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Supreme Court

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The Supreme Court, established pursuant to Article 34 of the Constitution of Ireland, is the court of final appeal.

Appellate jurisdiction

Significant changes have been made to the Supreme Court's appellate jurisdiction with the coming into effect on the 28th October 2014 of the amendments comprised in the Thirty-third Amendment of the Constitution ('the Thirty-third Amendment'). The 28th October 2014 ('the establishment day') was the day on which the Court of Appeal was established under the Thirty-third Amendment.

With effect from the establishment day, the Supreme Court exercises, subject to such regulations as may be prescribed by law, appellate jurisdiction -

(a) from a decision of the Court of Appeal if the Supreme Court is satisfied that -

i. the decision involves a matter of general public importance, or

ii. in the interests of justice it is necessary that there be an appeal to the Supreme Court

(Article 34.5.3° of the Constitution)

and

(b) from a decision of the High Court if the Supreme Court is satisfied that there are exceptional circumstances warranting a direct appeal to it - a precondition for the Supreme Court being so satisfied of the presence of either or both of the following factors:

i. the decision involces a matter of general public importance;

ii. the interests of justice

(Article 34.5.4° of the Constitution).

Composition of the court

The Supreme Court is composed of the Chief Justice of Ireland, who is President of the court, and nine ordinary judges. In addition the President of the Court of Appeal is ex officio a member of the Supreme Court. The President of the High Court is also an ex officio member of the Supreme Court.

The court usually sits with a composition of three or five judges and, exceptionally, seven judges. When hearing cases concerning the constitutional validity of an Act of the Oireachtas (parliament) the Constitution requires that the court consists of a minimum of five judges. This requirement also applies when the court is requested to give an opinion on the constitutional validity of a Bill adopted by the Oireachtas when referred to it by the President of Ireland under Article 26 of the Constitution. A minimum of five judges is also required should the court have to determine, pursuant to Article 12 of the Constitution, whether the President has become permanently incapacitated.

In addition to those cases in which it is required by the Constitution, a court composed of five judges, or exceptionally seven judges, will sit for appeals involving questions of law of particular importance or complexity. Where an insufficient number of judges of the Supreme Court are available the Chief Justice may request any ordinary judge of the High Court to sit as a member of the Supreme Court for the hearing of a particular appeal.

Interlocutory applications and procedural matters or issues may be determined by the Chief Justice sitting alone or another judge of the Supreme Court nominated by the Chief Justice.

Order of Precedence among the judges

The Courts of Justice Act 1924, as amended, provides for the order of precedence between judges of the Supreme Court as follows:

(i) the Chief Justice;

(ii) the President of the Court of Appeal;

(iii) the President of the High Court;

(iv) the judges of the Supreme Court who are former Chief Justice each according to priority of his or her appointment as Chief Justice;

(v) the other judges of the Supreme Court each according to priority of appointment as an ordinary judge of the Supreme Court;

(vi) the judges of the Court of Appeal who are ex officio judges of the Supreme Court (being former Presidents of the Court of Appeal or of the High Court) each according to priority of his or her appointment as President of the Court of Appeal or of the High Court respectively;

(vii) the judges of the High Court who are ex officio judges of the Supreme Court (being former presidents of the High Court), each according to priority of his or her appointment as President of the High Court.

Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court, established pursuant to Article 34 of the Constitution of Ireland, is the court of final appeal.

Jurisdiction transferred to the Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal exercises appellate jurisdiction 'with such exceptions and subject to such regulations as may be prescribed by law' from all decisions of the High Court, and from such decisions of other courts as may be prescribed by law, occupying a new appellate jurisdictional tier between the High Court and the Supreme Court.

In effect, appeals in civil proceedings from the High Court which prior to the Thirty-third Amendment would have been heard by the Supreme Court now lie to the Court of Appeal, except for those cases in which the Supreme Court has permitted an appeal to it on being satisfied that the appeal meets the threshold set out in Article 34.5.4° of the Constitution.  Under the Court of Appeal Act 2014, the Court of Appeal was given the appellate jurisdiction previously exercised by the Court of Criminal Appeal, and questions of law which could previously be referred by the Circuit Court to the Supreme Court for determination (a 'case stated') are now determinable by the Court of Appeal.

Under the transitional arrangements comprised in the Thirty-third Amendment, the Chief Justice was empowered, if satisfied that it is in the interests of the admininstration of justice and the efficient determination of appeals to do so, with the concurrence of the other judges of the Supreme Court, to direct that specified appeals pending in the Supreme Court which had been initiated before the establishment day and had not been fully or partly heard by that court shall be heard and determiend by the Court of Appeal.

Original jurisdiction

The Thirty-third Amendment did not affect the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, which in effect consists of the function, under Article 26 of the Constitution. Article 26 provides for a reference to the Supreme Court by the President of Ireland, after consultation with the Council of State, of Bills of the type prescribed in that Article for a decision as to whether any such Bill or specified provision(s) thereof is repugnant to the Constitution. Should the court decide that the Bill, or any of its provisions, is incompatible with the Constitution it may not be signed or promulgated as law by the President.

The Supreme Court also has limited original jurisdiction under Article 12.3.1° of the Constitution. Article 12.3.1° of the Constitution provides that only the Supreme Court, consisting of not less than five judges, can establish whether the President of Ireland has become permanently incapacitated.

Constitutional jurisdiction

Article 34.4.5° of the Constitution provides that no law may be enacted excepting from the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court cases which involve questions as to the validity of any law having regard to the provisions of the Constitution. As a result, the Supreme Court may be said to function as a constitutional court as it is the final arbiter in interpreting the Constitution of Ireland. This is a role of particular importance in Ireland, since the Constitution expressly permits the courts to review any law, whether passed before or after the enactment of the Constitution, in order to ascertain whether it is in confirmity with the Constitution. While such cases must be brought in the first instance in the High Court, there is an appeal from every such decision to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. Subordinate legislation and administrative decisions may also be subjected to such constitutional scrutiny.

Pronouncement of decisions

Occasionally, a decision of the Supreme Court is given directly following the hearing of an appeal in an ex tempore judgment. More often, the court reserves its judgment and delivers it at a later date.

The Supreme Court is a collegiate court, always consisting of a number of judges. The decision of the Supreme Court is that of the majority. Each judge in a case may deliver a separate judgment whether concurring or dissenting.

The exception to this practice arises in the case where a Bill is referred to the Supreme Court by the President under Article 26 of the Constitution. In such cases the Constitution provides that the decision shall be pronounced by such judge as the court shall direct and that no other opinion on such question shall be pronounced nor shall the existence of any such other opinion be disclosed.

Administration of justice in public

The Constitution provides that justice shall be administered in public in all courts in Ireland, including the Supreme Court, save in such special and limited cases as may be prescribed by law. Supreme Court sittings in the vast majority of cases are therefore open to the public, with exceptions including those cases concerning family law and particular sexual offences.

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This page updated: 28 October 2014