In Ireland, instead of arresting you to bring you to court to answer a complaint, the Gardaí (Irish police force) may serve you with a summons ordering you to appear in court on a particular date at a particular time. Summonses are issued by the District Court after a complaint has been made against you by a Garda (or someone else in a private prosecution).
Usually, summonses are issued in less serious cases where it is not considered necessary to arrest you to guarantee your appearance in court.
There are three ways in which summonses can be issued in Ireland for minor offences:
- Under Section 10 of the Petty Sessions (Ireland) Act 1851
- Under an administrative process introduced by Section 1 of the Courts (No. 3) Act 1986
- Under the process for non-payment of fixed charge fines
Under the Petty Sessions (Ireland) Act 1851
This is the process that is usually used in private prosecutions where, for example, individuals are having difficulties with neighbours. It is rarely used by the Gardaí.
The complainant goes before a District Court judge and makes the complaint either orally or in writing, with or without an oath, as the judge decides.
The information the complainant provides should contain brief particulars of:
- Name and address of the alleged offender
- Name and address of the complaintant
- The basic facts of the alleged offence, including when it is alleged to have been committed
- If possible the piece of legislation which applies to the offence
When the information has been put before the judge, he/she must decide whether it justifies a summons. If the judge issues a summons it will require the alleged offender to appear at a sitting of the court.
Under the Courts (No. 3) Act 1986
The administrative process under the Courts (No. 3) Act 1986 is the procedure usually used by the Gardaí and allows for summonses to be issued by the office of the District Court. This is an administrative process where applications can be made on behalf of the Attorney General, the Director of Public Prosecutions, a member of the Garda Siochana or any other person statutorily authorised to prosecute offences.
- The name of the complaintant or prosecutor (for example, a Garda’s name)
- The name and address of the person against whom the complaint is made
- Details, in ordinary language, of the alleged offence including the time, date and place of the alleged offence
- The date, time and venue of the court
- The judge's signature if issued by a judge or the name of the District Court clerk
Where the summons is issued under the 1986 Act the summons also contains:
- An outline of the law that is alleged to have been broken
- The date on which the summons was applied for
This final one is most important in relation to the time limits for commencement of criminal proceedings. This date will indicate if the summons was applied for within the legal time limit for instituting proceedings.
For non-payment of fixed charge fines
When you are issued with a fixed charge notice for a road traffic offence and you fail to pay the fine within the time allowed, a summons is automatically issued and sent to you by ordinary post. This process does not require a Garda to apply for the summons to be issued, because the summons is triggered by non-payment of the fixed charge fine.
Service of the summons
The rules which govern the service of summonses are to be found in the Rules of the District Court (Order 10). Basically a summons can be served on you in the following ways:
- Personal delivery: by handing a copy of the summons to you or by leaving it at your last known abode or your place of work, or with your spouse, child or other relative.
- Postal delivery: by registered post to your last or most usual place of abode or to your place of business or employment.
Where service is affected by personal delivery, the summons must be served at least 7 days before the date fixed for your court case. In the case of registered post, the period is 21 days.
If a summons has not been correctly served, you are not obliged to appear in court in response to it. However, if you are present in court, there is no reason why the proceedings against you cannot proceed. In other words, any defect in the service of the summons is corrected by your appearance in court.
Defects or errors on the summons
It is rare that a court dismisses a case on the basis of an error or omission in a summons. Discrepancies or differences, between the facts on the summons and the facts presented to the court by the prosecuting Garda concerning time and place of the incident, does not normally prevent the prosecution of the case. In fact, the District Court has discretion to amend a defective summons under Rule 38 of the Distric Court Rules.
However, a fundamental defect on the face of the summons such as the omission of the location of the District Court, or the identity of the District Court Clerk to whom the complaint was made, is fatal to the proceedings.
If you do not appear in court on the date stated in the summons, the District Court may either:
- Go ahead with the hearing in your absence or
- Decide to adjourn the matter. You will be notified of the new date for the hearing
If, on the adjourned date, you have still failed to appear in court and the judge is satisfied you were given reasonable notice of the adjourned hearing, the court may
- Issue a warrant for your arrest to bring you to court or
- Go ahead with the hearing in your absence