The Courts of Northern Ireland is one of the three court systems of the United Kingdom. It was established in its current form in June 2010 following the passage of Department of Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2010 as part of the devolution of judicial powers to the Northern Ireland assembly. The courts administer civil and criminal justice in the country using a combination of statutory and common laws.
The Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast. Image courtesy of Eric Jones.
The coroners’ courts are tasked with investigating any unexplained deaths
The magistrates’ courts are responsible in hearing less serious criminal cases such as petty theft, breach of disturbance and road traffic offences. The catchment area of each court is limited inside 21 petty sessions districts. A district judge or Justice of Peace from the local community hears the cases in the magistrates’ court.
The Crown Courts presides over hearings involving serious crimes such as rape, murder and assault. Judgements are made by a 12-person jury. Any verdicts must be supported by at least ten jurors. A judge will decide on the sentencing. Prosecutions, meanwhile, are filed by an attorney from the Public Prosecution Service (PPS), which is an agency independent of the court and police.
Appeals for criminal cases can only be made to the Court of Appeal, and not the High Court. Appeals are usually heard by a bench of two magistrates. In some instances, the Public Prosecution Service may also file an appeal for what they considered lenient sentences meted out by the lower courts.
The final appeal route lies with the Supreme Court. However, cases are strictly limited to those involving interpretations of points of law which carries great importance to the public.
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