If your criminal case goes to trial, where and how will that happen? Below you will find information on what to expect.
Depending on the category of offence, the case may be heard in different courts. There are two types of criminal offence – summary offences and indictable offences.
Any offence for which the longest possible sentence is 12 months must go to the District Court. In that case, the prosecutor will be a senior Garda.
Examples of these offences (summary only offences) are:
- Common assault
- Breach of a barring order.
District or Circuit Court
If the offence is one for which the longest possible sentence is more than 12 months, it may still be tried in the District Court if it is a “hybrid offence”, i.e. one which can be tried either in the District Court or Circuit Court, and the accused person will not get a sentence of more than 12 months if the facts are proved against them.
The prosecutor for this category will be the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).
This category includes most common offences, such as:
- Assault causing harm
It will go for trial at the Circuit Court if the offence is such as assault causing serious harm.
The prosecutor will be the DPP.
Central Criminal Court
The following offences must be sent forward to the Central Criminal Court which normally sits only in Dublin, for trial.
- Aggravated sexual assault
- Attempted murder
The prosecutor will be the DPP.
How long will it take to go to trial?
It may take several months, and sometimes longer, before the case comes to trial. Once it is listed, the Garda in the case will tell you where and when you must come to give evidence.
Can I bring someone with me to court?
You may have someone accompany you to Court if you so wish. This can be arranged through your local Domestic Violence service and there is no charge for this service.
You might be able to benefit from “special measures” in court, such as giving evidence by video-link or from behind a screen. It is the responsibility of the Garda in the case to tell you about these.
If the case is going to the Circuit Court or Central Criminal Court, you may ask for a pre-trial meeting with the investigating Garda and the prosecutor to ask questions about the procedure at trial. You cannot discuss the evidence you are going to give, with either of them at this meeting.
On the day of the hearing, try to get to Court early so that you have a chance to find out where you need to go. That will probably be a dedicated witness room (they are becoming more common now). Bring your statement with you and ensure you are familiar with it, but do not display it or read from it in court.
What happens if the accused pleads guilty?
If the accused person pleads guilty at the start, or has pleaded guilty already, s/he is described as convicted. Usually, the judge orders reports from e.g. the Probation Service and allows the victim a chance to prepare a Victim Impact Statement.
You can find more information here about how to prepare a Victim Impact Statement.
This means that the case is often adjourned from the date of the guilty plea until the sentencing date, some weeks or sometimes months, later.
What happens if the accused pleads not guilty?
If the accused pleads not guilty, there will be a trial.
In the Circuit Court and Central Criminal Court, there will be a jury, they will decide at end of trial whether accused is guilty or not guilty.
In the District Court, the judge alone decides whether the accused is guilty or not guilty.
Proceedings at a Criminal Trial
It is important to note, that as a victim of crime, you are considered a witness to the criminal proceedings.
Opening the trial
The prosecution goes first. The prosecutor will open the case by making a speech outlining what s/he alleges has happened, and explaining what evidence s/he will call to support these allegations.
The prosecution barrister will ask you questions to get your evidence. When the prosecution has finished asking you questions, the defence may question you. This is called cross-examination.
When all the witnesses for the prosecution have given their evidence, the defence may make a speech outlining the nature of the defence. The may also call witnesses and the prosecution can also cross examine any witnesses called.
Speeches to the Jury
Once the defence has finished with its witnesses (if any), the next stage is speeches to the jury. The prosecutor goes first, then the defence lawyer. Finally, the judge “charges” the jury: s/he lays out the evidence for them and tells them what the law is on each point. Once the charge is finished, the jury will retire to a private room to consider its verdict on each individual offence before the Court.
There are three possibilities:
- They will return a verdict of Not Guilty
- They will return a verdict of Guilty
- They will be unable to reach a verdict. In such a case, the judge usually orders a retrial.
If the verdict is Not Guilty, there will be no further Court date.
If the verdict is Guilty, the convicted person must be sentenced by the Judge. This is usually done after an adjournment of some weeks at least to allow time for Victim Impact Statements and reports on the convicted person, to be prepared.