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Last update: 01-08-2007
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Legal professions - Northern Ireland



1. Judges 1.
2. Prosecution 2.
3. Clerks of the Court 3.
4. Enforcement Officers 4.
5. Lawyers 5.
a) Barristers a)
b) Solicitors b)


1. Judges


The Lord Chancellor has responsibility for the majority of judicial appointments in Northern Ireland. The eligibility and arrangements for their appointment are as follows:




Lord Chief Justice

A Lord Justice of Appeal [or qualified for appointment as] or a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary having practised for not less than 10 years at the Bar in Northern Ireland

Appointment by The Queen on the recommendation of the Prime Minister following advice from the Lord Chancellor.

Lord Justice of Appeal

A judge of the High Court or any person who has practised for not less than 15 years at the Bar of Northern Ireland.

Appointment by The Queen on the recommendation of the Prime Minister following advice from the Lord Chancellor.

High Court Judge

Not less than 10 years practice at the Bar of Northern Ireland.

Appointment by The Queen on the recommendation of the Lord Chancellor, following advice from the Lord Chief Justice.

County Court Judge

Not less than 10 years’ practice as a barrister or solicitor or not less than 3 years as a deputy county court judge.

Appointment by The Queen on the recommendation of the Lord Chancellor.

Resident Magistrate

Not less than 7 years’ practice as a barrister or solicitor.

Appointment by The Queen on the recommendation of the Lord Chancellor.

Deputy Resident Magistrate (part-time)

Not less than 7 years’ practice as a barrister or solicitor

Appointment by the Lord Chancellor.

Eligibility for judicial appointments is set out in a variety of statutes and is governed by the length of time that lawyers have been in practice (i. e. working as a solicitor or barrister) or the length of time since they qualified (i. e. their ‘standing’.

In discharging his duties in relation to judicial appointments in Northern Ireland, the Lord Chancellor receives administrative support from the Northern Ireland Court Service. The guiding principle for all appointments is merit.

Members of the Judiciary
Lord Chief Justice

The Lord Chancellor is the head of the judiciary in Northern Ireland. However, the most senior judge in Northern Ireland is the Lord Chief Justice. He acts as the President of the Court of Appeal, the High Court and the Crown Court.

Lord Justices of Appeal

Lord Justices of Appeal sit in the Court of Appeal which deals with both criminal and civil appeals.

High Court Judges

High Court Judges sit in the High Court where the most complex civil cases are heard and some appeals. High Court judges may also deal with the more serious criminal cases which are dealt with in the Crown Court (for example murder).

County Court Judges

County Court Judges sit in the County Courts throughout Northern Ireland and hear a wide range of civil actions and also appeals from the Magistrates’ Courts. They may sit in the Crown Court also, which deals with the more serious criminal offences.

Resident Magistrates

In Northern Ireland, legally qualified ‘resident magistrates’ try less serious criminal offences and also deal with some civil matters, such as domestic disputes.

Justices of the Peace

Justices of the Peace (JP) are appointed for particular geographical areas and act on a voluntary basis. They perform civil duties, such as administering oaths, and some criminal law functions, such as signing arrest warrants. JPs can sit in ‘special courts’ (out of hours sittings for the purposes of remanding persons on bail or in custody. )



Under the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, a new office of Lay Magistrate is being created which will combine the criminal justice functions of Justices of the Peace and the duties performed by Lay Panellists (see below). Justices of the Peace will continue to perform civil functions only.

Lay Panellists

Lay panellists, who are not legally qualified, sit with a Resident Magistrate and hear civil and criminal cases involving children and young people up to 17 years of age.

Statutory Officers

There are a number of offices of the High Court held by legally qualified persons termed ‘Masters’ who deal with a variety of procedural and relatively minor substantive issues before a dispute reaches a High Court Judge.

Judicial Training

The Judicial Studies Board for Northern Ireland was formed in 1993. Its aims and objectives are to provide suitable and effective programmes of practical studies for members of the judiciary and to improve the system of disseminating information to them. The Board is chaired by a Lord Justice of Appeal and its membership includes representation from each judicial tier.


Full-time judges and magistrates have tenure, during good behaviour, until the statutory retirement age of 70. Deputies are appointed for a fixed term of three years, renewable up until the age of 70. Procedures for the removal of judges and magistrates are governed by statute. The Lord Chief Justice, Lords Justices of Appeal and the High Court Judges may only be removed from office by Her Majesty The Queen on an address by both Houses of Parliament. All other appointees may be removed by the Lord Chancellor on the grounds of incapacity or misbehaviour.



Further information

2. Prosecution

Department Of The Director Of Public Prosecutions For Northern Ireland

The aim of the Department is to provide the people of Northern Ireland with an independent, fair and effective prosecution service. The Department of the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland was established by the Prosecution of Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 1972.

Functions of the Director

The Director of Public Prosecutions is appointed by the Attorney General. He or she must be a barrister or a solicitor who has practised in Northern Ireland for not less than 10 years.

The main functions of the Director are to:

  • Consider facts or information contained in police investigation files and reach decisions as to prosecution or no prosecution;
  • Where the decision is for prosecution, the Director or his staff;
  • prosecutes the most serious offences in the Crown Court, for example; murder, serious assaults, rape and other serious sexual assaults, robbery; or
  • prosecutes other offences in the magistrates’ courts.

The Director also considers, with a view to prosecution, investigation files from Government Departments (for example; the Department of Social Development, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development).

Other duties include making representations in bail applications and in cases, which go on appeal to the County Court, the Court of Criminal Appeal and the House of Lords.

At present, the prosecution of the least serious offences is carried out by the Police Service of Northern Ireland. However, following the recent review of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland, a single independent prosecution service responsible for undertaking all criminal prosecutions, will be a fundamental element in the new criminal justice system. This prosecution service, which will be named the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland, will be headed by the Director of Public Prosecutions and will build upon the work of the existing department.



Relationship with the Attorney General and Others

The Director and the Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions are appointed by the Attorney General for Northern Ireland. All other lawyers in the Director’s office are civil servants. To be eligible for employment as a Public Prosecutor applicants must be a solicitor admitted in Northern Ireland with a current practising certificate, or a barrister called to the Bar of Northern Ireland.

Public Prosecutors are recruited through open competition run by the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

The Director discharges his functions under the superintendence of the Attorney General and is subject to his direction. He is responsible to the Attorney General for the due performance of his functions as specified in the legislation.

The Director and his staff are wholly independent of Government and police. Neither Government nor police can give instruction to the Director in relation to the carrying out of his duties.

3. Clerks of the Court

The clerks and other staff in the courts in Northern Ireland are non-legally trained civil servants that deal with administrative matters. Clerks ensure that judges have the correct papers to enable them to preside over the cases before the court and provide any other administrative support the judges require.

While court staff can advise court users about court procedures they cannot give legal advice nor recommend what action litigants should take.

All court staff are employed by the Northern Ireland Court Service as civil servants. As civil servants their posts are open to all European Union citizens.



4. Enforcement Officers

Enforcement Officers are civil servants employed by the Northern Ireland Court Service, who deal with enforcement of civil judgments through the Enforcement of Judgments Office. The Enforcement of Judgments Office enforces civil judgments of magistrates’ courts and county courts (including small claims courts) as well as of the High Court. The legislative provision for this can be found in the Judgments Enforcement (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 and the Judgment Enforcement Rules (Northern Ireland) 1981, as amended. As civil servants their posts are open to all European Union citizens.

5. Lawyers

The legal profession in Northern Ireland is made up of two separate branches - barristers and solicitors. Each has a distinct and defined role. The legal profession is self-regulatory: the Bar Council of Northern Ireland regulates barristers and the Law Society of Northern Ireland regulates solicitors.

There is no requirement for a person to seek the advice of, or be represented by, a lawyer. In simple cases of debt a litigant may not consider it necessary to consult a lawyer. As a general rule, however, if a claim is for a sum over £5000 and particularly if it includes a claim for compensation (‘damages’), it is advisable for a litigant to at least seek the advice of a lawyer.

a) Barristers

Barristers in independent practice are categorised into Queen’s Counsel (more senior members of the profession) and Junior Counsel. Additionally, barristers may be employed by public or private organisations and provide legal advice solely to that organisation.



A Code of Conduct governs barristers in Northern Ireland for the Bar of Northern Ireland. A copy of this Code can be obtained from the Bar Council.

The possibility for non-UK nationals to practice as barristers in Northern Ireland is governed for members of EU states by the Diplomas Directive, the Establishment Directive and the Services Directive. There are no arrangements for advocates from non-EU countries to practice at the Bar of Northern Ireland.

b) Solicitors

A solicitor is usually the first point of contact for anyone looking for legal advice and there are solicitors’ firms in nearly every city and town in Northern Ireland, with approximately 1850 solicitors currently practising in Northern Ireland. Generally solicitors provide legal advice to clients. If those clients then require to be represented in the higher courts in Northern Ireland, a solicitor will instruct a barrister to conduct the case in court. A barrister is not always required, however, as suitably qualified solicitors are entitled to represent clients in the higher courts.

There are different areas of practice within the solicitor’s profession:

General Practice

Solicitors in general practice usually work in a small or medium-sized firm, and serve the local community, dealing with the legal problems of the public. They may carry out conveyancing (the buying and selling of houses and land), investigate claims which arise from injury, advise and represent people in court on their client's behalf in criminal matters or deal with family law and childcare matters and divorces. They also make wills and administer the estates of people who have died. Solicitors often advise businesses on such matters as employment law, contracts and company formations.



Other types of practice

It is possible for solicitors to work as in-house legal advisers to a commercial or industrial organisation, to a Government Department or a local authority.


In order to be admitted on to the Roll of Solicitors in Northern Ireland, a person must either possess an acceptable law degree or degree in another subject and be able to demonstrate that he or she has attained a satisfactory level of knowledge in specified subjects. Alternatively, a person who has attained the age of 29 years and has served as a clerk or employee of a solicitor for a continuous period of 7 years and has achieved a satisfactory standard of general education and attained an acceptable level of knowledge and experience of the work of a solicitor may become a solicitor. All persons wishing to become a solicitor must undergo a period of apprenticeship and pass examinations set by the Institute of Professional Legal Studies, based at Queen’s University, Belfast.

Lawyers from other European Union countries practising as solicitors in Northern Ireland

Any lawyer from another European Union Member State who is established or seeking to be established in the United Kingdom and wishes to pursue in Northern Ireland such professional activities as fall to be regulated by the Law Society under the European Communities (Lawyers Practice) Regulations 2000 is required to apply to be registered by the Society.

On receipt of an application the Law Society shall grant or reject such registration in accordance with the provisions of Regulations 15-20 of the 2000 Regulations. Once a European Lawyer has been registered with the Society the Regulations made by the Law Society under the Solicitors (NI) Order 1976 shall apply to the professional conduct of the registered European lawyer in the same manner as they apply to solicitors in Northern Ireland.

The Crown Solicitor and the Departmental Solicitor

The Crown Solicitor and the Departmental Solicitor act as the solicitors for Government Departments or agencies whenever they are involved in court cases.

Official Solicitor

The Official Solicitor represents the interests of litigants in cases where they would not otherwise be adequately protected, such as those involving children or persons who have no one else to look after their interests.

Further information

« Legal professions - General information | United Kingdom - General information »



Last update: 01-08-2007

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