Special Criminal Court

The Special Criminal Court (SCC; Irish: An Chúirt Choiriúil Speisialta) is a juryless criminal court in Ireland which tries terrorism and serious organised crime cases.

Special Criminal Court (SCC) sittings are usually held at the Criminal Courts of Justice complex in Dublin

Legal basisEdit

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 Offences against the State Act 1939 led to the establishment of the Special Criminal Court for the trial of certain offences.[1] The scope of a "scheduled offence" is set out in the Offences Against the State (Scheduled Offences) Order 1972 as encompassing offences under:[1][2]

A further class of offences was added by Statutory Instrument later the same year under:[1][2]

Offenses under the Criminal Damage Act 1991 are also scheduled.[2]

  • Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) Act 2005[3]

Scheduled offencesEdit

Offences covered under the laws are known as "scheduled offences".

The Special Criminal Court also has jurisdiction over non-scheduled offences where the Attorney-General certifies, under s. 47(2) of the Offences against the State Act 1939, that in his or her opinion the ordinary courts are "inadequate to secure the effective administration of justice in relation to the trial of such person on such charge".[1] The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) exercises these powers of the Attorney-General by delegated authority.[1][2]


On 26 May 1972, the Government exercised its power to make a proclamation pursuant to Section 35(2) of the under the Offences against the State Act 1939 which led to the establishment of the Special Criminal Court for the trial of certain offences.[1] The current 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 and the Emergency.[4] The current incarnation of the Special Criminal Court dates from 1972, just after the Troubles in Northern Ireland began.

Prior to May 1972, Provisional IRA volunteers in the Republic of Ireland were tried in normal courts. The three-judge Special Criminal Court was re-introduced following a series of regional court cases where IRA volunteers were acquitted or received light sentences from sympathetic juries and judges, and also to prevent jury tampering.[5]

Although the court was initially set up to handle terrorism-related crime, its remit has been extended and it has been handling more organised crime cases since 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.

Section 35(4) and (5) of the Offences against the State Act 1939 provide that if at any time the Government or the Parliament is satisfied that the ordinary courts are again adequate to secure the effective administration of justice and the preservation of public peace and order, a rescinding proclamation or resolution, respectively, shall be made terminating the Special Criminal Court regime; to date, no such rescinding proclamation or resolution has been promulgated.[1] Following the introduction of a regular Government review and assessment procedure on 14 January 1997, reviews taking into account the views of the relevant State agencies were carried out on 11 February 1997, 24 March 1998, and 14 April 1999, have concluded that the continuance of the Court was necessary, not only in view of the continuing threat to State security posed by instances of violence, but also of the particular threat to the administration of justice, including jury intimidation, from the rise of organised and ruthless criminal gangs, principally involved in drug-related and violent crime.[1]

Structure; second courtEdit

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.[2][6]

On 8 February 2016, the Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald announced that a second Special Criminal Court would open on 4 April 2016 following a Government decision to establish a second non-jury Special Criminal Court to try terrorist and crime-gang offences.[7]


The Special Criminal Court has been criticised by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties,[8] Amnesty International[9] and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights,[10] 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 organised "ordinary" crimes rather than the terrorist cases it was originally set up to handle.[citation needed] Critics also argue that the court is now obsolete since there is no longer a serious terrorist threat to the State (see: Northern Ireland peace process), although others disagree and cite the continuing violence from dissident republican terrorism, international terrorism and serious gangland crime.

Under the law, the court is authorised to accept the opinion of a Garda Síochána chief-superintendent as evidence that a suspect is a member of an illegal organisation. However, the court has been reluctant to convict on the word of a garda alone, without any corroborating evidence.[citation needed]

Sinn Féin had stated in the past that it was their intention to abolish the Special Criminal Court as they believed it was used to convict political prisoners in a juryless court, however Sinn Féin are no longer in favour of its abolition.[11] Some prominent Sinn Féin members (including Martin Ferris and Martin McGuinness) have been convicted of offences by it. In 1973 Martin McGuinness was tried at the SCC, which he refused to recognise, after being arrested near a car containing 250 pounds (110 kg) of explosives and nearly 5,000 rounds of ammunition. He was convicted and sentenced to six months imprisonment.[12]

Well-known casesEdit

  • In 1976 Marie and Noel Murray were sentenced to death by the court for the capital murder of Garda Michael Reynolds. The convictions were overturned on appeal and they were instead sentenced to life in prison for "ordinary" murder. They were released in 1992.
  • One of the 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 1997 and 1998 John Gilligan, Patrick "Dutchy" Holland, Brian Meehan and Paul "Hippo" Ward were all tried by the Special Criminal Court on charges relating to the murder of journalist Veronica Guerin and drug trafficking charges. Paul "Hippo" Ward was convicted of the Guerin murder and sentenced to life in prison as an accomplice in the assassination. Brian Meehan was convicted on the testimony of gang member turned state's witness Russell Warren and was convicted of murdering Guerin, and sentenced to life imprisonment.[13]
  • In 1999 Pearse McAuley from Northern Ireland and three County Limerick men; Jeremiah Sheehy, Michael O'Neill and Kevin Walsh – all members of the Provisional IRA – were convicted by the non-jury Special Criminal Court of the killing of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe in Adare, Co. Limerick in June 1996. He was shot 3 times.
  • In 2001, 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.[14] In 2009 Murphy was found liable for the bombing in a civil trial; he was cleared of criminal charges at the SCC in February 2010.
  • In 2003, Michael McKevitt was convicted of "directing terrorism" and "membership of an illegal organisation" for his role as leader of the Real IRA.
  • In 2013 Limerick gangland crime boss John Dundon was found guilty of the murder of rugby player Shane Geoghegan, mistakenly identified as a rival; he was sentenced to life in prison by the Special Criminal Court.[15]
  • In 2014, Wayne Dundon and Nathan Killeen were found guilty by the Special Criminal Court of the murder of Roy Collins in Limerick and sentenced to life imprisonment.[16]
  • The trial of Patrick Hutch for murder and possession of firearms for the 5 February 2016 shooting of David Byrne was set for January 2018 at the Special Criminal Court; he was denied bail.[17] On 20 February 2019, all charges against Patrick Hutch were dropped and he walked free from court.[15] To date[needs update], nobody has been convicted of David Byrne's death.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Joseph Kavanagh v. Ireland, United Nations Human Rights Committee Communication No. 819/1998, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/71/D/819/1998 (2001) Archived 9 April 2016 at the Wayback Machine.
  2. ^ a b c d e The Special Criminal Court Archived 11 October 2007 at the Wayback MachineIrish government information website
  3. ^ "Safety & Security > Terrorism". The Department of Justice and Equality, Republic of Ireland. Archived from the original on 20 December 2020. Retrieved 3 June 2014.
  4. ^ OFFENCES AGAINST THE STATE ACT, 1939 Archived 17 March 2005 at the Wayback Machinelaw establishing the court
  5. ^ Ó Faoleán 2019, pp. 86–88.
  6. ^ Special Criminal Court Archived 9 May 2006 at the Wayback MachineCourts Service website
  7. ^ "Kenny calls on Adams to make statement on AK47s Frances Fitzgerald confirms second Special Criminal Court will open on April 4th". Irish Times. 8 February 2016. Archived from the original on 9 February 2016. Retrieved 8 February 2016.
  8. ^ ICCL press conference marking the 30th 'birthday' of the Special Criminal Court Archived 11 March 2007 at the Wayback MachineIrish Council for Civil Liberties criticisms of the court
  9. ^ Submission to the Committee to Review the Offences Against the State Acts and Other Matters Archived 26 April 2005 at the Wayback MachineAmnesty International criticisms of the court
  10. ^ HUMAN RIGHTS COMMITTEE CONCLUDES SIXTY-NINTH SESSION Archived 13 November 2013 at the Wayback MachineUnited Nations Commission on Human Rights recommends the abolition of the court
  11. ^ Special Criminal Court needs to be closed down not expanded Archived 15 April 2005 at the Wayback Machinecomments by Sinn Féin justice spokesperson Aengus Ó Snodaigh
  12. ^ Taylor, Peter (1997). Provos The IRA & Sinn Féin. Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 152–153. ISBN 0-7475-3818-2.
  13. ^ "Extradition of Irishman". The New York Times. 10 December 1997. Retrieved 2 August 2012.
  14. ^ Relatives disappointed with Omagh ruling Archived 27 August 2005 at the Wayback MachineRTÉ News article, 21 January 2005
  15. ^ "John Dundon guilty of murder of Shane Geoghegan". RTÉ News. 13 August 2013. Archived from the original on 16 February 2016. Retrieved 12 February 2016.
  16. ^ Duggan, Barry; O'Keeffe, Alan. "Wayne Dundon and Nathan Killeen guilty of murdering Roy Collins". Irish Independent. Archived from the original on 22 February 2016. Retrieved 12 February 2016.
  17. ^ Natasha Reid (21 December 2016). "Patrick Hutch denied bail over David Byrne Regency Hotel murder". Dublin Live. Archived from the original on 13 September 2017. Retrieved 13 September 2017.

Further readingEdit

  • Seosamh Ó Longaigh, Emergency Law in Independent Ireland, 1922–1948 (ISBN 1-85182-922-9)
  • Fergal F. Davis, The History and Development of the Special Criminal Court (ISBN 978-1-84682-013-7)

External linksEdit