Summonses in criminal prosecutions
A summons in criminal matters is a legal document that means you must attend court on a particular date and time to answer a criminal accusation. Summonses are also used in some private prosecutions.
Summonses are usually issued for less serious cases, where it is not considered necessary to arrest you to guarantee that you appear in court. For example, you will get a summons for most motoring offences.
Types of summonses
Summonses are issued for minor offences in different ways depending on the nature of the complaint or charge. They can be issued:
- Following complaints from private individuals under Section 10 of the Petty Sessions (Ireland) Act 1851
- Following applications from the Gardaí and other bodies 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
Summons issued following complaints from private individuals
Summons issued under the Petty Sessions (Ireland) Act 1851 are used in private prosecutions, for example, where people are having difficulty with their neighbours.
The complainant goes before a District Court judge and makes the complaint either orally or in writing. The judge decides if the complainant needs to make the complaint under oath.
The complainant should provide the following information:
- The name and address of the alleged offender
- The name and address of the complainant
- The basic facts of the alleged offence, including when it is alleged to have taken place
- The piece of legislation which applies to the offence, if possible
The judge reviews this information and decides if it justifies a summons. If the judge issues a summons the alleged offender will have to appear at a sitting of the court. This process is rarely used by the Gardaí.
Summons issued following applications from the Gardaí and other bodies
Under the Courts (No. 3) Act 1986 summons are issued by the District Court following applications from the Attorney General, the Director of Public Prosecutions, a member of the Garda Síochána or any other person statutorily authorised to prosecute offences. This is the administrative procedure usually used by the Gardaí to issue summons.
Summons issued 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. The Garda does not have to apply for a summons to be issued in this process, because the summons is triggered by non-payment of the fixed charge fine.
Information that summonses must have
- The name of the complainant or prosecutor (for example, a Garda’s name)
- The name and address of the person against whom the complaint is made
- Details 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
If the summons is issued under the 1986 Act it should also contain:
- An outline of the law that is alleged to have been broken
- The date on which the summons was applied for. (This date is very important as it will show if the summons was applied for within the legal time limit for starting criminal proceedings.)
The summons must be accompanied by written information on:
- Your right of access to a solicitor
- Your entitlement to free legal advice and the conditions for getting that advice
- Your right to an interpreter or translator
Service of the summons
There are certain rules about how a summons can be served. They can be served by:
- Personal delivery: by handing a copy of the summons to you, or by leaving it at your last known address or your place of work, or with your spouse, child or another relative
- Postal delivery: by registered post to your last or most usual place of residence or to your place of business or employment
A summons must be served at least 7 days before the court date if it is served by personal delivery, or 21 days before the court date if it is served by postal delivery.
If a summons has not been correctly served, you are not obliged to appear in court in response to it. However, if you come to court, the case against you can proceed. In other words, any mistake in how the summons was served is corrected by your appearance in court.
Mistakes or errors on the summons
The court rarely dismisses a case because of an error or omission in a summons. Differences between the facts on the summons and the facts presented to the court by the prosecuting Garda about the time and place of the incident, do not normally prevent the case from being prosecuted. In fact, the District Court can amend a defective summons under Rule 38 of the District Court Rules.
However, a fundamental mistake on the summons, such as not including the location of the District Court, or the identity of the District Court Clerk to whom the complaint was made, means proceedings will not go ahead.
If you do not appear in court on the date stated in the summons, the District Court can either:
- Go ahead with the hearing in your absence, or
- Decide to adjourn the matter
If the matter is adjourned, you will be notified of a new date for the hearing. If you don’t turn up in court on the adjourned date, and the judge is satisfied you were given reasonable notice of the adjourned hearing, the court can:
- Issue a warrant for your arrest to bring you to court, or
- Go ahead with the hearing in your absence