Law of Northern Ireland

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The law of Northern Ireland is the legal system of statute and common law operating in Northern Ireland since the partition of Ireland established Northern Ireland as a distinct jurisdiction in 1921. Prior to 1921, Northern Ireland was part of the same legal system as the rest of Ireland.

For the purposes of private international law, the United Kingdom is divided into three distinct legal jurisdictions: England and Wales; Northern Ireland and Scotland.

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. Northern Irish law has its roots in Irish common law prior to the partition of Ireland in 1921 and the Acts of Union in 1801. Following the formation of the Irish Free State (which later became the Republic of Ireland), Northern Ireland became its own devolved legal jurisdiction within the United Kingdom.

History of the law of Northern Ireland[edit]

The sources of Northern Irish law reflect Irish history and the various parliaments whose law affected the region down through the ages.

The Brehon laws[edit]

The Brehon Laws were a relatively sophisticated early Irish legal system, the practice of which was only finally wiped out during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland. The Brehon laws were a civil legal system only – there was no criminal law. Acts that would today be considered criminal were then dealt with in a similar manner to tort law today. A perpetrator would have to compensate the victim, rather than having a punishment, such as imprisonment, imposed upon him.

Common law[edit]

Ireland was the subject of the first extension of England's common law legal system outside England.[1] While in England the creation of the common law was largely the result of the assimilation of existing customary law, in Ireland the common law was imported from England, gradually supplanting the customary law of the Irish.[2]


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, Acts of the Parliament of Northern Ireland passed between 1921 and 1972, 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 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.


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.

Section 24(5) of the Interpretation Act 1978 now reads:

In this section "Northern Ireland legislation" means—

Paragraphs (d) to (g) were substituted by paragraph 3 of Schedule 13 to the Northern Ireland Act 1998.[4]

Until 2 December 1999, paragraph 7(2) of Schedule 2 to the Northern Ireland Act 1982 provided that Orders in Council under section 38(1)(b) of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973[5] were Northern Ireland legislation for the purposes of section 24 of the Interpretation Act 1978.

Section 5 of the Interpretation Act 1978 provides that in any Act, unless the contrary intention appears, the expression "Northern Ireland legislation" is to be construed according to Schedule 1 of that Act, which contains the following paragraph:

"Northern Ireland legislation" has the meaning assigned by section 24(5) of this Act. [1 January 1979][6]

The preceding paragraph applies, so far as applicable, to Acts passed on or after 1 January 1979.[7]

Primary legislation[edit]

Primary Legislation is made by the legislative branch of government. In Northern Ireland this includes the Parliament of the United Kingdom (hereafter "Westminster") and the Northern Ireland Assembly ("the Assembly"). Legislation created by the Parliament of Northern Ireland, which operated from 1921 to 1972, is still in effect.

Westminster may still legislate on any Northern Ireland matter. In contrast the Assembly cannot legislate on "Excepted" matters nor "Reserved" matters. The Assembly may legislate on devolved ("Transferred") matters and then Westminster plays no part in the enactment of such legislation.

  • Excepted matters remain the remit of Westminster and were those that were of imperial or national concern for example: the armed forces, external trade or weights & measures.
  • Reserved matters were to be the remit of the proposed, but never operational, Council of Ireland, are now the remit of the Privy Council and may be transferred to the Assembly at a later date. Examples include the post office, criminal justice and administration of the courts.

Acts of the Northern Ireland Parliament are distinguished from Westminster Acts by the position of the phrase "Northern Ireland" inside their title.

Parliament Act title
Northern Ireland (abolished) The Subject Matter Act (Northern Ireland) 1958
United Kingdom The Subject Matter (Northern Ireland) Act 1958

The Privy Council legislates on Reserved matters through Orders in Council. Technically speaking these are secondary, or delegated legislation, and they are therefore given UK Statutory Instrument numbers. Orders in Council are however used as primary legislation.[8]

Secondary legislation[edit]

All secondary legislation is derived from primary legislation. Parliament cannot amend secondary legislation, but may reject or approve it. Secondary legislation is drafted by a branch of government:

Secondary legislation is called a statutory instrument when drafted by a Westminster department and a statutory rule when drafted by an Assembly department. Previously statutory rules were titled "statutory rules and orders".

Summary table[edit]

Date Matters Primary Secondary
1921 – present Excepted UK statute (Act) Statutory instruments
Reserved Orders in council (in effect) Orders in council (technically)
1921–1973 Transferred NI statute (Act) Statutory rules and orders
2002 – 8 May 2007[9] Orders in council (in effect) Orders in council (technically)
1974 – present NI statute (order) Statutory rules

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.[10] The only periodical dealing with the law of Northern Ireland was the Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly (NILQ),[11] a peer-reviewed quarterly journal published since 1936, published at the School of Law at Queen's University Belfast.[12]

According to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University: "There are two main series of law reports for Northern Ireland: the Northern Ireland Law Reports (NI), which began in 1925; and the Northern Ireland Judgments Bulletin (NIJB), previously known as the Blue Books, which was first published in 1970".[13][14][15][16]

The Northern Ireland Statutes Revised are printed editions of NI statutes, revised.[17]

Legal education[edit]

Both of Northern Ireland's 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.[19]

Abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland when the relevant sections of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 were repealed in October 2019. The Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 commenced on 31 March 2020, authorising abortions to be carried out by a "registered medical professional".[20]

Fatal offences[edit]

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]

The Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 reformed the law of sex crime in Northern Ireland similarly to how the Sexual Offences Act 2003 did in England and Wales.

Non-fatal non-sexual offences[edit]

Offences against property[edit]

Firearms and offensive weapons[edit]

Forgery, personation and cheating[edit]

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

Several of these areas of law, such as treason, defence and foreign relations, are reserved or excepted matters, meaning only Westminster has the power to legislate for them.

Abolished offences[edit]

Harmful or dangerous drugs[edit]

Offences against religion and public worship[edit]

The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 abolished the offence of 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.

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 Irish 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]

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 aspects Northern Ireland's equality law has 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. ^ Baker, John (2003). The Oxford History of the Laws of England, Volume VI: 1483-1558. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 108. ISBN 978-0-19-825817-9.
  2. ^ Hand, Geoffrey Joseph (1967). English law in Ireland, 1290–1324. Dublin: Cambridge University Press. p. 1.
  3. ^ "Interpretation Act 1978: Section 24",, The National Archives, 1978 c. 30 (s. 24)
  4. ^ "Northern Ireland Act 1998: Schedule 13",, The National Archives, 1998 c. 47 (sch. 13)
  5. ^ For the definition of "the Constitution Act" see "Northern Ireland Act 1982: Section 7",, The National Archives, 1982 c. 38 (s. 7), subsection 2
  6. ^ "Interpretation Act 1978: Schedule 1",, The National Archives, 1978 c. 30 (sch. 1)
  7. ^ "Interpretation Act 1978: Section 22",, The National Archives, 1978 c. 30 (s. 22), subsection 1, and Schedule 2, paragraph 4(1)(a)
  8. ^ "Legal order – Northern Ireland, European Judicial Network". Retrieved 25 August 2007.
  9. ^ "Acts of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Explanatory Notes". Retrieved 25 August 2007.
  10. ^ The Report of the Royal Commission on Legal Services. Cmnd 7648. October 1979. Volume I. Paragraph 42.66 to at page 704. Google Books.
  11. ^ The Report of the Royal Commission on Legal Services. Cmnd 7648. October 1979. Volume I. Paragraph 42.67 to at page 704.
  12. ^ "About the Journal". Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly. Retrieved 18 September 2020.
  13. ^ "Oxford LibGuides: Northern Ireland Law: Case law". Oxford LibGuides at Oxford University. 14 May 2014. Retrieved 18 September 2020. Text was copied from this source, which is available under a Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) licence.
  14. ^ Northern Ireland Law Reports Archived 3 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine. LexisWeb.
  15. ^ Queen's University Belfast.
  16. ^ Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations Archived 31 July 2013 at the Wayback Machine.
  17. ^ "Oxford LibGuides: Northern Ireland Law: Legislation". Oxford LibGuides at Oxford University. 14 May 2014. Retrieved 18 September 2020.
  18. ^ Archbold Criminal Pleading, Evidence and Practice lists child destruction as an offence against the person
  19. ^ "NI abortion law 'breaches human rights'". BBC News. 30 November 2015. Archived from the original on 11 October 2016. Retrieved 2015-12-16.
  20. ^ "The Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020". Retrieved 25 March 2020.
  21. ^ The Coroners and Justice Act 2009, sections 54 and 55
  22. ^ The Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1966, section 5 (as amended by section 53 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009)
  23. ^ The Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1966, section 14
  24. ^ 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]