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A sign saying "An chúirt" outside Green Street Court House, Dublin

“An chúirt” is Irish for “the court”.

The legal profession often pops up in my ‘Moss Reid’ books. Plenty of lawyers. Since Moss Reid is a private eye he often has scrapes with The Law. His regular lawyer “friend” is a character called Alan Brennan, who is gradually being fleshed out in the series.

But there are subtle differences in types of lawyer, and the terminology may confuse readers on either side of the Atlantic or, indeed, in nearby legal jurisdictions.

The following is me doing very broad brushstrokes, so apologies if this generalising has missed any subtle nuances. If I’ve got anything wrong please add a comment…

In Ireland and the UK, solicitors advise clients and represent them in civil and criminal courts. In terms of day-to-day civil law, solicitors give legal advice – and do the paperwork relating to it that none of us mere mortals understand – on areas such as wills, conveyancing (such as buying or selling a home), business matters, separation and divorce and other family law, personal injury, employment law and so on.

I’m told that because solicitors who specialise in criminal work tend to be tied up in the courts and copshops, while those concentrating on civil law are back in the office with a stream of clients and files and phone calls, this physical separation tends to reinforce the tendency of solicitors’ practices – particularly smaller ones – to specialise in either criminal or civil law.

Barristers (also sometimes called counsel) generally hang out around the courts and the Law Library and so on. Their clients are the solicitors who “instruct” them. Barristers also have various synonyms, such as legal eagles, briefs, wigs and plea peddlers, apparently. “My Learned Friend” will deny all this of course.

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A view towards the judge’s bench

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The view from the bench

Up until recently, barristers had a monopoly in appearing in higher courts in Ireland (as in “doing the biz” with the judge and jury). That is very slowly disappearing as solicitors get in on the act too.

For centuries barristers had to wear a robe and a wig, but in Irish courts the wig is now optional (though I have it on good authority that some judges frown if you don’t wear one). My learned friend will refer you to Section 49 of the Courts and Court Officers Act 1995 in such matters.

The US has attorneys. A District Attorney (DA) is a lawyer who works for the State and prosecutes people. On the other side of the court is the defense attorney (although in British English it would be “defence”).

The Irish equivalents would be the teams of barristers who are the prosecution counsel and defence counsel respectively.

Other countries in Europe are different again. I’m thinking in particular of the complexities of the French legal system. Scotland has its own differences too, with advocates instead of barristers.

Finally, in Ireland we also have the Attorney General or AG (doesn’t do much in terms of prosecutions, more a high-level legal adviser to the government) and the Director of Public Prosecutions. The DPP is the main office responsible for criminal prosecutions of indictable criminal offences in the State.

All the images on the page are from my visit (purely for research purposes) to the Green Street Courthouse in Dublin’s Smithfield.

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