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
The Department of Justice (DoJ) is responsible for the administration of the courts through the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service. DoJ is also responsible 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
There are higher and lower courts to deal with different types of cases and legal action.
|UK Supreme Court||hears appeals on points of law in cases of major public importance|
|Court of Appeal||hears appeals on points of law in criminal and civil cases from all courts|
|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|
|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.
- Police Service of Northern Ireland
- Public Prosecution Service
- Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service
- Northern Ireland Prison Service
- Probation Board for Northern Ireland
- Forensic Science Northern Ireland
- Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland
- Youth Justice Agency