Civil disputes in Northern Ireland are heard and determined by the Court of Judicature, the County Courts, the Magistrates’ Courts and various Tribunals.
The Court of Judicature
The Court of Judicature consists of the Court of Appeal and the High Court of Justice both of which are situated in the Royal Courts of Justice in central Belfast.
The Court of Appeal
The Court of Appeal normally sits at the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast. The judges of the court of Appeal are the Lord Chief Justice (who is the President) and three Lord Justices of Appeal. The Court of Appeal hears appeals in civil matters from the High Court. It also hears appeals on points of law from the county courts, magistrates' courts and certain tribunals. A court of Appeal case will usually be heard by three judges but can be heard by two. Incidental matters may be heard by one Court of Appeal Judge.
Appeals from the decisions of the Court of Appeal in most civil cases lie to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.
The High Court of Justice
The High Court also sits in the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast. It consists of the Lord Chief Justice and nine high Court Judges. The High Court hears high value and complex civil cases. It comprises three divisions:
- Queen's Bench Division
- Chancery Division
- Family Division
Queen's Bench Division
This division deals principally with actions in contract and tort (primarily personal injury actions) in which the amount in issue is £30,000 or more, defamation, public law cases (mainly applications for judicial review) and a variety of other cases for which special provision has been made by statute. It is to this Division that most appeals from the County Courts are taken.
This division deals mainly with land and property matters, cases arising from the declaration or execution of trusts, bankruptcy and winding-up proceedings and the dissolution of partnerships.
This division deals with matrimonial cases such as divorce and matters relating to the dissolution of a marriage or civil partnership (especially the custody of children and the allocation of financial resources), the adoption of children, the guardianship and wardship of children and the affairs of mental patients and probate matters.
In addition to the Lord Chief Justice, cases may be heard by any of the three Lord Justices of Appeal or by a High Court Judge. Although cases are normally dealt with by a single judge, there is a right to trial by judge and jury in libel, slander, malicious prosecution and false imprisonment cases. The work of the Court is supported by Masters of the Court of Judicature.
The County Courts
In Northern Ireland there are seven County Court Divisions. Civil cases are commenced in the county court where the value of the case is less than £30,000 (or less than £45,000 in equity matters).
Contested cases involving £10,000 or more are normally heard by a county Court Judge (or Deputy County Court Judge). Many cases in which the sum involved does not exceed £3,000 will be dealt with by a District Judge in the small claims court.
Cases dealt with using the small claims procedure are usually simple low value consumer disputes. Parties are encouraged to represent themselves rather than engaging solicitors and legal aid is not available for representation in small claims cases.
County Courts can deal with a wide range of cases, but the most common are:
- personal injury claims (injuries caused by negligence), for example, traffic accidents, falling into holes in the pavement, accidents at work;
- landlord and tenant disputes, for example, possession (eviction), rent arrears, repairs,
- consumer disputes, for example faulty goods or services;
- race and discrimination cases;
- debt problems, for example, a creditor seeking payment;
- employment problems,for example, wages or salary owing or pay in lieu of notice;
- appeals from the magistrates' courts which are dealt with by a judge (and at least two lay magistrates if the defendant is a young person)
The County Courts also have jurisdiction to hear applications for adoption and undefended divorces. Applications for the grant of intoxicating liquor licences and certificates of registration for clubs are also made to the County Courts. In addition to its original civil jurisdiction, the county court hears appeals under a number of statutory provisions from the magistrates' courts or from other tribunals.
There are four County Courts which have been designated as Family Care Centres to deal with certain applications or appeals relating to the care or welfare of a child or young person. They also hear appeals from the Family Proceedings court
The Magistrates’ Courts
While primarily concerned with criminal cases, the Magistrates’ Courts also deal with matters such as family and domestic cases, applications for particular licences and certain kinds of debt cases and various 'ejectment' cases involving disputes between a landlord and tenant. Large numbers of these debt and ejectment cases come before these courts every year.
The seven County Court Divisions in Northern Ireland are in turn divided into 21 petty sessions districts for the organisation of the Magistrates’ Courts. Cases in the Magistrates' Courts are heard by a District Judge (Magistrate's Courts) or a Deputy District Judge (Magistrate's Courts).
Many other types of 'civil' disputes are dealt with by 'tribunals' which are separate from the courts described above. Tribunals provide an alternative to the courts for resolving disputes.
The role of a tribunal is typically to determine an appeal against a decision of a government department or agency in respect of a person's entitlement. This includes entitlement to social security benfits, children's special educational needs and disability, rates determination. They are also used to resolve party to party disputes, such as employment issues arising between individuals and businesses.
A tribunal, unlike a court, comprises a panel of usually 3 members who bring their expertise to determining a decision.
Further information on individual tribunals can be found on the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunal Service website under the tribunal section.