Northern Ireland law

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Northern Ireland law refers to the legal system of statute and common law operating in Northern Ireland since the partition of Ireland established Northern Ireland as a separate jurisdiction within the United Kingdom in 1921.


For the purposes of private international law the United Kingdom is divided into three distinct legal jurisdictions:

Northern Ireland is a common law jurisdiction. Although its common law is similar to that in England and Wales, and partially derives from the same sources, there are some important differences in law and procedure between Northern Ireland and England and Wales. While influenced by English law, the Northern Ireland legal system is distinctive for a number of reasons: it has roots in Irish common law prior to Irish independence in 1921; following Irish independence, Northern Ireland became a devolved jurisdiction within the United Kingdom.


The current statute law of Northern Ireland comprises those Acts of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that apply to Northern Ireland and Acts of the Northern Ireland Assembly, as well as statutory instruments made by departments of the Northern Ireland Executive and the UK Government. Also remaining on the statute books are many Acts of the Parliament of Northern Ireland passed between 1921 and 1972, certain Acts of the Parliament of Ireland made before the Act of Union 1800, and Acts of the Parliament of England, and of the Parliament of Great Britain, extended to Ireland under Poynings' Law between 1494 and 1782.

The expression "Northern Ireland legislation" is defined by statute. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 establishes the legislative competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It creates a distinction between excepted matters, reserved matters and other matters (which are transferred i.e. they fall within the NI Assembly's competence). The Northern Ireland Act 1998 functions as a constitution for Northern Ireland as indicated in the Robinson case.

The Northern Ireland Parliament was prorogued in 1972; from then until the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly following the Good Friday Agreement, the primary method of making legislation for Northern Ireland was by means of orders in council under the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act 1972. A number of important legislative measures were adopted using the order in council procedure: this included the Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1988 restricting the right to silence, the Fair Employment and Treatment Order (Northern Ireland) 1998 on religious and political discrimination.

Legal publications[edit]

In 1979, there was a severe shortage of textbooks and of works of authority, such as annotated statutes, law reports and rules of court, because the potential readership of any legal work, no matter how general, was so small that publication was not commercially viable.[1] The only periodical dealing with the law of Northern Ireland was the Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly.[2]

See also the Northern Ireland Law Reports (NILR)[3][4][5] and the Northern Ireland Statutes Revised.

Legal education[edit]

Both of the universities offer a range of undergraduate and postgraduate law degrees:

There are specialist research centres in the two universities:

  • Human Rights Centre at Queen's University Belfast
  • Institute for Criminology and Criminal Justice at Queen's University Belfast
  • Transitional Justice Institute at Ulster University

Professional legal education is offered by the Institute of Professional Legal Studies at Queen's University Belfast and the Graduate School for Professional Legal Education at Ulster University.

Criminal law[edit]

Criminal offences[edit]

Offences against the person[edit]


The 1967 Abortion Act does not apply in Northern Ireland. This situation led the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to take judicial proceedings which led to a decision in 2015 that Northern Ireland's abortion regime violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights as it failed to allow for termination in cases of fatal foetal abnormality or when pregnancy was due to a sexual offence.[7]

Fatal offences[edit]
Main articles: Murder and Manslaughter

As to the mens rea for murder, see section 8 of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1966.

The following partial defences reduce murder to manslaughter:

See also section 6 of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1966. The common law defence of provocation was abolished and section 7 of that Act repealed by section 56 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.

The Infanticide Act (Northern Ireland) 1939 provides a partial defence which reduces murder to infanticide.

The penalty for murder is provided by section 1(1) of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973.

Sexual Offences[edit]
See also: Rape and Sexual abuse
Non-fatal non-sexual offences[edit]

Offences against property[edit]

Main article: Property crime
See also: Burglary

Firearms and offensive weapons[edit]

Forgery, personation and cheating[edit]

See personation: See cheating:

Offences against the State or Crown or Government and political offences[edit]

Abolished offences[edit]

Harmful or dangerous drugs[edit]

Offences against religion and public worship[edit]

The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 abolished blasphemy in England and Wales; this measure did not extend to Northern Ireland.

Offences against the administration of public justice[edit]

Public order offences[edit]

  • Prevention of Incitement to Hatred Act 1970 (Northern Ireland)
  • Riot
  • Affray
  • Offences under the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987. These include Northern Ireland's incitement to hatred laws. In 2013 the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission reported, in 'Racist Hate Crime: Human Rights and the Criminal Justice System in Northern Ireland', that authorities were uncertain about the scope of this legislation.
  • Justice Act (NI) 2011 proscribes sectarian or indecent chanting at regulated matches

Historically the Flags and Emblems (Display) Act Northern Ireland 1954 provided special legislative protection for the Union flag. ThThis 1954 Act was repealed by the Public Order (NI) Order 1987.

Offences against public morals and public policy[edit]

Protection of children and vulnerable adults[edit]

Protection of animals and the environment[edit]

Road traffic and motor vehicle offences[edit]

Participatory offences[edit]

Participatory offences include aiding, abetting, counselling, or procuring the act of some crime or conspiracy. It also includes being an accomplice to criminal behaviour.

Defences to crime[edit]

Criminal Justice[edit]

Due to the history of political violence in Northern Ireland, there have been distinctive developments in Northern Ireland criminal law and anti-terrorism procedures. These date to the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act (Northern Ireland) 1922, commonly called the Special Powers Act. Following the outbreak of violence in the 1960s and 1970s, the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973 introduced juryless Diplock courts to try terrorism related offences.

The Terrorism Act 2000 retains special provisions for Northern Ireland in respect of anti-terrorism law, and retains the possibility to try certain offences without a jury.

Civil law[edit]

The Defamation Act 2013 does not apply in Northern Ireland. This protections which this Act provides for free expression (e.g. the public interest defence in section 4) do not therefore apply in Northern Ireland.

Northern Irish courts have issued a small number of super-injunctions.

Discrimination Law[edit]

Discrimination law in Northern Ireland has evolved somewhat separately to discrimination law elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Most notably, Northern Ireland history of legislation on religious and political discrimination. The Government of Ireland Act 1920 prohibited religious discrimination in legislation. In 1976 the UK Parliament passed the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act which prohibited religious and political discrimination in employment. The Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1989 creates a system to monitor the religious composition of the workforce so as to promote fair participation.

In 1998 the Northern Ireland Act 1998 introduced a statutory duty on designated public authorities to promote equality of opportunity on a number of grounds.

While in some respects Northern Ireland's equality law ha been in advance of developments elsewhere, there are also examples where it is not as progressive. Racial discrimination in Northern Ireland was only prohibited in 1997. The Equality Act 2010 does not apply in Northern Ireland; this means that Northern Ireland's equality legislation is split across a large number of Acts and Orders.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Report of the Royal Commission on Legal Services. Cmnd 7648. October 1979. Volume I. Paragraph 42.66 to at page 704. Google Books.
  2. ^ The Report of the Royal Commission on Legal Services. Cmnd 7648. October 1979. Volume I. Paragraph 42.67 to at page 704.
  3. ^ Northern Ireland Law Reports. LexisWeb.
  4. ^ Queen's University Belfast.
  5. ^ Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations.
  6. ^ Archbold Criminal Pleading, Evidence and Practice lists child destruction as an offence against the person
  7. ^
  8. ^ The Coroners and Justice Act 2009, sections 54 and 55
  9. ^ The Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1966, section 5 (as amended by section 53 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009)
  10. ^ The Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1966, section 14
  11. ^ Again this is the label adopted by Archbold

Further reading[edit]

  • Britain's Legal Systems, Central Office of Information, 1997, ISBN 0-11-701713-2
  • Criminal Justice Systems in Europe, Bo Svensson, 1995, ISBN 91-38-30482-1
  • Law and State: The Case of Northern Ireland, Kevin Boyle, Tom Hadden and Paddy Hillyard, 1975
  • The Legal System of Northern Ireland, Brice Dickson, (5th edition) 2005, Belfast: SLS Legal Publications, ISBN 0-85389-884-7
  • Digest of Northern Ireland Law. Second Edition. SLS. Belfast. 1995 onwards.
  • Desmond Greer and Frederick Boyd. "Northern Ireland". In Twining and Uglow. Law Publishing and Legal Information. 1981. pp 83 – 116.
  • Company law of Northern Ireland: Report of the Committee, under the Chairmanship of Donald Murray QC. Snippet view.
  • Legal Aid: Final Report of the Law Society of Northern Ireland for the Period 1 April 2003 to 31 October 2003. Preview.
  • Comerton. A Handbook on the Magistrates' Courts Act (Northern Ireland) 1964. Snippet view.
  • Calvert. Constitutional Law in Northern Ireland: A Study in Regional Government. Snippet view.

External links[edit]