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Laying down the law

15 May 2024 / people Print

Laying down the law

Busy barrister Siobhán Ní Chúlacháin has pivoted to become director of research at the Law Reform Commission. Mary Hallissey pores over the fine print

Barrister Siobhán Ní Chúlacháin caused a mini-sensation when she recently announced that she was leaving her thriving legal practice to lead the Law Reform Commission’s research team: “I was ready for change – it was just a question of how I was going to change,” she comments.

Her move to the director of research role comes ahead of the LRC’s 50th anniversary next year. The new appointee hopes to spend some time reflecting on the commission’s earlier successes – and the major challenges for the law reformers of the future.

Ní Chúlacháin is a former co-chair of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights. She was strongly attracted to the role because of her love for writing and research, and the timeliness of the law-reform position in its intersection of legal expertise, relationship management, and carefully researched legal projects.

As research director, Ní Chúlacháin will give strategic leadership and direction to the LRC, with a particular focus on upcoming projects on adult safeguarding, victim compensation, and unincorporated associations.

Landmark case

Called to the Bar in 1999, Ní Chúlacháin worked in administrative law, judicial review, criminal law, and extradition, and defended criminal cases in the Circuit, Central, and Special Criminal Courts, including murder, rape, and IRA membership cases. She acted both for the State and for private clients.

Siobhán represented Ireland in the landmark case of Minister for Justice and Equality v Celmer at the European Court of Justice, relating to the consequences of the breakdown of the rule of law in Poland on European Arrest Warrant procedures.

Fluent Gaeilgeoir Ní Chúlacháin also litigated through Irish and contributes to public-policy debate through the language.

The married mother-of-one grew up in Bray with teacher parents, and had a formative interest in human rights, lobbying as a young lawyer for the abolition of section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, among other campaigns.

Her sister is Judge Sinéad Ní Chúlacháin. Their mother quipped that the pair decided to ‘lay down the law’ for real!

As a young lawyer, Siobhán worked with FLAC and did a research master’s in adult wardship, which dovetails well with current LRC concerns.
She enjoys writing and research and getting “down and dirty” with legal argument: “I’m so excited that all of that is being nourished again,” she says.

Her goals for the job are for the LRC to produce high-quality relevant research in areas that need to be reformed.

On that point, the LRC hosted an adult safeguarding seminar on 17 April that focused on the paucity of specific legislation and the need for an overarching legal framework for those unable to mind themselves:

“There’s very little law protecting adults of diminished capacity,” she added.

Detailed report

The LRC’s detailed report will be part-published in plain English to be accessible to all stakeholders. “It’s a very big report, possibly the biggest we’ve done for many years,” she explained.

Also in the in-tray is a consultation paper on non-court adjudicative bodies, which will be published later this year. This will consider the proliferation of adjudicative bodies with a variety of procedures, functions, and powers, and will consult on the need to simplify and clarify this growing body of administrative law.

Such bodies with regulatory functions need standardised procedures that respect the rights of the people involved, she says.

“That’s the kind of work that the Law Reform Commission adds such value to, because it will reform a whole area of administrative law, such as sports clubs and charities, unincorporated associations, and voluntary groups. That’s actually transpired to be a fascinating and very interesting area, which is in need of reform but is quite complex,” she says.

More to do

The criminal-injury compensation scheme needs to be reviewed urgently in view of best practice across Europe, since Ireland is one of the few countries that hasn’t reformed this area, she says.

Consolidation of the difficult and sprawling Road Traffic Acts may be in the pipeline, too, Ní Chúlacháin adds. A report is also expected on the possibility of third-party litigation funding.

As a practitioner, she found the LRC’s history of statute amendments to be very useful and practical, with their careful updates and hyperlinks. The commission has a great team of young researchers doing interesting and varied work, she adds.

The 24-strong LRC also has a team identifying very old laws, no longer fit for purpose, into a list of obsolete legislation to be repealed.

Finite resources

An LRC recommendation for reform carries weight, but it’s not in its remit to implement change.

“This isn’t a huge organisation with infinite resources – we have a set programme, some of which is agreed by the Government. The Attorney General sometimes makes an urgent request to us,” she added.

“Sometimes we could do a lot of work, only to see it bypassed or overtaken by events. For example, we’ve done quite a few reports about the courts, but there’s going to be new legislation about family courts soon. Those are the kinds of decisions we have to make all the time, based on resources.”

The LRC’s work must remain relevant, useful and achievable, she adds. The commission has always been seen as a building-block for careers, with many illustrious researchers and commissioners passing through its doors:

“They come in very good, but they go out better,” Ní Chúlacháin declares. “The work that we do in the LRC is very valuable, and it’s a great thing for a young lawyer to consider – both as a public service and also as a unique contribution to the formation of law.”

LRC research positions are sought after, though there is stiff competition to secure quality candidates. Published research work is a great draw for young early-career lawyers considering a stint with the LRC, she believes: “It’s an absolute badge,” she concludes.

Mary Hallissey is a journalist at the Law Society Gazette

Mary Hallissey
Mary Hallissey is a journalist at Gazette.ie