The Special Criminal Court (Irish: Cúirt Choiriúil Speisialta) is a juryless criminal court in the Republic of Ireland which tries terrorist and organized crime cases. Article 38 of the Constitution of Ireland empowers the Dáil to establish "special courts" with wide-ranging powers when "the ordinary courts are inadequate to secure the effective administration of justice". The court was first established by the Dáil under the Offences against the State Act 1939 to prevent the Irish Republican Army from subverting Ireland's neutrality during World War II. The current incarnation of the Special Criminal Court dates from 1972, just after the Troubles in Northern Ireland began.
The court is composed of three judges appointed by the government from among the judges of the ordinary courts, usually one from the High Court, one from the Circuit Court and one from the District Court. The court sits as a three-judge panel with no jury, and verdicts are by majority vote. Verdicts can be appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeal.In 2004, Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform Michael McDowell announced his intention to establish a second Special Criminal Court to speed up the trial process.
The court tries offences under the following laws:
Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875
Explosive Substances Act 1883
Offences against the State Act 1939
Firearms Act 1925 to 1990
Criminal Damage Act 1991
Offences under these acts are known as "scheduled offences". These scheduled offences range from illegal possession of firearms, to importing seditious foreign newspapers, to threatening to damage property. The court can also try other, non-scheduled offences if the Director of Public Prosecutions issues a certificate stating that the ordinary courts are inadequate to handle the case.
Although the court was initially set up to handle terrorism-related crime, it has been handling more and more organized crime cases after the Provisional IRA ceasefire in the 1990s. For instance, members of the drugs gang which murdered journalist Veronica Guerin were tried in the Special Criminal Court.
The Special Criminal Court has been criticized by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Amnesty International and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, for its procedures and for being a special court, which ordinarily should not be used against civilians. Among the criticisms are the lack of a jury, and the increasing use of the court to try organized "ordinary" crimes rather than the terrorist cases it was originally set up to handle. Critics also argue that the court is now obsolete since there is no longer a serious terrorist threat to the State. Under the law, the court is authorized to accept the opinion of a Garda Síochána chief-superintendent as evidence that a suspect is a member of an illegal organization. (However, the court has been reluctant to convict on the word of a garda alone, without any corroborating evidence.)
The Sinn Féin political party have also been critical of the Special Criminal Court, although it never saw the same level of miscarriages of justice that occurred in England in the 1970s. Some prominent Sinn Féin members (including Martin Ferris and Martin McGuinness) have been convicted of offences by it.
Most famous is the case of Nicky Kelly, who was convicted along with two other men by the Special Criminal Court in 1978 of carrying out the Sallins Train Robbery. All three convictions were later overturned after it was found that the suspects had been assaulted by gardaí while in custody.
In 2003, Michael McKevitt was convicted of "directing terrorism" and "membership of an illegal organization" for his role as leader of the Real IRA. In 2001, Dundalk man Colm Murphy was convicted of "conspiracy to cause an explosion likely to endanger life or cause injury", in connection with the Omagh bombing . In January 2005, Murphy's conviction was quashed and a retrial ordered by the Court of Criminal Appeal, on the grounds that two gardaí had falsified interview notes, and that Murphy's previous convictions were improperly taken into account by the trial judges.