Introduction to the justice system

Find out about the justice system in Northern Ireland, including the differences between civil and criminal law, what court does what and the different agencies involved.

About 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 runs through the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service.  The Department also has responsibility for policy and legislation about criminal law, legal aid policy, the police, prisons and probation.

Criminal and civil justice

Criminal law is about protecting the community and establishing and maintaining social order. Anyone who breaks the law can be prosecuted and if found guilty they can 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 show the person’s guilt ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.

Civil law is mostly about 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.

Courts in Northern Ireland

Find out what each court does in the table below. 

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 hears 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 
The Enforcement of Judgments Office enforces civil judgements

You can search the court lists online to see what civil and criminal cases are being held in Northern Ireland courts in the coming days.

Agencies involved in the justice system

The  justice system in Northern Ireland is made up of a number of agencies who are responsible for the administration of justice, maintaining law and order, detecting and stopping crime, dealing with offenders and overseeing the work of prisons.

There are also a number of national crime bodies that work across the UK:


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