The District Court has a massive caseload every year. The Court Service in its annual report for 2008 sets out the hundreds of thousands of cases it must deal with every year.It deals with cases of summary jurisdiction in the area of criminal law where the maximum penalty is either a fine or imprisonment of up to 2 years depending on the seriousness of the offence. The District Court has jurisdiction (power) over several other areas of law and life, in particular in relation to family law, health care of minors, commercial disputes over all aspects of the wider economy and how citizens interact with one another and the State. Statistically the District Court is the Court that any citizen of the state is most likely to come across at one time or another in their lifetime.
The law is reactive in nature and seeks to regulate or control our conduct with one another. I am in practice over 10 years and what never ceases to amaze me is why some people appear before the District Court (or the higher courts for that matter) without the benefit of having a lawyer represent them or without at least getting advice from a lawyer on what the possible consequences may be of dealing with their summons or charge sheet in a particular way. Lack of legal representation or advice is a mistake. Our District Court judges are incredibly busy and I have noticed that over the years their heavy work load has placed a priority on getting the business of the Court done in an efficent manner to save on costs. This is commendable but when it comes to justice or human rights my view is that the bean counting mentality has to be a secondary consideration. In times past it was standard practice to ask an unrepresented person did they require legal representation or time to get a solicitor. The vast majority of Judges still do but it does not always. I make no bones about the self serving nature of this blog on this point. Free legal aid/Criminal legal aid may be available to any person who appears before the District Court on a criminal charge which can include road traffic offences but these must be at the more serious end of spectrum. What many people do not realise is that road traffic offences are criminal law cases with serious consequences on conviction.
Criminal law is the branch of law that has the most far reaching consequences for a citizen. I have seen hundreds of case over my 10 plus years where people have been charged with either a public order offence (such as urinating in a public place) or perhaps possession of hashish and they plead guilty out of ignorance or lack of advice/representation and end up being fine, say €100. The person leaves Court thinking they been slapped on the wrist and put the sorry incident behind them. What they do not realise is that the fine is a criminal conviction that will stay with them for life. That conviction is logged on the Pulse database (National Criminal Records maintained by the Gardai).
A criminal conviction will be guaranteed to haunt you at some stage of your life in that you may be denied a travel visa, fail a security clearance check to work with a government agency, be denied a job as the result of a conviction, have to pay higher car insurance, be denied adoption….. the list of implications and ramifications is endless. Convictions are meant to stigmatise and they do in my experience.
Their is a belief out there that solicitors are expensive and prone to overcharging clients for their services. While there is undeniably some evidence of sharp practice it is very much the exception rather than the rule.The legal services industry is very competitive. No different to any other service industry it pays to shop around for a quote. A prospective client should go to a lawyer who specialises in the particular area of law that concerns them. The law is not rocket science. The law is accessibleand there to be found, but a specialist solicitor has the benefit if instant experience. Court cases, charge sheets, summonses and the gardai are stressful life events and by seeking advice from a criminal law solicitor you will hopefully get reliable and sound advice, whether it damage limitation or a full and aggressive defence.
Should you have any queries on he content of this blog, criminal law , the District Court, Criminal legal aid/free legal aid or dealing with An Garda Siochana or any State Agency please do not hesitate to contact me.
I should stress that the views published here do not constitute legal advice and are merely personal insights (convictions) of peter connollyon the workings of the legal system. No offence or pun intended.