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Courts in action

Who's who in the court?

Who are the people in the courtroom? - see our Who's who in the courtroom wall chart.

A. The judge is in charge of court proceedings and decides any legal issues arising in the case. If the case does not involve a jury, the judge also decides questions of fact, such as the guilt or innocence of the accused, or which party wins in a civil action.

B. The registrar sits in front of the judge and records any orders made by them. The registrar also swears in the jury and administers the oath to witnesses.

C. The stenographer is responsible for accurately recording everything that is said in court during the case, including any evidence given by the witnesses. This record is known as a transcript.

D. The witness sits to one side of the judge and gives testimony in open court.

E. The jury sits together on one side of the courtroom where jurors have a clear view of the judge and any witnesses.

F. The tipstaff is a special assistant to the judge. One of their duties is to announce the arrival and departure of the judge from the courtroom.

G. The barrister faces the judge and any witnesses. The barrister's role is to argue their client's case, to state the relevant law and to examine any witnesses on the evidence which they give to the court. The solicitor hires the barrister on behalf of their client.

H. The solicitor sits facing the barrister and instructs the barrister during the court case. The solicitor works with the barrister and the client in preparing the case and collecting the evidence. Like barristers, solicitors can argue the client's case in court, state the relevant law and examine witnesses.

A criminal case:

A quick guide to a criminal case

Michael has been arrested and charged with intentionally causing serious harm to a shop assistant called Linda. The prosecution claims that Michael pushed Linda down on a counter and repeatedly banged her head against it, fracturing her skull. Michael has told his lawyers that the shop assistant had accused him of trying to steal from her shop. He claims that Linda attacked him and fell over and that was how she was injured.

A barrister who has been instructed by a solicitor represents Michael. The State prosecutes the case and is represented by a barrister who is instructed by the Chief Prosecution Solicitor. Michael was initially charged in the District Court but was sent forward for trial to the Circuit Court because of the seriousness of the offence. In the Circuit Court, the judge ensures that the trial is conducted fairly at all times. The judge does not allow the State to give evidence that Michael had previous convictions for assault nor do they allow Michael's barrister to ask Michael the question: "Didn't Linda accuse you of stealing from her shop?" A barrister is not allowed to ask leading questions, these are questions which suggest the answers required, of their own witnesses.

The jury hears all of the evidence put before them including evidence from other eyewitnesses who were present in the shop at the time of the incident and the submissions of the lawyers. The judge then addresses the jury and summarises the material facts and explains the legal principles involved. In particular he explains that they cannot convict Michael unless they are satisfied of his guilt 'beyond reasonable doubt'.  The jury then retire to a separate room and consider all of the evidence they have heard.  When they return to the court the judge is informed that they have found Michael guilty of the offence with which he was charged. The judge must decide what sentence to impose up to the maximum permitted by law for the particular offence.

A civil case:

A quick guide to a civil case

Mary hired a firm of builders called Fab Construction to refurbish and extend her new home. On completion of the job Mary says she is dissatisfied with the quality of their work. She refuses to pay the builders, who then instruct solicitors to sue her in the Circuit Court for the sum of €20,000 which they claim is owed under the terms of their written building contract with Mary. In this action, Fab Construction is the plaintiff and Mary is the defendant.

Before the case goes to court, Fab Construction's solicitors prepare a document called a civil bill which is lodged in the Circuit Court office and which sets out the basis for their claim for payment. Mary's solicitors dispute the claim and prepare a document called a defence which states that the builders have not completed the work in accordance with Mary's specifications and that, therefore, Mary does not owe the money. Before the hearing date, Mary and Fab Construction organise a joint inspection of the property by their respective structural engineers.

On the day of the hearing, a barrister, who presents the case on their behalf, represents each party. Fab Construction calls their engineer as an expert witness to detail the work completed on Mary's house and to testify that the work was up to standard. Mary's engineer testifies that the house had not been properly damp-proofed in accordance with her instructions. In court, the judge listens to the evidence of both parties and to the legal arguments. He accepts Fab Construction's evidence that most of the work has been completed in accordance with the building contract. However, he also accepts Mary's evidence that there is still a problem with damp. Therefore, he allows a discount of €5,000 on the amount owed to the builders and orders her to pay the sum of €15,000. He also orders Mary to pay the builder's legal costs in bringing the action.

In a civil trial, the plaintiff does not have to convince the judge that he or she is right 'beyond reasonable doubt'. It is enough to prove the case on the balance of probabilities - this means that the plaintiff must prove their version of events is more likely, or more believable, than the defendant's.