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Supreme Court

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The Supreme Court is the court of final appeal in Ireland. It sits in the Four Courts in Dublin.

Composition of the Court

The Supreme Court is made up of the president of the court (the Chief Justice) and nine ordinary judges. The President of the High Court is also ex officio (because of his/her office) an additional judge of the court. Where one of the ordinary judges of the Supreme Court is president of the Law Reform Commission, the number of ordinary judges may be increased by one. Under s.5 of the Courts (No. 2) Act 1997, the number of judges may also be exceeded by one where a former Chief Justice serves as a judge of the Supreme Court. Additionally, where, because of the illness of a judge of the Supreme Court, or for any other reason, an insufficient number of judges of the Supreme Court is available for the transaction of the business of the court, the Chief Justice may request any ordinary judge or judges of the High Court to sit as a member of the Supreme Court for the hearing of a matter. Any judge so requested is then an additional member of the court for that hearing.

For procedural appeals or cases which do not involve major legal issues the court would normally consist of three judges. In cases where the constitutionality of a statute is challenged or where important issues of law arise, a court of five judges will sit. Seven judges may sit to hear cases of exceptional importance, such as reference of a Bill to the court under Article 26 of the Constitution.

The Supreme Court may sit in two or more divisions at the same time.

Tenure of judges

Under the Courts and Court Officers Act 1995, the retirement age of a Supreme Court Judge was reduced from 72 years to 70 years. Judges appointed prior to the coming into operation of that Act may continue in office until aged 72.

The Courts (No. 2) Act 1997 limited the term of office of a person appointed to the post of Chief Justice after the coming into operation of the Act to a period of seven years. Prior to this Act, there was no limitation on the term of office of a Chief Justice.

Order of precedence among the judges

The 1997 Act also provides for the order of precedence between judges of the Supreme Court as follows:-
  (a) the Chief Justice shall rank first
  (b) the President of the High Court shall rank after the Chief Justice
  (c) then shall rank the judges of the Supreme Court who are former Chief Justices according to priority of appointment as Chief Justice
  (d) next shall rank the other judges of the Supreme Court each according to priority of appointment as an ordinary judge of the Supreme Court.

The Chief Justice

Apart from sitting as a member of the Supreme Court, the Chief Justice also sits alone to deal with applications for the appointment of Notaries Public and Commissioners for Oaths and in an administrative capacity for case management lists. The Chief Justice is also ex officio an additional judge of the High Court.

Matters dealt with

The main business of the court is to hear appeals from decisions of the High Court in proceedings that were commenced in the High Court. The court also deals with matters referred to it by way of Case Stated from a Judge of the Circuit Court or of the High Court. This can occur where a question of law arises in the lower court which the parties (or one of them) request should be submitted to the Supreme Court for its opinion. An appeal can also be brought to the Supreme Court from a decision of the Court of Criminal Appeal. Such an appeal can, however, only be brought where the Court of Criminal Appeal itself, or the Attorney General or Director of Public Prosecutions certifies that its decision involves a point of law of exceptional public importance and that it is desirable, in the public interest, that an appeal should be taken to the Supreme Court on that point of law. In addition, section 34 of the Criminal Procedure Act 1967 provides that where, on a question on law, a verdict in favour of an accused person is found by direction of the trial judge, the Attorney General may, without prejudice to the verdict in favour of the accused, refer the question of law to the Supreme Court for determination.

The right of appeal to the Supreme Court from the Central Criminal Court was abolished by section 11 of the Criminal Procedure Act 1993 except for a reference by the Attorney General of a question of law under section 34 of the Criminal Procedure Act 1967 or in so far as the decision of the Central Criminal Court relates to the validity of any law having regard to the provisions of the Constitution.

In addition to its appellate jurisdiction, the Supreme Court also has some original jurisdiction under the Constitution. Article 12 of the Constitution provides that only the Supreme Court, consisting of not less that five judges, can establish whether the President of Ireland has become permanently incapacitated. Article 26 provides for a reference to the Supreme Court by the President (after consultation with the Council of State) of Bills of the type prescribed in the section for a decision as to whether any such Bill or specified provision or provisions of the Bill is or are repugnant to the Constitution.

Hearing of appeals

Except in very exceptional cases the Supreme Court does not hear the evidence of witnesses. Appeals are heard on the basis of the documents that were before the lower court and a transcript of the oral evidence (where available) or, failing that, on counsel's agreed note of the evidence as approved by the trial judge.

Listing of appeals

With the exception of urgent appeals which have been given priority, appeals are listed for hearing in the order in which they become ready for hearing. When all necessary books of appeal have been lodged in the Supreme Court Office and the appellant has certified that the appeal is ready for hearing, the appeal is included in a list of cases to be allocated dates according to the date of lodgement of the certificate of readiness. Dates are allocated each legal term for the following term in consultation with the Chief Justice. Application may be made to the Chief Justice to allocate a priority hearing date in cases where exceptional urgency or importance can be shown.

Pronouncements of decisions

Occasionally, the decision of the court is given directly following the hearing of an appeal in an extempore judgment. More frequently, however, because of the complexity of the issues involved, the court reserves its judgment to give full consideration to the matters raised in the hearing and the legal authorities cited. The court then delivers a considered written judgment at a later date of which the parties are notified in advance.

The decision of the Supreme Court is that of the majority although each judge may deliver a separate judgment whether assenting or dissenting. The exception to this principle arises in the case of a decision by the Supreme Court on a question as to the validity of a law having regard to the provisions of the Constitution. In such a case 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. A similar provision applies in the case of a reference of a Bill by the President under Article 26 of the Constitution.

Hearings

The Constitution provides that justice shall be administered in public 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. The main exceptions are Family Law and Succession Act cases.

This page updated on: 18th February 2014