Chief Justice of Ireland

The chief justice of Ireland (Irish: Príomh-Bhreitheamh na hÉireann) is the president of the Supreme Court of Ireland.[1][2] The chief justice is the highest judicial office and most senior judge in Ireland. The role includes constitutional and administrative duties, in addition to taking part in ordinary judicial proceedings.

Chief Justice of Ireland
Príomh-Bhreitheamh na hÉireann
Frank Clarke

since 28 July 2017
Member ofCouncil of State
Presidential Commission
NominatorGovernment of Ireland
AppointerPresident of Ireland
Formation24 June 1924
First holderHugh Kennedy

The current chief justice is Frank Clarke.


The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was created under the Courts of Justice Act 1924. Before 1922 the Lord Chancellor of Ireland was the highest judicial office in Ireland.[3] Between 1922 and 1924, the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland was the most senior judge in the Irish Free State. The Supreme Court sits in the Four Courts. When the Supreme Court sits, as it mostly does, in two chambers, the second chamber sits in the Hugh Kennedy Court, named after the first Chief Justice.[4]

Appointment and tenure

The position of chief justice is filled following the nomination by the cabinet of the Irish government and appointed by the President of Ireland.[5] There is no legislation governing the appointment of the position. Traditionally an informal process took place where the Taoiseach, Tánaiste, Attorney General of Ireland, and Minister for Justice would privately consult to bring a proposed appointee to cabinet.[6] For the appointment of Frank Clarke, an ad hoc committee composed of the President of the Court of Appeal, the Attorney General and the chairperson of the Top Level Appointments Committee was formed to make a recommendation to the government.[7] The committee opened applications and received 500-word statements from candidates outlining their suitability for the role.[8] A shortlist of three judges was proposed.[6]

On appointment, the chief justice is required to make a declaration of office in the presence of the President.[9]

In the event of illness or vacancy of the post, the role of chief justice is exercised by the president of the Court of Appeal.[10]

The term of chief justice lasts for seven years, or until reaching the mandatory retirement age of seventy.[11] While still serving as judges, former chief justices rank fourth in the judicial order of precedence, after the incumbent chief justice and the presidents of the Court of Appeal and the High Court.[12] John L. Murray continued to serve as a judge of the Supreme Court after his seven-year term had concluded.[5]

Duties and roles

The chief justice is the president of the Supreme Court.[13]

Judicial function

The chief justice often presides in cases involving the constitutionality of legislation and references made by the president following consultation with the Council of State.[1]

Constitutional roles

Under the Constitution of Ireland, the chief justice occupies ex officio positions. The chief justice is one of three members of the Presidential Commission which acts jointly to perform the duties of the President of Ireland in the event of temporary absence, incapacity or death.[14] The president of the Court of Appeal acts for the chief justice if the position is vacant or the holder unable to act.[15] The chief justice is a member of the Council of State. Former officeholders continue to be members of the Council of State so long as they are "able and willing to act".[16]

The declarations of office made by all Irish judges take place in the presence of the chief justice. If the chief justice is unavailable, the role is deputised by the most senior available Supreme Court judge.[9]

The chief justice is involved in authenticating updated enrolments of the Constitution of Ireland. The chief justice and the Taoiseach sign the text in preparation for the President's signature.[17] Enrolments have taken place in 1938, 1942, 1980, 1990, 1999 and 2018.[18]

Although not outlined in the Constitution, the chief justice has a longstanding role in presidential inaugurations in Dublin Castle.[19] The chief justice reads the declaration of office to the president-elect which is repeated back by the president-elect before putting their signature to the declaration.[20][21]

Statutory roles

The chief justice is designated multiple roles under legislation. They are responsible for appointing notaries public and commissioners of oaths and exercise jurisdiction over the discipline of solicitors,[22] and for calling barristers to the Outer Bar and the Inner Bar.[23] They nominate the chairperson of the Referendum Commission under s. 2(5) of the Referendum Act 1998 and appoints a judge to chair the Constituency Commission.[24] Following a request from the Minister for Justice, the chief justice nominates a serving judge to hold an inquiry into a designated member of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission.[25]

The chief justice is an ex officio member of the Court of Appeal and the High Court.[26]

The chief justice may issue practice directions for the operations of the courts.[27]

Courts administration

The chief justice is central to the operation of the judiciary and the courts in Ireland. The chief justice chairs Board of the Courts Service.[28] Frank Clarke identified reforming priorities upon his appointment to the role.[29] The chief justice additionally chairs key positions for judicial administration including the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, the Judicial Council, the Superior Courts Rules Committee, the Judicial Conduct Committee and the advisory committee on the grant of Patents of Precedence.[23][30][31][32]

Frequently the chief justice represents the judiciary to the government.[33][34][35]

List of chief justices

No. Name Term of office Nominated by Appointed by Notes
1. Hugh Kennedy 24 June 1924 1 December 1936 W. T. Cosgrave
(4th Dáil)
Timothy Healy Died in office
2. Timothy Sullivan 1 December 1936 1 June 1946 Éamon de Valera
(8th Dáil)
Domhnall Ua Buachalla
3. Conor Maguire 1 June 1946 11 June 1961 Éamon de Valera
(12th Dáil)
Seán T. O'Kelly
4. Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh[36] 16 June 1961 22 September 1973 Seán Lemass
(16th Dáil)
Éamon de Valera Resigned on appointment to the European Court of Justice
5. William FitzGerald 25 September 1973 17 October 1974 Jack Lynch
(19th Dáil)
Éamon de Valera Died in office
6. Tom O'Higgins 17 October 1974 1 October 1985 Liam Cosgrave
(20th Dáil)
Erskine H. Childers Resigned on appointment to the European Court of Justice
7. Thomas Finlay 10 October 1985 16 March 1994 Garret FitzGerald
(24th Dáil)
Patrick Hillery
8. Liam Hamilton 22 March 1994 1 June 2000 Albert Reynolds
(27th Dáil)
Mary Robinson
9. Ronan Keane 1 June 2000 23 July 2004 Bertie Ahern
(28th Dáil)
Mary McAleese
10. John L. Murray 23 July 2004 25 July 2011 Bertie Ahern
(29th Dáil)
Mary McAleese
11. Susan Denham 25 July 2011 28 July 2017 Enda Kenny
(31st Dáil)
Mary McAleese First woman Chief Justice
12. Frank Clarke 28 July 2017 Incumbent Leo Varadkar
(32nd Dáil)
Michael D. Higgins

See also


  1. "The Role of the Chief Justice". Courts Service. Retrieved 14 February 2016.
  2. "Chief Justice of Ireland" is the name under which all Plenary Summonses are issued: "Rules of the Superior Courts, Appendix A, Part I, Form 1". Courts Service. Retrieved 14 February 2016.
  3. Source: The Judges in Ireland 1221–1921 by Francis Erlington Ball (ISBN 1846300746)
  4. The Supreme Court of Ireland: A History by The Courts Service (ISBN 075571766X)
  5. Coulter, Carol. "Susan Denham named first woman chief justice". The Irish Times. Retrieved 20 September 2020.
  6. Minihan, Mary; Mac Cormaic, Ruadhán (26 July 2017). "Frank Clarke was only name to go to Cabinet". The Irish Times. Retrieved 20 September 2020.
  7. Leahy, Pat (12 July 2017). "Agreement over selection of chief justice came after representations from Ross". The Irish Times. Retrieved 20 September 2020.
  8. "Chief Justice Frank Clarke - Marian Finucane Show". RTÉ Radio. 30 September 2017. Retrieved 9 December 2019.
  9. Article 35.6, Constitution of Ireland.
  10. Section 28, Court of Appeal Act 2014.
  11. Section 4, Courts (Supplemental Provisions) Act, 1961
  12. Article 28, Court of Appeal Act 2014.
  13. Article 35.5.2°, Constitution of Ireland.
  14. Article 14, Constitution of Ireland.
  15. Article 14.2.2°, Constitution of Ireland.
  16. Article 31.2, Constitution of Ireland.
  17. Article 25.5.2°, Constitution of Ireland.
  18. "Diary President Signs Text Of Bunreacht Na Heireann In Accordance With Article 25 Of The Constitution". Retrieved 20 September 2020.
  19. Brennock, Mark. "President McAleese pledges to continue work of peacemakers". The Irish Times. Retrieved 20 September 2020.
  20. "Higgins to be sworn in as Ireland's ninth President". Irish Examiner. 11 November 2011. Retrieved 20 September 2020.
  21. Brophy, Daragh. "Michael D Higgins has been sworn in for a second term as President of Ireland". Retrieved 20 September 2020.
  22. Section 10(1), Courts (Supplemental Provisions) Act, 1961.
  23. "Supreme Court Annual Report 2019" (PDF). Supreme Court. Retrieved 24 September 2020.
  24. Electoral Act, 1997.
  25. Section 109, Garda Síochána Act 2005.
  26. Section 6, Court of Appeal Act 2014.
  27. Section 44, Court of Appeal Act 2014.
  28. "Courts Service Board". Retrieved 24 September 2020.
  29. "The Bar Review" (PDF) (22(6)). December 2017. Retrieved 9 December 2019.
  30. "Section 12 | Judicial Council Act 2019". Irish Statute Book. Retrieved 24 September 2020.
  31. "Section 44 | Judicial Council Act 2019". Irish Statute Book. Retrieved 24 September 2020.
  32. "Section 172 | Legal Services Regulation Act 2015". Irish Statute Book. Retrieved 24 September 2020.
  33. "First female Chief Justice to repair damaged Government relations". Irish Independent. Retrieved 24 September 2020.
  34. Mac Cormaic, Ruadhan. "Chief Justice announces new forum for judiciary". The Irish Times. Retrieved 24 September 2020.
  35. "Top judge pushes for mediation instead of litigation". Irish Independent. Retrieved 24 September 2020.
  36. During his legal career, Ó Dálaigh was known as Carroll O'Daly. See for instance The Irish Law Times and Solicitors' Journal, vol. 103 (1970), p. 289: "The Chief Justice the Hon. Carroll O'Daly"