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Chief justice steps down after four years  in office
Chief Justice Frank Clarke, in his Four Courts office Pic: Cian Redmond

08 Oct 2021 / judiciary Print

Chief justice steps down after four years in office

Chief Justice Frank Clarke, who steps down today (8 October), must by law retire, as he reaches his 70th birthday on 10 October.

Clarke was appointed to Ireland’s top legal job in July 2017, succeeding Mrs Justice Susan Denham.

He had served as a judge of the Supreme Court since February 2012, and had previously been a High Court judge from 2004 to 2012.

Clarke was called to the Bar in 1973 and to the Inner Bar in 1985, aged 34.

Reform

Since his appointment, he has spearheaded reform of the Courts Service, and reoriented it towards a digital future.

In December 2019, he told the Law Society Gazette, that slowly, but surely, the Irish legal system’s centre of gravity was shifting online.

That process, already in train, was dramatically accelerated with the onset of the global coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.

In July of last year, he said that five years of change in the courts system had been implemented  in five months as a result of virus measures, with an almost wholesale shift to remote hearings, through the use of video technology.

Later, he added that, though mathematically symmetrical, this was probably an underestimate.

Permanent change

“Some of that change may not last, but an awful lot of it will be permanent,” the chief justice said in September 2020.

Earlier this year, as debate began about the quality of remotely administered justice, Clarke said that it would be a dangerous development if technology could buy better court access.

The theme of full access to justice has been a constant one in his stint as chief justice.

One of his last actions in the post was to organise last weekend’s access-to-justice conference, hosted by the Law Society.

The conference examined barriers to access to justice, particularly for the poor and disadvantaged.

The chief justice told the conference that Ireland was near the bottom of the EU league of justice expenditure, and that there was a ‘moral argument’ for a higher spend.

This “stark” statistic, he said, could not be explained away by differing justice systems, and had the effect of transferring costs to the parties.

Equality before the law

The chief justice also questioned whether the constitutional guarantee of equality before the law was upheld in the day-to-day operations of the justice system.

Under his watch, the first Judicial Council was formed in December 2019, consisting of all judges in Ireland, which was described as a turning point for the administration of justice in Ireland. 

A sub-committee has drafted ethical guidelines for judges, in another first for Ireland.

Clarke has also prioritised a budget for judicial training.

In 2019, Frank Clarke was part of a group spearheading a campaign for Dublin to become the EU’s dispute-resolution forum of choice following Brexit.

A high-profile visit to Washington DC promoted the message that, after Brexit, Ireland would be the only common-law jurisdiction in the EU, other than Malta. 

Live broadcast

In 2017, Clarke gave permission for a live broadcast of the Supreme Court on television..

He also led the court in conversations with secondary-school pupils around the country.

The court also sat in various cities around the country – such as Galway, Kilkenny, and Limerick.

“This is a court for all of Ireland,” Clarke said at the time.

A keen horseracing fan, Clarke was also a Turf Club steward, and chairman of Leopardstown Racecourse.

Frank Clarke was the son of a customs officer and former Bohemians player, who died when the future chief justice was just 11, incoming chief justice Donal O’Donnell said this morning, as tributes were paid to his departing predecessor in the Supreme Court.

Walkinstown-born Clarke was a beneficiary of free education, and the first in his family to attend university, Mr Justice O’Donnell said – part of a generation that refused to do civil-service exams.

At school in Drimnagh Castle CBS, Clarke was Dublin junior high-jump champion in 1969, at a time when the bar was solid metal, and the fall was not onto fluffy foam, but onto wet sand, O’Donnell said.

Engineering sensibility

Clarke is unusual in the legal profession in studying maths at undergraduate level, the chief-justice-designate said, but he brought an engineering sensibility to the law, and treated it as much as an art as a science.

While without metropolitan arrogance, Clarke does have the bemused incomprehension of the Dubliner that anyone would want to be born anywhere else but the capital, his successor said. Clarke's grandfather worked all his life in the Guinness brewery.

His judgments are immediately recognisable, with characteristic Clarke-isms, and often have what might be called generosity, and statements of high principle, O’Donnell said.

Multiple demands

Clarke dealt with the multiple demands made of the Chief Justice with cheerfulness and enthusiasm, O’Donnell said, with an enviable capacity to speak fluently without notes, but he remains essentially a private family man.

A judge’s reputation is established painstakingly, by the way he or she behaves in court and the lengths gone to understand the party’s case, O’Donnell said.

As well, there is the speed, efficiency and empathy with which a case is decided, and sometimes the recognition that it’s necessary to be firm without the need to force a point to a bruising humiliation.

“The accumulated judgments of Frank Clarke will be visible to Irish lawyers for many years to come,” he said.

Clarity

“Clarke judgments are always likely to value clarity over clever-osity,” he added.

“There is something European in the desire to seek consensus and in the recognitions that there is a value in collective wisdom, which sometimes can be more worthwhile than individual kudos,” he said.

Clarke has been an outward-looking leader, he said, a legal engineer moving through the legal system with the precision of a watch-maker, making it work smoothly, efficiently, and most of all, fairly, O’Donnell said.

Law Society President James Cahill said it was a pleasure and honour to  pay tribute to a man who had made a remarkable and important contribution to justice.

Fairness

“Your reputation for fairness with authority will be remembered by colleagues in all branches of the legal profession,” he said.

“So too will your willingness to take a stand against the status quo even when that stand may have isolated you,” he said.

“An erudite and learned judge in an age of divisive and partisan politics, you have proved to be fearlessly independent of the executive, and compassionate about justice for all individuals,” he said.

Angela Denning of the Courts Service said it was unanimously agreed by his registrars that the chief justice was always a pleasure to work with.

 

 

Gazette Desk
Gazette.ie is the daily legal news site of the Law Society of Ireland