Brian Kerr, Baron Kerr of Tonaghmore

Brian Francis Kerr, Baron Kerr of Tonaghmore, PC (/kɜːr/;[1] 22 February 1948  1 December 2020) was a British barrister and senior judge who was Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland and then a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. At the time of his retirement, he was the longest serving Supreme Court Justice, and the last original member of the Court.

The Lord Kerr of Tonaghmore

Justice of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom
In office
1 October 2009  30 September 2020
Nominated byJack Straw
Appointed byElizabeth II
Preceded byPosition created
Succeeded byThe Lord Stephens of Creevyloughgare
Lord of Appeal in Ordinary
In office
29 June 2009  30 September 2009
Preceded byThe Lord Carswell
Succeeded byPosition abolished
Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland
In office
Appointed byElizabeth II
Preceded bySir Robert Carswell
Succeeded bySir Declan Morgan
Personal details
Born(1948-02-22)22 February 1948
Lurgan, County Armagh, Northern Ireland, U.K.
Died1 December 2020(2020-12-01) (aged 72)
NationalityBritish, Irish
Spouse(s)Gillian Widdowson
Alma materQueen's University Belfast

Early life

Kerr was born on 22 February 1948 to James William Kerr and Kathleen Rose (née Murray) Kerr, of Lurgan, County Armagh.[2]

He was educated at St Colman's College, Newry, and read law at Queen's University Belfast. He was called to the Bar of Northern Ireland in 1970, and to the Bar of England and Wales at Gray's Inn in 1974.[3] He took silk in 1983 and became a member of the King's Inns in 1990, and an Honorary Bencher of Gray's Inn in 1997 and the King's Inns in 2004. He served as Junior Crown Counsel (Common Law) from 1978 to 1983 and Senior Crown Counsel from 1988 to 1993.[2]

Judicial career

Northern Ireland

In 1993, Kerr was appointed a Judge of the High Court and knighted, and in 2004 was appointed Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland,[2][3] only the second Roman Catholic to hold the position,[4] and sworn of the Privy Council.[5]

Kerr regarded the introduction in 1971 of internment without trial in Northern Ireland as having been "calamitous for the rule of law". However, he assessed his Troubles-era experience of the non-jury Diplock courts, introduced to prevent intimidation by paramilitaries, as broadly positive. Citing the "distinguished civil libertarian", Sir Louis Blom-Cooper, he proposed that the non-jury system (in which there was an automatic right of appeal) "was in some senses superior to the jury trial."[6]

As was usual for the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland,[7] he succeeded Lord Carswell as the Northern Irish Lord of Appeal in Ordinary upon the latter's retirement.[3]

United Kingdom Supreme Court

On 29 June 2009, he was created Baron Kerr of Tonaghmore, of Tonaghmore in the County of Down, and was introduced to the House of Lords the same day. He was the last person to be appointed a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary (and therefore the last to be given a life peerage under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876) On 1 October 2009 he became one of the inaugural Justices of the new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. He was the youngest member, at age 61.[8] He was succeeded as Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland on 3 July 2009 by Sir Declan Morgan.[9]

Lord Kerr of Tonaghmore dissented from the controversial judgment of the Supreme Court in R v Gnango, in which the court held that a person could be an accessory to his own murder.[10]

In the 2016 Article 50 "Brexit", and 2019 prorogation of Parliament, cases before the Supreme Court, Lord Kerr was a "close questioner of the government submissions".[11]

Asked to specify which had been his most important case, Kerr opted for the 2018 legal challenge to Northern Ireland abortion law brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. The law prohibited abortion, even in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality, and four of the seven justices, including Lord Kerr, ruled that this made the law in Northern Ireland incompatible with human rights legislation. “One only has to read the dreadful circumstances of the young women who were courageous enough to give … an account of their experiences in order to be struck how dreadful those experiences were... It was an extremely important case and one which I was very pleased to be part of.”[6]

In 2014, Ulster University awarded Lord Kerr an honorary doctorate in law.[12]

In August 2020 it was announced that he would retire on 30 September 2020.[13]

Defence of judicial review

Following his retirement Lord Kerr defended the practice of judicial review and the £56m cost of creating the Supreme Court in Parliament Square. He could understand that ministers might be "irritated by legal challenges which may appear to them to be frivolous or misconceived", but

if we are operating a healthy democracy, what the judiciary provides is a vouching or checking mechanism for the validity [of] laws that parliament has enacted or the appropriate international treaties to which we have subscribed... the last thing we want is for government to have access to unbridled power.[11]

Personal life

Kerr was married to Gillian, Lady Kerr of Tonaghmore (née Widdowson), and had two sons. He was a Roman Catholic.[14][4][15]

Kerr died in the early hours of 1 December 2020, aged 72.[16][17]

See also


  1. "UK Supreme Court Judgments 26th June 2013 – Part 1". UK Supreme Court YouTube. UK Supreme Court. 26 June 2013. Retrieved 30 August 2015. "The judgment in this case will be given by Lord Kerr", spoken in the presence of Lord Kerr by his colleague Lord Neuberger.
  2. A & C Black (December 2008). "KERR, Rt Hon. Sir Brian (Francis)'". Who's Who. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 25 April 2009.
  3. "Appointment of two Lords of Appeal in Ordinary". 10 Downing Street. 8 April 2009. Archived from the original on 15 April 2009. Retrieved 10 March 2014.
  4. "Sir Brian Kerr to take NI Chief Justice job". The Irish Times. Dublin: Irish Times Trust. 11 January 2004. Archived from the original on 25 April 2019. Retrieved 25 April 2019.
  5. "Privy Council Appointment (Sir Brian Francis Kerr)". 10 Downing Street. 6 February 2004. Archived from the original on 9 September 2008. Retrieved 4 July 2009.
  6. Bowcott, Owen (19 October 2020). "Lord Kerr: 'respectable arguments' for both jury and non-jury trials". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 October 2020.
  7. "Sir Brian Kerr Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland". The Times. London, UK. 21 April 2008. Retrieved 4 July 2009.
  8. "Sir Brian is last ever Law Lord". BBC News Online. 29 June 2009. Retrieved 4 July 2009.
  9. "Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland". 10 Downing Street. 18 June 2009. Archived from the original on 13 July 2011. Retrieved 4 July 2009.
  10. R v Gnango [2011] UKSC 59 (14 December 2011)
  11. Bowcott, Owen (19 October 2020). "UK needs judges to limit government power, says Lord Kerr". The Guardian. The Guardian. Retrieved 19 October 2020.
  12. University, Ulster (7 November 2016). "Inspiring Excellence: University of Ulster Honorary Graduates". Archived from the original on 28 September 2015.
  13. "New appointment to the UK's top appeal court". UK Supreme Court. 25 August 2020. Retrieved 27 August 2020.
  14. "Catholic appointed new lord chief justice". The Irish News. 12 December 2003. Archived from the original on 9 January 2016. Retrieved 4 July 2009.
  15. Harris, Eoghan (17 December 2017). "Tubridy tries to have it both ways on the royal wedding". Irish Independent. Dublin: Independent News & Media. Archived from the original on 25 April 2019. Retrieved 25 April 2019.
  16. "Former Lord Chief Justice for Northern Ireland Sir Brian Kerr, has died". Armagh I. 1 December 2020. Retrieved 1 December 2020.
  17. "Lord Kerr of Tonaghmore: Former Supreme Court judge dies at 72". BBC. 1 December 2020.
Legal offices
Preceded by
Sir Robert Carswell
Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland
Succeeded by
Sir Declan Morgan