Introduction to the justice system
Northern Ireland has its own judicial system which is headed by the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland.The Department of Justice is responsible for the administration of the courts, which it discharges through the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service. The Department also has responsibility for policy and legislation concerning criminal law, legal aid policy, the police, prisons and probation.
Criminal law is concerned with establishing and maintaining social order and protecting the community. The ‘rules’ of criminal law are intended to encourage and support safe and orderly living for everyone. Those who break these laws can be prosecuted. If they are found guilty, they can then be fined, given a community penalty or sent to prison.
The criminal law presumes that each individual is innocent until proven guilty. The level of proof that is required is that the evidence presented should establish the person’s guilt ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.
Civil law is concerned mostly with disputes between individuals or corporate bodies. Cases must be proved on the balance of probabilities (more than a 50 per cent probability that the defendant is liable) rather than the 'beyond reasonable doubt' standard applied in criminal cases.
In both criminal and civil cases, the courts make decisions on an adversarial rather than an inquisitorial basis. This means that both sides test the credibility and reliability of the evidence their opponent presents to the court. The judge or jury makes decisions based on the evidence presented.
|Northern Ireland Court Structure|
|UK Supreme Court||Hears appeals on points of law in cases of major public importance|
|The Court of Appeal||Hears appeals on points of law in criminal and civil cases from all courts|
|The High Court||Hears complex or important civil cases and appeals from county court|
|County Courts||Hear a wide range of civil actions including Small Claims and family cases|
|The Crown Court||Hears all serious criminal cases|
|Magistrates Courts (including Youth Courts and Family Proceedings)||Hears less serious criminal cases, cases involving juveniles and civil and family cases|
|Coroners Courts||Investigate unexplained deaths|
|The Enforcement of Judgments Office||Enforces civil judgments|
The judicial system and European Community law
The ultimate source of law is statutes passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly or Westminster Parliament, but there is also a legal duty to comply with European Community law.
EC law, which applies in the UK, comes from EC treaties, Community legislation adopted under them, and decisions of the European Court of Justice. That court has the highest authority to decide points of EC law.
Human Rights Act
The Human Rights Act 1998 built the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law for the first time. The Act includes, among other rights, the right to:
- a fair trial
- freedom of thought
- freedom of expression and
- respect for family and private life
All public authorities, including the courts, must comply with these rights. If, however, these rights conflict with an Act of Parliament, the courts can make what is known as 'a declaration of incompatibility' and Parliament must then decide what to do as a result of this conflict. Acts of the Northern Ireland Assembly must also be compatible with the Human Rights Act and European Convention.