The Supreme Court

Centenary Commemoration 2024

Centenary Commemoration 2024

2024 marks the centenary of the passing of the Courts of Justice Act 1924 and, consequently, the 100-year anniversary of the establishment of Ireland’s modern and independent courts system as provided for in the Constitution of the Irish Free State 1922. This included the creation of a Supreme Court of Ireland for the first time. In order to appropriately recognise and celebrate  100 years of the Supreme Court, High Court, Circuit Court and a new District Court, Chief Justice O’Donnell established in January 2023 a committee of judges and Courts Service officials, as an off shoot of a wider Decade of Centenaries Committee, to design a suitable programme of commemorative events and projects to take place throughout 2024. 

Background to the Courts of Justice Act 1924

Articles 64-72 of the 1922 Constitution provided for ‘Courts of First Instance and a Court of Final Appeal to be called the Supreme Court.’ However, the details as to how these courts would operate and function was left to legislation. In early 1923, a commission known as the ‘Judiciary Committee’ was established, in the words of WT Cosgrave (then President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State), ‘to advise the Government on matters judicial.’ In his letter to each of the committee members, Cosgrave wrote:

“… there is nothing more prized among our newly won liberties than the liberty to construct a system of judiciary and an administration of law and justice according to the dictates of our own needs and after a pattern of our own designing.”

Chaired by Lord Glenavy, the former Lord Chancellor, the Committee worked for several months and produced a unanimous report in May 1923 full of detailed recommendations for the establishment and operation of the District, Circuit, High and Supreme Courts. The Courts of Justice Bill 1923 was published in July and after much debate, the Courts of Justice Act 1924 was signed into law and commenced in the summer of 1924.

The Act can be regarded as one of the most significant pieces of legislation passed in the Free State. It established the basic structure of our courts system, which has endured for a century with only the addition of one new court, the Court of Appeal, in 2014. New Circuit Courts replaced County Courts as well as subsuming much of the jurisdiction of the centralised High Court. Local District Courts were established, to be presided over by qualified and salaried District Justices; petty and quarter sessions and Justices of the Peace disappeared.

Key dates in the passing of the Courts of Justice Act 1924

  • 12 April: Act signed into law by the Governor-General.
  • 5 June: Part 1 of the Act commenced, establishing a new High Court and, for the first time, a Supreme Court of Ireland.
  • 11 June: Part 2 as it related to Dublin commenced, establishing the new Dublin Circuit Court.
  • 6 August: Part 3 commenced, establishing new Circuit Courts across the rest of the country.
  • 16 August: Part 4 commenced, established the new District Courts.

Refurbishment and Artwork

As part of the commemorative programme, the Office of Public Works, in collaboration with the Courts Service and the Centenary Committee, has undertaken a number of restoration projects in the Four Courts.

Refurbishment of the Supreme Court entry way

The first project, which has since been completed, involved the refurbishment of the entrance to the Supreme Court courtroom and the surrounding foyer which is located in the Gandon Building. These works saw the refurbishment of the doors leading into the courtroom, the upgrade of lighting, the installation of new signage identifying the Supreme Court, and the inscription, along the oval architrave which sits above the foyer outside the double doors of the courtroom, of the words contained in Article 40.1 of the Constitution in Irish and English:

Áirítear gurb ionann ina bpearsain daonna na saoránaigh uile i láthair an dlí

All citizens shall, as human persons, be held equal before the law

Artwork in the Round Hall

A second project which is underway at present hopes to bring about the return of some historical artwork, along with the addition of some new, to the Round Hall of the Gandon Building as a  visual representation of the development of Ireland’s legal system over the course of the last century. There are currently eight large rectangular panels lying empty which run around the base of the inner dome that are visible to anyone standing in the Round Hall. Four of these panels originally contained friezes designed by Edward Smyth which depicted the following events relating to the imposition of English law in Ireland:

i) William the Conqueror establishing the English Courts of Justice (following the defeat of the Anglo-Saxons by the Normans at the Battle of Hastings in 1066);

ii) Henry II receiving the Irish Chieftains in Waterford in 1171 (following on from Strongbow’s invasion in 1169);

iii) King John signing the Magna Carta (1215); and

iv) James I abolishing the Brehon laws (by proclamation in 1603)

Under James Gandon’s original plans, the remaining four panels were deliberately left empty to allow for appropriate marking of subsequent notable developments in the courts system. The original friezes were destroyed in 1922 with the collapse of the dome and the destruction of the Round Hall by fire. When the Four Courts were restored under the direction of TJ Byrne, the principal elements of the Round Hall were reconstructed with a simpler, contemporary decorative design, with the eight panels left blank. The Chief Justice, the Centenary Committee and the Office of Public Works are of the view that the centenary provides a timely and appropriate opportunity to restore the four original friezes and to add three new friezes, as envisaged by Gandon, recording subsequent landmark moments in the development of Irish law.

'A Century of Courts' Conference at Dublin Castle

On 12 April 2024, 100 years to the day that the Courts of Justice Act 1924 was signed into law, Dr Niamh Howlin of UCD hosted an academic conference in Dublin Castle, the venue of the first sitting of the new courts, as part of the commemorative programme. This initiative involved collaboration between the Courts Service, UCD, the Irish Legal History Society, An Post, Four Courts Press, the OPW, academics and the judiciary. The papers delivered by judges, lawyers, academics and historians traced the development of Ireland’s court system and will be collated and published by Four Courts Press in a text titled ‘A Century of Courts’ in the coming months.

Commemorative Ceremony at the Four Courts

An official commemorative ceremony will take place in May 2024 to formally mark the 100-year anniversary of Ireland's independent courts system. The ceremony will be held in the Four Courts and centre on the delivery of speeches by the Chief Justice, the President of the Court of Justice of the European Union, the President of the European Court of Human Rights and the Minister for Justice. 

The Centenary Committee felt it appropriate to celebrate the anniversary by way of ceremony in the Four Courts in memory of the ceremony which took place to mark the official opening of Ireland’s new courts on 11 June 1924 at Dublin Castle, where the courts had been temporarily located while the Four Courts were under restoration following their destruction by fire in 1922.

That ceremony, which is recorded in the Irish Times by article dated 12 June 1924, began with a procession of judges lead by the first Chief Justice of Ireland, Hugh Kennedy, into the Throne Room where the Chief Justice proceeded to administer the oath of declaration to the newly appointed judges of the High Court. Remarks were then delivered by the Attorney General, John O’Byrne, and by the Chief Justice. The ceremony was widely attended by judges, barristers, solicitors, and members of the government of the day, including W.T. Cosgrave, President of the Executive Council; Kevin O’Higgins, Minister for Justice; Ernest Blythe, Minister for Finance; Desmond FitzGerald, Minister for External Affairs; Patrick McGilligan, Minister for Industry and Commerce; and Lord Glenavy, Chairman of the Senate.