Sunday 25 September 2016

Judicial colossus with a tender heart was in a class of his own

Published 25/09/2015 | 02:30

Justice, Paul Carney pictured before his final sitting as he retires from the High Court. Picture credit; Damien Eagers 24/4/2015
Justice, Paul Carney pictured before his final sitting as he retires from the High Court. Picture credit; Damien Eagers 24/4/2015

The death of Mr Justice Paul Carney - we once had a mild run-in over whether he should be called 'Mr Justice' or 'Judge' in court reports - marks the end of an era in criminal justice in Ireland.

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A colossus, if an occasionally tetchy one, he was 'Sui Generis' (in a class of its own).

The senior judge of the Central Criminal Court, Judge Carney presided over more than 150 rape and murder trials during his tenure on the bench, having been appointed to the High Court in 1991.

This unprecedented tally must have taken a toll on Judge Carney, who said it was his practice to 'wipe from his mind' everything he had heard during the day at 4pm when his court rose.

Read more: Tributes as 'exceptional' former judge Carney dies

Maybe that was true or maybe it was just a coping mechanism. But who could blame him for trying to wipe his mind when faced on a daily basis with the horrendous consequences of the innate weaknesses and cruelties of humanity?

I often thought of Judge Carney as the judicial equivalent of Jim 'Lugs' Brannigan - a legend and advocate of tough justice, albeit one with a tender heart, especially towards victims of crime.

Judge Carney was extraordinary to observe during criminal trials. If he had any strong emotions towards an accused or a witness, you never saw it.

This mask on occasion caused confusion or offence as victims and witnesses tried to read what was going on in his mind. But this practised detachment (in public at least) was part of the reason why this fiercely independent judge inspired fear and awe in equal measure.

Judge Carney became a household name in part because he presided over some of the biggest criminal trials over the last 20 years.

But it is doubtful whether the Central Criminal Court would be the stand-alone institution that it is today without him.

When he was appointed to the High Court in 1991, the criminal law division of the High Court was chaotic. But Judge Carney revolutionised the list, extended how long it sat and ploughed through waiting lists.

And, in an inspired move to allow local juries to preside over local crimes, in 2003 he brought the Central Criminal Court "on circuit" and it now sits in venues throughout the country. The re-organisation and decentralisation of the court is perhaps one of his greatest legacies, demonstrating an appetite for reform where others in the legal profession have been dragged kicking and screaming into modernity.

There were, of course, those occasions where Judge Carney hit the headlines for unwelcome reasons, including sentences that were subsequently deemed too light. And yet it was Judge Carney who imposed several life sentences for heinous rapes, the maximum sentence for that crime.

There was the controversy over the victim impact statement delivered by Majella Holohan, whose 10-year-old son Robert was killed by his neighbour. And he apologised profusely to rape victim Fiona Doyle two years ago, expressing his "profound regret for the distress" caused to her when he released her perpetrator (her father) on bail.

Judge Carney had a fractious relationship with the former Court of Appeal; he once referred in withering terms to one of his decisions being overturned by a "patents lawyer".

His relationship with the media was less fractious and he respected the role we too play in the criminal justice system. He feigned a mild contempt for us, but occasionally the mask would slip with a generous smile.

And it was a front page of a 'Sunday World' splash after all that took pride of place above the fireplace in his chambers - he had a wry sense of humour.

He made no secret of the fact he did not want to retire, describing his last time in court as a "black day".

It's the end of an era: we'll never see his likes again.

Irish Independent

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