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History of the law

1691 - present

Related links
Early Irish law and Brehon law


The modern Irish legal system is derived from the English common law tradition. Ireland is often described as 'the first adventure of the common law.' The dominance of English law was consolidated by Oliver Cromwell's military campaign (1649-1652), which forced many Irish landowners to resettle in Connaught. The victory of Protestant William of Orange over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1691 led to brutal repression of Catholics in the form of the penal laws. These enactments, passed during the 18th century, were aimed at disenfranchising Catholics from political and economic power. Catholics were excluded from education and their property rights were heavily restricted.

The English Parliament repealed Poyning's Law under the Irish Appeals Act, 1783. From that time until 1800, the Irish Parliament (known as Grattan's Parliament) sought to improve the situation of Catholics through the enactment of the Roman Catholic Relief Act, 1793, which conferred a limited right to vote and admission to practice at the Bar. However, in light of the French and American revolutions and the failed rebellion of 1798, the Act of Union, 1800 was passed. This Act dissolved the Irish Parliament and established the Westminster Parliament in London as the sole legislative body of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. This Act centralised government power in London until the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. The Crown's representative in Ireland was the Chief Secretary for Ireland, who was a member of the cabinet. The British administration had its Irish headquarters in Dublin Castle, under the control of the Under-Secretary and the Crown's official representative in Dublin, the Lord Lieutenant.


In the wake of the industrial revolution and the influential writings of Bentham and Mill, the urgency for reform of legal institutions became increasingly apparent. Reforms were introduced by the Supreme Court of Judicature Act, 1873 and its Irish counterpart in 1877. These Acts merged the administration of common law and equity to create a unified court system. The Supreme Court of Judicature was established, consisting of the High Court of Justice, which had original jurisdiction as well as appellate jurisdiction from courts of local jurisdiction, and the Court of Appeal, which had appellate jurisdiction. The Judicial Committee of the House of Lords remained the ultimate court of appeal for Ireland. The various courts which had developed over the centuries (such as the Court of Exchequer and the Court of Probate) were subsumed into separate divisions of the High Court. The High Court of Justice of Ireland sat in Dublin.

In addition to these superior courts, there were a number of inferior courts. The court of assize was the antecedent to the High Court. It dealt with the most important civil and criminal matters. The most serious criminal offences, such as murder and treason were reserved to the court of assize. It sat on circuit twice a year. Justices of the Peace dealt with less serious criminal matters. They could exercise their primary criminal jurisdiction, either summarily at petty sessions, or on indictment, where the justices presided with a jury at quarter sessions. They also conducted preliminary hearings for the assizes at petty sessions. If the Justice of the Peace found that there was prima facie evidence to send the accused forward for trial, a 'bill of indictment' was referred to a Grand Jury to decide if the bill was correct in form and was supported by the prima facie evidence. If the Grand Jury so found, the bill of indictment became an indictment and the accused was tried by Petty Jury at the assizes.

On the civil side, the county court dealt with less serious matters than the assizes. Claims were initiated by means of a civil bill, in contrast to the procedure of their English counterparts. This remains the basis for many claims initiated in the county court's successor, the Circuit Court.

Following the Irish Famine (1845-1850), the campaign for land law reform became the focal point in Irish politics. The intensive campaigning of the Land League led to the passing of the Land Law (Ireland) Act, 1881, which established the Irish Land Commission and granted Irish tenant farmers the three Fs - fair rent, freedom of sale and fixity of tenure. Subsequent Acts established land purchase schemes, whereby tenants could obtain long term loans at reduced interest to purchase the freehold title to their land.


Despite these important reforms, calls for the repeal of the Act of Union amplified. Home rule was the initial objective of Irish nationalists. The Irish Parliamentary Party, led by Charles Stewart Parnell, drew support from the Liberal government on the issue. However, the trenchant opposition of Ulster Unionists and Conservatives meant that home rule was not possible until the passing of the Government of Ireland Act, 1914. The Act was postponed for the duration of World War I but was in any case overtaken by subsequent events. The failed 1916 Rising and the heavy-handed British response to it hardened public attitudes, resulting in a landslide victory for Sinn Féin at the 1918 election, thus signalling the political defeat of home rule and of the Irish Parliamentary Party.

The Sinn Féin deputies abstained from taking their seats at Westminster and instead held the first meeting of Dáil Éireann in January 1919, where they approved the Declaration of Independence, adopted a Provisional Constitution and established a court system. British attempts to suppress what it regarded as a seditious association were met with armed nationalist resistance in the War of Independence. In an effort to resolve the Irish question, Westminster passed the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, which partitioned Ireland into Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, each with its own parliament. Both parliaments would be ultimately subject to the English Parliament and would be required to send some members to sit in Westminster. The Act reorganised the court system in each jurisdiction to comprise a High Court and Court of Appeal, as well as a High Court of Appeal for Ireland to hear appeals from the respective Courts of Appeal.

Elections for the new parliaments were held in May 1921. Despite having rejected the Act, Sinn Féin declared that the elections were to be regarded as elections to Dáil Éireann. It won 124 of the 128 seats to what in the terms of the 1920 Act - was the House of Commons of Southern Ireland. In Northern Ireland the Act had been accepted and its parliament was opened in June 1921.

A truce with Britain was agreed in July 1921, followed by peace negotiations which resulted in the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 6th December 1921. It provided for the establishment of the Irish Free State, the possibility of a unified Ireland, albeit with an opt-out clause for Northern Ireland. It would have dominion status within the British Commonwealth, the Crown would be retained as head of state, represented by a Governor General, and members of the Oireachtas would be required to swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown. Northern Ireland duly opted out of a united Ireland. In January 1922 the Treaty was approved by the Dáil.

New Courts System.

Westminster passed the Irish Free State (Constitution) Act, 1922, which repealed the Government of Ireland Act, 1920 in so far as it applied to Southern Ireland. The Dáil enacted the Constitution of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann) Act, 1922, implementing the Irish Free State Constitution, which was based on the terms of the Treaty. The Constitution enshrined the separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial arms of government. On the judicial side, a Supreme Court, High Court and courts of local and limited jurisdiction were established. The Constitution provided a right of appeal from Irish courts to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

The transition to the new court system was complicated by the fact that two court systems had been in operation since 1920: the ordinary court system and the 'Dáil courts'. The latter comprised the Parish Court, which dealt with the most minor civil and criminal matters, the District Court, which dealt with more serious civil and criminal matters and which heard appeals from the Parish Court, a Circuit Court composed of four circuits, with unlimited civil and criminal jurisdiction and a Supreme Court, operating as both a court of first instance and an appellate court. While successfully suppressed by the British in Dublin, these courts operated with some success elsewhere. Following the signing of the Treaty, the Dáil wound up these courts and adopted the court system created under the 1920 Act. The courts established pursuant to the Free State Constitution later held that decisions of the Dáil courts were void in law (see R (Kelly) v Maguire [1923] 2 I.R. 58).

In January 1923 the Judiciary Committee, chaired by former Lord Chancellor Lord Glenavy, was appointed to advise the Executive Council (Cabinet) on the establishment of a new court system. The Committee's recommendations were substantially adopted in The Courts of Justice Act, 1924. It created a District Court to replace the court of petty sessions and the Justice of the Peace. The Justices of the District Court were professional judges and had jurisdiction over minor civil and criminal matters. The Circuit Court had jurisdiction in more serious civil and criminal matters. On the civil side, it replaced the county court, and on the criminal side, it assumed the former jurisdiction of the court of assize. It had appellate jurisdiction over District Court cases. A High Court exercising the same jurisdiction as that proposed under the 1920 Act was created. On the criminal side, the most serious offences, such as murder, were reserved to it. The court was to be presided over by a President of the High Court. A Court of Criminal Appeal to hear appeals from the Circuit Court and High Court was also established. Provision was made for a further right of appeal to the Supreme Court on a point of law of exceptional public importance. The Supreme Court was created as the final court of appeal, to be presided over by the Chief Justice.

New Constitution.

This structure was replicated in the 1937 Constitution and again when the courts were re-established in 1961 (which was necessitated by the enactment of a new Constitution in 1937), and remained the same until the establishment of the Court of Appeal in October 2014 following the Thirty Third amendment to the Constitution. Pre-1922 statute and common law remain in force to the extent that they are consistent with the Constitution.

The 1922 Constitution was amended numerous times up to 1936, to the point where all vestiges of the Treaty had effectively been erased. These amendments included removing the oath of allegiance, abolishing the right of appeal to the Privy Council, removing all references to the Crown, abolishing the Senate and the office of Governor General and conferring upon the Executive Council the power to enter into international treaties and to appoint diplomatic representatives.

In 1937, under a Fianna Fáil government, a new Constitution was drafted, put to a plebiscite (referendum) and accepted by the electorate. This Constitution largely reflected its 1922 predecessor in its amended state. However, it also espoused the republican ethos of its chief architect, Eamon de Valera, in claiming sovereignty over Northern Ireland and in establishing the President of Ireland as head of state. In addition, it integrated an augmented bill of rights and renamed the state as Ireland. The Republic of Ireland Act, 1948 completed the break with Britain. It provided that the state shall be described as the Republic of Ireland and withdrew it from the Commonwealth.

Further amendment to the Constitution has been necessitated by Ireland's membership of the European Union, which has involved the cession of a degree of sovereignty and the subordination of national law to European law. Moreover, a significant amendment was effected pursuant to the Good Friday Agreement, when Ireland removed its territorial claim to Northern Ireland and replaced it with the principle of unity by consent.


Reviewed 7 November 2014