“Both the President of the Law Society and the chair of the Bar Council can lay some credit…to claim her as one of their own,” the Chief Justice Frank Clarke said this morning, speaking to a packed Supreme Court.
In 1979, Mary Finlay Geoghegan changed course and transferred to the Bar, being called in 1980 followed by a meteoric rise to senior counsel by 1988.
She was appointed to the High Court in 2002 where she served until her appointment as one of the newly-established judges of the Court of Appeal in 2014.
“The centre of her judicial work was, of course, on the commercial court. The commercial list, as it was more technically and accurately known, came into existence in January 2004,” said the Chief Justice.
Justice Mary Finlay Geoghegan could reasonably be described, along with Justice Peter Kelly, as a founding member of the commercial court, the Chief Justice said, handling "changing and challenging legislation through both boom and bust".
“The reputation which that court enjoys, both nationally and internationally, is due in no small part to Mary’s contribution over that decade,” he said.
Justice Mary Finlay Geoghegan also led the Irish delegation to the Council of Bars and Law Societies in Europe (CCBE) and also studied at the College of Europe in Bruges.
She played a prominent role in developing asylum law at a time when it was a relatively new area of litigation in this country. Justice Mary Finlay Geoghegan also presided over many child abduction cases.
The Chief Justice said that, as a colleague, Justice Mary Finlay Geoghegan was meticulous and firm with an overlay of lightness and a deep underlay of humanity.
She brought these same qualities to bear in her other public roles, including the legal education of students at the King’s Inns, and as a member of the Constitutional Review Group and as a board member at the Mater Hospital in Dublin.
The Chief Justice concluded by observing that he did not think that Justice Mary Finlay Geoghegan’s era of public service was at an end.
Attorney General Séamus Woulfe echoed this sentiment and thanked her for her long service while hoping that she would keep open the possibility of doing the state some more service.
Law Society President Patrick Dorgan said that Justice Mary Finlay Geoghegan had been a talented and influential solicitor before transferring to the Bar.
In her parting remarks, Justice Mary Finlay Geoghegan said that the courts will be unable to administer justice properly in line with the Irish Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights unless considerably more resources are invested by the State, including the appointment of more judges.
She deeply regretted unacceptable delays in cases going from the High Court to the Court of Appeal and said that this is not consistent with the due administration of justice.
The wider issue remains an insufficient numbers of judges.
Ireland cannot genuinely become a centre of legal excellence without significantly increased investment in, and resources for, the judiciary, she said.
“The aim is to have court system which is accessible, efficient and effective for litigants in the 21st century.
"These very laudable goals will not be achieved without significant additional resources being made available.
“I hope that there will be a system [of judicial appointment] that will not deter people of the calibre that I have shared the experience of being a judge with, [from applying]," she said.
Justice Finlay Geoghegan paid warm tribute to her late parents. Speaking about her father, the late Supreme Court Justice Tom Finlay, she said that his role as a father surpassed anything he ever did in public life.
“My mother is a less well-known person but it is perhaps significant that she was called to the Bar, second in a distinguished call, in 1946.
“She never practised. In accordance with the custom of the time she ceased work on her marriage in 1948 and she devoted her incredible abilities to her family, and we all, of course, benefitted so much,” she said.
Justice Finlay Geoghegan said her four siblings remained her closest friends and supporters and that her parents brought her up as a daughter with exactly the same opportunities and expectations as her brothers.
Her father however, advised her strongly that the Bar was not a good career for women in the 1970s.
“I relished both my time and opportunities as a solicitor and I’ve always believed that in Ireland the two professions are complementary.
“Both have a huge contribution to make to the administration of justice,” she continued.
She said she was privileged to be apprenticed as a solicitor to John Gleeson, a lawyer with a brilliant understanding of humanity who encouraged her to take up a scholarship to the College of Europe in Bruges.
She said that as a young solicitor she never recalled being treated any differently to her male colleagues.
Justice Finlay Geoghegan said she had the very good fortune to devil with then-barrister Justice Peter Kelly when she switched to the Bar and from whom learnt her deep knowledge of practice and procedures. The two maintain a very strong friendship, despite sometimes differing opinions, she said.
She said her greatest good fortune was to meet and marry her husband Hugh, who with other family members, was present in court.
Justice Finlay Geoghegan said that Hugh had “made my life for the last 38 years with his love, support, fun and entertainment”.
Their three children have been the source of great joy and pride with only the “odd moment of parental alarm,” she quipped.
“Being a self-employed barrister during one’s child-bearing and rearing years is perhaps not for the faint-hearted,” she said.
But both professions are acutely aware of the need to give support through this phase, she pointed out.
“And it is only a phase, you will get through it and come out the other side,” she said.
No easy solutions
But there are “no easy solutions, litigation must go on,” she said.
Justice Finlay Geoghegan said that her father had enjoyed 23 years of life, post-retirement at 72, and she hoped to have a similar period to share with her family, and possibly to make a further public contribution.