There are two types of criminal offences:
- Summary offences, that is, offences that are tried by a judge sitting alone
- Indictable offences, that is, offences that can be tried by a judge and jury
Certain indictable offences may be tried summarily.
There are two types of trial:
- A summary trial - a trial conducted by a judge sitting alone
- Trial by jury - a trial conducted by a judge sitting with a jury
Summary trials are heard in the District Court. If you are charged with an indictable offence, the District Court Judge will send you forward to the Circuit Court or the Central Criminal Court (High Court) for trial by jury providing the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) consents to it. The court that will hear and decide on your case depends on the type of offence involved.
Before the actual trial takes place, there are a number of issues that come up including the disclosure of evidence and the option of pleading guilty.
After the trial, there is sentencing.
At any stage in criminal proceedings against you in court, you may decide to plead guilty to the offence.
If you are charged with a summary offence you plead guilty in the District Court.
The District Court Judge will then issue your sentence after listening to your legal representative and the prosecution (usually a member of An Garda Síochana - the Irish police force).
If you are charged with an indictable offence and you decide to plead guilty when you appear in the District Court, you will be required to sign a plea of guilty.
Before you sign a plea of guilty, the District Judge will first make sure that you are aware of the facts alleged against you and that you understand the nature of the offence.
You will then be sent forward for sentencing to the court to which you would have been sent for trial if you had pleaded not guilty (Circuit or Central Criminal Court). If you change your mind, you may be allowed withdraw your plea of guilty at the Circuit Court and the trial will go ahead.
If you have pleaded not guilty in the District Court and you have been sent forward for trial by a judge and jury, you may then decide to plead guilty to the offence. If you plead guilty at the Circuit Court, you will stand convicted and the court will then decide your sentence.
If you are charged with a summary offence, a judge sitting without a jury will decide your case. It will take place in the District Court. A summary trial will usually take the following format:
- The Registrar of the District Court will call your case by its name.
- You or your legal representative will stand up to make yourself known to the court.
- The Garda (member of the Irish police force) who has made the complaint against you will take the witness stand and give evidence about the offence - i.e., what they say happened.
- The defence may cross-examine the Garda.
- The prosecution may call any more witnesses and will question the witnesses to allow them to give evidence about the offence.
- The defence may cross-examine each of the prosecution witnesses after they have given evidence.
- The defence may call and question witnesses to give evidence in your defence. You yourself may give evidence although you are not obliged to do so.
- The prosecution may cross-examine each of your witnesses.
- Both the prosecution and the defence may make final submissions relating to the case.
- The judge will make their decision about whether you are guilty or not guilty of the offence, based on the evidence given. To find you guilty, they must believe that it has been proven beyond all reasonable doubt that you have committed all elements of the offence.
- If the judge finds that you are guilty of the offence, they may decide the sentence.
If the judge finds that you are not guilty, they will dismiss the charges against you.
Trial by jury
Criminal jury trials are held in the Circuit Court and the Central Criminal Court and usually follow the following format:
- The indictment is read out, which lists the offences (counts) to which you have pleaded not guilty.
- The opening speech of the trial is made by the prosecution. The prosecution counsel opens the case and tells the jury about matters that the prosecution intends to prove. Counsel gives an outline of the facts and evidence that the prosecution intends to call. They explain the nature of the charges alleged against the accused.
- After the opening address to the jury, the prosecution calls witnesses, usually in the order listed in the Book of Evidence. Counsel asks the witnesses questions to allow them to tell their story and give their evidence in their own words. Documents and statements may be introduced. Forensic evidence may be introduced as exhibits and the jury is usually given an opportunity to examine such exhibits.
- When the prosecuting counsel has finished asking each witness questions, the defence counsel may cross-examine the witness. If the defence intends to challenge a prosecution witness's evidence, the defence counsel must explain the basis for the challenge to the witness.
- When the prosecuting counsel has finished presenting the case for the prosecution, the defence begins. The defence counsel opens the defence and calls witnesses and introduces evidence. Each witness may be cross-examined by the prosecution. As you are the accused you are not obliged to give evidence.
- At the end of the case, both the prosecution and the defence counsel summarise the facts for the jury and emphasise the merits of their own case.
- At the end of the trial, the judge sums up the case for the jury. They explain the jury's function and directs the jury to confine itself to the evidence presented in court and to disregard any media reports.
- The judge must direct the jury on any legal points that arise. For example, they may explain the legal ingredients of the offence of murder so that the jury can arrive at a verdict that conforms to that legal rule.
- As the case is a criminal one, the judge will also explain to the jury that it must be satisfied of your guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Beyond reasonable doubt means that if there are two reasons given in the case and both are possible explanations for what happened, taken together with the evidence presented, the jury should give you the benefit of the doubt. (If the case was a civil one before a jury, the judge would explain to the jury that it must be satisfied of its verdict on the balance of probabilities.)