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


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.

Irish judges enjoy relatively wide discretion in choosing a punishment and Dr O’Nolan suggests that in addition to the standard factors – gravity of offence, circumstances of the defendant and so on – decisions can be influenced by “the character and humour of the presiding judge, the appearance and demeanour of the defendant or on previous interactions between the defendant and other criminal court actors.”

Establishing sentencing patterns is made virtually impossible by the fact that there is no centralised system of recording the sanctions handed down in each case. We can’t say with certainty that Judge A’s sentences are systematically out of sync with those of the court in general. Perhaps we don’t want to know, O’Nolan suggests in an interview, because, after all, what could we do with that information?

“There isn’t any provision for effectively directing that judge to bring his sentencing into line with others . . . As a society we perhaps need to consider questions like that,” she says.

From the eight months she spent observing the process, Dr O’Nolan concludes that the speed with which many decisions are taken in cases as diverse as road traffic, public order and criminal damage are arrived at “in a relatively

formulaic fashion” by judges who rely on personal standards and benchmarks that they have developed over time.

“The individualised approach adopted by District Court judges can create an impression of an arbitrary system of justice in which outcomes crucially depend on the attitude of the presiding judge. Sentences can appear to be more dependent on who is imposing sentence than the offence that has been committed,” Dr O’Nolan writes. She believes it should be possible to strike a better balance between judicial discretion and consistency.

The weight of the court’s caseload and the pressure to deal with it quickly is a theme that recurs in the book. Dr O’Nolan describes an “assembly-line approach”, where “there’s almost an impatience with anything that cannot be immediately moved on, even if all you’re doing is pushing it out to another hearing.”

She adds: “It’s pointless, because what happens is that you get cases that are really very simple ending up with three, four, five, six separate court appearances.”

Dr O’Nolan devotes considerable attention to the significant numbers of non-Irish nationals who pass through the doors of the District Court and finds that courtroom procedures to deal with non-English speakers have “evolved with little evidence of planning”.

While she believes the standard of interpreting has improved, worrying stories of hesitant and “silent” interpreters persist, and the author describes scenes that suggest certain judges do little to adjust the pace of proceedings to allow for full and accurate interpreting.

“Even when interpreters are provided, there seems to be no expectation that they should diligently endeavour to accurately translate all the court proceedings, and at times their presence constitutes little more than window dressing,” she writes.

In some respects, the District Court is a great leveller. Because it deals with such a wide range of smaller offences, a glance around the courtroom can reveal a cross-section of the community – men and women, young and old, Irish and non-Irish. Yet it’s inescapably true that a very large proportion of defendants are young men from poor backgrounds.

Dr O’Nolan was struck by how often she saw the same faces. “Despite their young age, many defendants were veterans in court and had progressed to the adult court from the children’s court. It was rare to hear that these young men were in employment or attending school or college,” she writes. “Some defendants struggled to stay awake for their court appearances. A few were almost in a catatonic state.”

Dr O’Nolan points out that the root causes of repeat offending are closely bound up with, among other things, deprivation, housing, mental health, drug abuse and education. Criminal sanction is often an appropriate response, but it does little to address the problem. “We ask the court to do too much,” she says. “[A sanction] does serve a purpose, but our focus has to be towards accepting that people need help as well. They need support to address why they have come into conflict with the law. We do it very well now in the juvenile justice system, where the whole focus is on diversion and supports. I really think we need to ask why we can’t do it more within the adult criminal justice system as well.”

The Irish District Court: A Social Portrait by Caroline O’Nolan is published by Cork University Press

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