Irish Legal System

Irish Legal System in Europe

Summary history of the Republic of Ireland

The Republic of Ireland, or Éire, was formed in 1922 and was initially known as the Irish Free State. The present Constitution of Ireland, Bunreacht na hÉireann, was enacted by referendum held in July 1937 and entered into force on December 29, 1937. It superseded the Constitution of the Irish Free State, which was in force between 1922 and 1937. Before 1922, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom and subject to English law, some of which is still in full force and effect. Due to this history, Ireland has retained the common law tradition and its legal materials are housed in Langdell. The six northeastern counties of Ireland: Antrim, Armagh, Derry (also known as Londonderry), Down, Fermanagh, and Tyrone, are collectively known as Northern Ireland, and are still a part of the United Kingdom and governed separately.

Ireland became completely independent from Great Britain in 1948 with the passage of the Republic of Ireland Act 1948. Since 1972, Ireland has been a part of the European Union (formerly the EEC) and is therefore governed by EU law where applicable. For further information see the the information about legal research in the European Union.

Legislative and Statutory Law

  1. The Irish Constitution of 1937 (also in print) is the primary source of statutory law in Ireland. It may be, and has been amended, which must be by popular referendum. Notable amendments include the 1972 membership of Ireland into the EU and the 1995 amendment to allow divorce.
  2. The national legislature, Oireachtas, consists of the Dáil, the Seanad and the President. The Oireachtas passes about 30 to 40 bills each year.
    • Pre-1922 Statutes. Such statutes are found in several places. The Irish Statutes, Revised Edition AD 1310-1800 covers statutes for those years. Statutes from 1801 to 1922 were made in London and can be found in Public General Acts and Measures for the time period. For more information on that work, please consult our research guide on British Statutes. There is also the Statute Rolls of the Parliament of Ireland which starts in the year 1204 and ends in 1537.
    • Current Statutes (Post 1922). The statutes, known as the Acts of the Oireachtas, are online in bilingual text at the Oireachtas homepage along with other legislative information such as debates, bills, and reports. This online database is searchable. The Acts of Oireachtas are also at the Irish Attorney General’s webpage. The Irish Statute Book is also fully searchable for the acts from 1922 to 2005.
    • Print works include Irish Current Law Statutes Annotated, which combines statutes, statutory instruments and case law; and the Acts of the Oreichtas, which contains statutes from 1938 to the present and its forerunner Public General Acts Passed by the Oreichtas, which includes statutes from 1923 to 1937. There is also a print index available for 1922-1985: Index to the Statutes 1922 to 1982 With Tables and supplements for 1983 to 1985.
  3. Secondary or Subordinate Legislation: Statutory Instruments. Government ministers, under powers delegated them through the Acts of the Oireachtas, may pass legislation as well. Some 500 pieces of such legislation are passed yearly. These materials are best viewed at the Irish Statute Book. They may also be found at the BAILII Statutory Instruments site. There is a print index by Richard F. Humphreys, Index to Irish Statutory Instruments, which indexes the years from 1922 to 1986. The official print version is Statutory Instruments, the last ten years of which is at Langdell with superseded volumes at the Harvard Depository. CAVEAT: There is no easy way to find out whether a piece of subordinate legislation is still in force or has been amended. Humphreys’ three volume set provides help but only up to 1986.

Case Law

  1. Reported judgments are published in two leading report series: Irish Reports, which runs from 1894 to the present, and Irish Law Reports Monthly, which runs from 1981 to the present. The Irish Reportsfrom 1950 to the present are searchable on LexisNexis.
  2. Unreported judgments are ones approved and made available for circulation in typescript form. Some of these cases later become reported judgments. To quote O’Malley in Sources of Law, “The fact that a judgment remains unreported does not, of course, mean that it is devoid of legal value. Even today, many important Irish judgments remain unreported.” This is echoed in Butterworths Legal Guide, “in Ireland there has always been considerable reliance on unreported cases.” Unreported judgments from 1985 to the present are searchable on LexisNexis.
  3. There are also subject-specific reporters such as Judgments of the Court of Criminal Appeal, which appears in three volumes covering cases from 1924 to 1989. Other such works include Agatha Clancy, Irish Company Law Reports 1963-1993 and Irish Tax Reports, which includes cases from 1922 to the present.
  4. Irish Digest (KDK63.1 L39x) is the primary index by subject to the case law of Ireland. Starting in 1894 it is current through 1993 in the following volumes: 1894-1898, 1894-1918, 1919-1928, 1929-1938, 1939-1948, 1949-1958, 1959-1970, 1971-1983,1984-1988, 1989-1993. There are also several pre-1894 digests for historical use.
  5. There are indexes of unreported judgments covering the years 1966 to 1989 in three separate volumes: 1966-1975, commonly known as the Green Index; 1976-1982, commonly known as the Red Index ; and 1983-1989, commonly known as the Blue Index. These indexes only cover unreported judgments from the three highest courts in Ireland: The Supreme Court, The High Court, and the Court of Criminal Appeal.


  1. The principle website for the Irish court system is here. The three highest courts are the Supreme Court, The High Court, and the Court of Criminal Appeal.
    • The Supreme Court, as its name suggests, is the court of final appeal for all matters in Ireland, including constitutional questions. It consists of eight justices, including the chief justice. The president of the High Court is also a member of the Supreme Court, ex officio.
    • The High Court, by the constitution, is conferred with “full original jurisdiction in and power to determine all matters and questions whether of law or fact, civil or criminal.” The High Court acts as an appeal court from the Circuit Court in civil matters. It has power to review the decisions of certain tribunals. It may also give rulings on questions of law submitted by the District Court. The High Court consists of the president and 31 ordinary judges. The President of the Circuit Court and the Chief Justice are additional judges of the High Court, ex officio.
    • The Court of Criminal Appeal consists of a Judge of the Supreme Court and two Judges of the High Court. It hears appeals from people convicted on indictment in the Circuit or Central Criminal Court where they (the appellant) obtain a certificate from the trial judge that the case is a fit one for appeal.
  2. The BAILII site has online versions of Irish court decisions, mostly dating from 1998 to the present.
  3. Current and leading Irish cases can be found at the IRLII (Irish Legal Information Initiative) site.
  4. Titles of unreported judgments from 1993 to the present are found at the University College of Cork website.

Irish Legal Research

For more information about legal research in Ireland, see here.

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