firearm with intent to endanger life.)

*Rape. In 1992, there were 127 rapes recorded by
the police. (In 1992, there were 300 reported
indecent assaults on females. Yet according to
the Rape Crisis Centre 1993 Annual Report, there
were 452 first time contacts with the RCC in
relation to a recent rape (no definition given) in
1993. This would indicate a serious
under-reporting/recording to by police.)

*Burglary. In 1992, there were 32,149 burglaries
recorded by police. (In 1992, there were also
1,409 aggravated burglaries. There were a total
of 41,736 recorded offenses against property with
violence, including burglary, aggravated burglary,
robbery, arson and serious malicious damage to
property. There was a reported detection rate of

*Serious drug offense. In 1992, 3,494 individuals
were charged under the Misuse of Drugs Act, 3,228
of whom were charged with possession. The
remaining 266 were charged with other offenses
under the same Act, including 107 for importation.

*Crime regions. The lowest rate of recorded
crime was in rural areas. For example, Mayo had a
recorded crime rate of 7.5 per 1,000 population,
Clare had a rate of 7.9 per 1,000 and
Roscommon/Galway East had a rate of 8.8 per 1,000.
The highest recorded crime rate was in
metropolitan areas. Cork East had a crime rate of
36.4 per 1,000 population and Dublin Metropolitan
had a rate of 49 per 1,000.


1. Groups Most Victimized by Crime.

Information not obtained.

2. Victims’ Assistance Agencies.

There are a number of victims’ assistance
agencies, including the Rape Crisis Centre (RCC).
The Centre operates a national help-line, although
the actual centers are only located in the larger
cities. Half the operating costs for the RCC are
met by the government. The fact that abortion is
illegal in the Republic presents additional
difficulties in the care of rape victims.
There is also a Victim Support Scheme in
operation, although police referral is
discretionary. Again, the contact centers are
limited to large cities.

3. Role of Victim in Prosecution and Sentencing.

Victims of assault may prepare a victim
impact statement for the judge’s consideration.
The statement can include the harm suffered by the
victim as a result of the crime.

4. Victims’ Rights Legislation.

As a result of the 1993 Criminal Justice
Bill, the judge may take into account the harm
suffered by the victim of sexual and other
assaults, in the form of a victim impact
statement. How heavily victim-based
considerations will weigh with the court remains
to be seen.
The 1993 Bill also allows the court to order
payment of compensation in particular cases.
There is a Criminal Injury Compensation Scheme in
Ireland. However, due to budgetary cutbacks, the
Scheme was essentially rendered inactive some
years ago.


1. Administration.

The Republic of Ireland has a national police
force called the Guarda Siochana. The numerous
subdivisions of the national force include the
Drug Squad, Crime and Security, the Technical
Bureaus, Intelligence and Interpol. The force is
centrally controlled from Phoenix Park, Dublin.
The Commissioner, the highest ranking police
officer, is appointed by the Department of Justice
and remains accountable to that agency.

2. Resources.

*Expenditures. In 1994, there was an estimated
annual expenditure of 394 million Irish pounds on
the Garda.

*Number of police. Under the Commissioner in
1990, there were 10,911 male and 638 female police
officers in the Irish police force. The highest
position of a female within the force is a
Superintendent. There is no information available
on ethnic representation.

3. Technology.

*Availability of police automobiles. Information
not obtained.

*Electronic equipment. Information not obtained.

*Weapons. The Irish police force carry only
batons on their persons. Plain clothes police
officers are armed with hand guns and, in special
circumstances, machine guns.

4. Training and Qualifications.

To qualify as an officer of the Irish police
force, a candidate is required to have graduated
from the final state school examination and have a
passing grade in five subjects (including Irish).
The candidate must be between 18 and 26 years
old. Male candidates must be at least 5 feet, 9
inches tall and female candidates must be at least
5 feet, 5 inches tall.
Garda training lasts for 2 years and consists
of 5 separate but integrated phases. Phase One
consists of 22 weeks at Garda College. Phase Two
consists of 24 weeks at a selected Garda Station
normally in the Dublin Metropolitan Area, where
the student accompanies a tutor Guard. Phase
Three involves 12 weeks at Garda College. Phase
Four involves being a probationer for 32 weeks at
a selected Garda Station. Phase Five is the final
6 weeks at Garda College followed by graduation.

5. Discretion.

*Use of force. Information not obtained.

*Stop/apprehend a suspect. The police have the
power to stop or apprehend a suspect on the
grounds of reasonable suspicion that they have
committed an offense.

*Decision to arrest. It is estimated that about
90% of arrests are made without a warrant.
The use of cautioning is generally confined
to juvenile offenders, according to certain
guidelines. These guidelines include the
offender’s admission to the offense and the
consent of the victim. Cautioning is otherwise
only used for very minor offenses, including
certain traffic violations.

*Search and seizure. The police have the general
power of search and seizure based on reasonable
suspicion. The power of search and seizure is
also permitted under the Misuse of Drugs Act and
the Anti-Terrorist Act.

*Confessions. Before offering a confession, the
accused must be read his or her rights.

6. Accountability.

Complaints against the police are dealt with
by the Independent Complaints Board, which
consists of two lay people and one Guard.


1. Rights of the Accused.

*Rights of the accused. The accused has the right
to a trial by jury for all offenses, except
summary offenses and cases brought before the
Special Criminal Court or a Military Tribunal.
Likewise, the accused has the right to legal
Enshrined in the Constitution are the rights
of all individuals to have access to the courts,
fair procedure, habeas corpus protection, a speedy
trial, the exclusion of unconstitutionally
obtained evidence and protection against

*Assistance to the accused. The state must
provide legal representation, under the guise of
the Legal Aid Board, if the accused cannot afford

2. Procedures.

*Preparatory procedures for bringing a suspect to
trial. Criminal cases are investigated by the
police. The Director of Public Prosecution (DPP)
does not investigate criminal cases.
When the accused pleads guilty in summary and
indictable offenses, the case may be dealt with
summarily in the District Court, with the consent
of the DPP. Indictable offenses which are not
triable summarily have a preliminary examination
before the District Court. If there is sufficient
evidence, the accused is forwarded to the Circuit
Court, where s/he is tried before a jury of 12
people. There must be a majority vote of at least
10 jurors in order to determine a verdict.
The Special Criminal Court is similar to the
controversial Diplock Court of Northern Ireland in
which scheduled offenses are tried before 3
members of the judiciary. However, the DPP has
the power to decide on a nonscheduled case being
heard before the Special Criminal Court.

*Official who conducts prosecution. The
Constitution provides for the office of Attorney
General, which acts as advisor to the government
on matters of law and legal opinion. Since 1974,
a special office, the Director of Public
Prosecution, has been in charge of all prosecution
within the Republic of Ireland. The office,
however, has delegated the prosecution of summary
offenses before the district courts to the police.

*Alternatives to trial. For criminal cases, there
is no alternative to going to trial. There is no
plea bargaining. However, the accused may plead
guilty and the police have the discretion to
lessen the number of charges.

*Proportion of prosecuted cases going to trial.
The majority of criminal cases go to trial.

*Pretrial incarceration conditions. An accused
may be remanded in custody awaiting trial or
released on bail. However, remand in custody is
mandatory for the crimes of murder, sedition or
membership in an illegal organization.

*Bail Procedure. The decision to grant bail
depends on the probability of the accused evading
justice, the seriousness of the charges, the
nature of the evidence, the likelihood of the
accused disposing of evidence and the anticipated
sentence. The character and past criminal record
of the accused also play a crucial role in
determining whether bail will be granted. If bail
is refused, the accused is remanded in custody.
The High Court may hear appeals of the District
Court decisions on bail applications.

*Proportion of pretrial offenders incarcerated.
Information not obtained.


1. Sentencing Process.

*Who determines the sentence? The sentence is
determined by the presiding judge. There are no
formal sentencing guidelines, and no formal
criteria for the imposition of custodial or
community-based sentences. However, the 1993
Criminal Justice Bill has permitted the DPP to
apply for leniency of sentence. Sentencing
particulars are also recommended by the Law Reform
Commission, which is appointed by the government.

*Is there a special sentencing hearing?
Information not obtained.

*Which persons have input into the sentencing
process? Psychiatrists and social workers, such
as probation officers, have input into sentencing
at the discretion of the judge.

2. Types of Penalties.

*Range of penalties. Imprisonment is available as
a punishment in a wide variety of cases. The
sentence can either be immediate, ranging from 1
day to life, or suspended. Also available are a
number of noncustodial sentences, such as fines,
which represent the most common penalty. Fines
are typically used for summary offenses.
Probation orders and related penalties, such as
community service, calling upon the resources of
the probation service, are also used. Finally,
the court may award an absolute or conditional
While there are no minimum sentences, there
are maximum sentences. For example, incest with a
victim under 15 years old has a maximum penalty of
life imprisonment.

*Death penalty. For all practical purposes, the
death penalty has been abolished in Ireland, even
though it is still on the statute books for
capital murder.


1. Description.

*Number of prisons and type. There are a total of
12 penal institutions. There is one maximum
security prison, which is usually used for
terrorist offenders, and two high security
prisons, one of which is used particularly for
sex-offenders. There are also two adult committal
prisons, both of which have female sections, two
open adult centers, one semi-open adult prison,
and four institutions of varying categories that
deal with juvenile offenders.

*Number of prison beds. In total, the prison
system has a capacity for 2,214 inmates.

*Number of annual admissions. In 1992 there were
19,000 admissions to prisons.

*Average daily population/number of prisoners.
The average daily prison population is 2,120.

*Actual or estimated proportions of inmates
incarcerated. The percentage of inmates
incarcerated are according to the 1992 Annual
Prison Report:

Drug crimes 19%
Violent crimes 13%
Property crimes Information not available
Other crimes
(only includes terrorist offenses) 0.4%

2. Administration.

*Administration. Information not obtained

*Number of prison guards. According to the 1992
Annual Prison Report, there were 2,377 prison
officers in employment.

*Training and qualifications. There is a national
prison service. In order to qualify for
appointment, one must have passed the state school
final examination.

*Expenditure on prison system. In 1994, the
estimated annual expenditure on prisons was 81.96
million Irish pounds.

3. Prison Conditions.

*Remissions. There is automatic remission for
good behavior after prisoners have served a
quarter of their sentence. In theory, all
prisoners are entitled to automatic remission.

*Work/education. While all institutions have
educational and/or vocational programs, financial
constraints do not allow the demand for these
programs to be met. Group therapy is available,
most notably for sex offenders and for inmates who
have abused alcohol.

*Amenities/privileges. Remand prisoners have a
right to unlimited visits, while sentenced
prisoners may have visitors once a week. Weekend
leave is also very common. However, in the case
of murderers and sex-offenders, the leave must be
incorporated into a formal pre-release program.


* Extradition. The Republic of Ireland has
multilateral Extradition treaties under the
European Extradition Convention of 1957. The
Convention was signed by 12 countries: Austria,
Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy,
Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Turkey,
and Switzerland. The Republic also has bilateral
extradition agreements with the United States and

*Exchange and transfer of prisoners. Information
not obtained.

*Specified conditions. Arrangements between the
United Kingdom and Ireland are based on reciprocal
legislation providing for the simple endorsement
of arrest warrants issued in each other’s
territory, according to the Irish Extradition
(Backing of Warrants) Act of 1965. The 1975
Criminal Jurisdiction Act had allowed persons
accused of offenses in Northern Ireland to be
arrested and tried in the Republic of Ireland.
However, this Act resulted in many people claiming
status as a political refugee. In 1991, a
subsequent act was introduced to close this
Relevant extradition guidelines are also set
under the European Convention on the Suppression
of Terrorism Act of 1977, which explicitly
excludes from the political offenses exception to
the Act, the crimes of aircraft hijacking, in
addition to offenses involving the use of bombs,
grenades, rockets, automatic firearms or letter
bombs and parcel bombs.

Note: this work was completed in 1993


See Also

  • Criminal Justice
  • Legal System
  • Criminology
  • Criminal Justice System

Further Reading

  • Cole, George F., S. J. Frankowski, and M. G. Gertz, (1987) Major Criminal Justice Systems. Beverly Hills: Sage.
  • David, R. and J. E. Brierley (1968) Major Legal Systems of the World Today. London: Free Press.
  • Fairchild, E. (1993), Comparative criminal justice systems. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  • Feeley, Malcolm M. (1973), “Two models of the criminal justice system”. Law and Society Review, 7(3): 407-425.


The 1992 Annual Prison Report. Government
Publications, Dublin.
The 1992 Garda Siochana Crime Report. Government
Publications, Dublin.
Estimate on Government Expenditure 1994.
Government Publications, Dublin.
Rape Crisis Centre Annual Report, 1993.

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