Going to court is rarely pleasant. Even if you’re attending for a good reason, such as naturalisation or obtaining a licence, the courtroom retains the atmosphere of a place of justice, where issues of guilt are decided and penalties handed down.
If you are unfortunate enough to be summoned to court (see here for the difference between a summons and a charge sheet), there is a lot of good information available online.
- The Courts Service has published useful general information on the courts system and on going to court. There is a separate publication and video for young witnesses.
- The Director of Public Prosecutions has published a guide to attending court as a witness. The DPP’s guidelines for prosecutors also provide background information to the nature of criminal prosecutions in Ireland.
- The Citizens Information website is an excellent resource with a range of information about the courts system and about particular offences and penalties.
- The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has published a very useful guide to your rights in the context of the criminal justice system and garda powers.
For the ordinary citizen, the District Court is that which they are most likely to encounter. It generally deals with what can be considered to be less serious crimes and for civil cases with a value of up to €6,348.69. To take two common examples: one might have to attend the District Court for an alleged road traffic offence or in relation to a relatively small contractual dispute. (The Small Claims Court is, in fact, part of the District Court.)
The District Court also deals with certain family law matters, such as maintenance, domestic violence, guardianship, custody and access. The Court has a role in debt collection matters, as a judgment obtained in any court can be enforced in a District Court.
If charged with a crime at the upper end of the District Court’s jurisdiction, you are likely to have consulted a solicitor. This will usually involve a potential prison sentence and if a solicitor is not on record the District Judge will recommend that a solicitor be engaged. The Judge might invite the accused person to talk to one of the solicitors already in court. Legal aid may be applied for depending on the accused’s circumstances.
But what of less serious charges, like those arising from unpaid fixed charge notices or for non-display of tax or NCT discs? Is a solicitor required for a court appearance? The short answer is: no.
- If you are not prepared to represent yourself in court you may wish to engage a solicitor. If you represent yourself, you might not have to do much talking but the courtroom can be a busy and intimidating place. Many people prefer to outsource the appearance to a solicitor. Engaging a solicitor does not guarantee you won’t have to speak: a judge can always ask you questions or swear you in to give evidence.
- If you are unsure as to your guilt or innocence, how to plead, whether the gardaí have complied with applicable requirements or whether your rights have been affected, you should discuss this with a solicitor. If wish to plead not guilty you can still appear in person and do it yourself.
Often, the main reason for engaging a solicitor is that a solicitor working in the district will be familiar with the practices and procedures of the local court and District Judge. (S)he will be able to advise on all aspects of court hearings in that District and how to prepare for an appearance. (S)he will also be able to provide guidance in relation to what penalties might be expected if found guilty.
Depending on the charge, previous record and the practice of the District Judge, it might not be necessary to attend court on the day if a solicitor is on record. If there is a valid reason why you cannot be in court on the day your charge(s) is to be tried, your solicitor can attend and seek an adjournment to a later date.
Engaging a solicitor is not a silver bullet and it is never possible to guarantee a particular outcome. Nevertheless, given that most people are unfamiliar with the courts system, there is a benefit in getting help from someone who appears in court on a regular basis.