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27 Jun 2022

Explainer: High Court ruling that affects majority of district court cases

The majority of district court cases in Donegal have been adjourned

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Hundreds of cases in Donegal affected by High Court ruling

A High Court ruling has led to the majority of cases in district courts in Donegal being adjourned over the last two weeks.

This has been reflected nationwide, sparking fears of a major backlog in the district court system.

In a case before the High Court on May 31, Ms Justice Marguerite Bolger found that  for a garda to have a right of audience before the court, the garda must have both initiated and conducted the prosecution.

Prior to this finding, it had been common practice for the majority of cases coming before the district court to be prosecuted by a senior garda such as a superintendent, inspector or designated sergeant. 

However, this High Court decision means that only the garda who initiated the prosecution has a right of audience in the court. 

Ms Justice Bolger held that Order 6 Rule 1 of the District Court Rules, which purported to grant rights of audience to non-prosecuting gardaí, was ultra vires. In other words, it was beyond the authority of the District Court Rules to grant those rights. 

Order 6 Rule 1 of the District Court Rules was contested by a defendant on the basis that it contradicted Section 8 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005.

The State had submitted the argument that the interpretation of the Act allowed for any garda to institute or conduct proceedings in the district court. It was submitted that the state had a long history of gardaí prosecuting in the district court. The State added that right of audience being restricted to prosecuting gardaí would amount to ‘an absurdity.’

Ms Justice Bolger said the desirability of efficiency in district court prosecution could not be permitted to overlook the application (even over many years) of a rule that went impermissibly beyond what was permitted. 

The knock-on effect of the ruling is likely to be significant and costly for An Garda Síochana and state coffers. As well as leading to a major backlog - the effects of which are already being felt - it will mean that every garda who initiated a prosecution will need to be present in court every time the case is listed. 

Not only will this take gardaí off the street and away from other duties, it will be a rostering nightmare in cases where gardaí due to be working nights must appear in court during the day. It could also potentially lead to a hefty overtime bill. 

In the immediate aftermath of Ms Justice Bolger’s finding, many defendants who were present at district court sittings in Donegal last week were unhappy that their cases could not proceed. These included people who had pleaded guilty, travelled to the court for the hearing or had taken time off work, and were keen to have their cases finalised.

The matter is listed for mention in the High Court on June 16 when final orders will be made in the case. It looks likely that the ruling will lead to a major shake up of district court proceedings.

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