Lifting the lid on the District Court

A new book offers a critical appraisal of Ireland’s busiest courtrooms

Public paradox: the District Court has a central position in Irish society yet our knowledge of what goes on there is scant. Photograph: eric luke

Public paradox: the District Court has a central position in Irish society yet our knowledge of what goes on there is scant. Photograph: eric luke

Mon, Jul 14, 2014, 01:15

It’s rooted in communities across the country and is the only part of the courts system that most people will ever encounter. It disposes of 90 per cent of all criminal cases in the State and accounts for the majority of committals to Irish prisons. Yet the District Court is something of a mystery.

Whereas decisions of the superior courts are parsed and analysed in national media, scrutiny of the District Court – notwithstanding the work of many regional outlets that cover it well – can be patchy. It impinges on the wider consciousness largely through controversial or comedic rulings or when a judge develops a reputation for being a little odd. It doesn’t publish decisions, its sentences are not recorded anywhere and if anyone wished to walk in off the street and get a sense of what happened on a typical morning, the scene – often noisy, cramped, verging on chaotic – might well leave them none the wiser.

That paradox – the central position of the District Court in Irish society and our scant knowledge of what goes on there – partly explains the publication of The Irish District Court: A Social Portrait.

Written by Caroline O’Nolan, adjunct assistant professor in the school of social work and social policy at Trinity College Dublin, the book draws on extensive research. The author spent two months each in four District Courts around the country to assemble a vivid, often critical, picture of the institution and its practices.

Dr O’Nolan mostly portrays the court’s judges sympathetically, presenting them as responsible and diligent actors in a system that asks too much of them, but she constructs a sharp critique of the court’s procedures and practices. The court is subject to scrutiny in that its doors are mostly open to the public and the press, but Dr O’Nolan believes it should be far more accountable.

“The Irish District Court is presided over by a small number of men and women who are largely protected from censure and whose body of work is subject to little in the way of review or scrutiny,” she writes. “It could be argued that this lack of accountability, coupled with the broad sentencing discretion afforded to Irish judges, relies unduly on the bestowal of benevolence by judges and presumes that judges will be invested with exceptionally high levels of wisdom.”

Dr O’Nolan, who is also doing postdoctoral research in the school of applied science in UCD, notes the large numbers of factors that can come into play when a sanction is being decided on – a list that recalls some of the recent research published by the Irish Sentencing Information System but goes beyond it.

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