There are certain rules which apply to the maximum length of time allowed between the date of an offence and the date by which the Gardaí must commence criminal proceedings. If such limits did not exist and you were accused of an offence, you might have the offence hanging over you indefinitely, not knowing if the Gardaí were going to prosecute you or not.
In the case of a summary offence (an offence tried in the District Court before a judge without a jury) the Gardaí must make a complaint to the District Court within six months of the offence being committed. These offences include most Road Traffic Offences like speeding, illegal parking and fixed charge notice offences.
Section 7 of the Criminal Justice Act 1951 states that the time limits that are provided for summary offences do not apply to an indictable offence (an offence to be tried by a judge and jury in the Circuit Court or the Central Criminal Court). Technically, therefore, there is no time limit for the commencement of proceedings in the case of an indictable offence unless specific legislation provides one.
However, if there is an excessively long delay in prosecuting an offence, the judge may decide not to hear the case. In making the decision, the judge considers whether the delay has reduced your chances of a fair trial, for example, if the delay means that key witnesses are no longer available to give evidence or if the delay could have affected their memory of what happened.
The general time limit of 6 months for commencing proceedings, mentioned above, applies to most offences which are dealt with in the District Court. There are however, some exceptions to this. Because of the nature and difficulty of investigating some offences and of gathering enough evidence to start proceedings, special time limits are applied to them by law. Examples of these offences include the following:
Normally, if you receive a summons and you seek legal advice, your solicitor checks the dates on the summons to make sure that the summons was applied for by the Garda within the time limit allowed. If the application was made outside the time limit, then the prosecution will be struck down in court.
The crucial date is the date the Gardaí make the complaint to the District Court judge or the date they make the application to the appropriate court clerk for the issue of a summons, rather than the date the summons was issued on or the date on which the summons was served on you.
The other crucial date is the date the offence took place. In most cases this is usually very clear, such as in a case of speeding or theft.
There are, however, certain offences which are slightly different. An example of this would be where you are stopped by the Gardaí while driving on 1 January and you are asked for your motor insurance certificate. If you do not produce it there and then, you have 10 days in which to produce it at a Garda station of your choice. If you fail to produce it within 10 days then you have committed an offence. The offence is not complete until after the expiry of the 10 days and the date you were stopped does not count as one of the 10 days. Therefore, in this case 12 January would be the crucial date.
If you have a question relating to this topic you can contact the Citizens Information Phone Service on 0761 07 4000 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm) or you can visit your local Citizens Information Centre.