A founder of the free legal aid service, Judge Lavan always sought justice for the underdog, writes Rory Egan
MR JUSTICE Vivian Lavan, one of the most popular and respected members of the Irish judiciary, died peacefully last weekend after a short illness. Although he was one of the longest serving High Court judges before he retired prematurely in May of this year, he was far removed from any ivory tower and remained very in touch with how the law affects the man in the street.
Vivian Lavan was born in Derry in 1944 but lived in Boyle, Co Roscommon, before moving to Dublin at the age of 10 with his mother Sara and sister Ann. He sat his Intermediate Certificate in Terenure College before finishing his Leaving Certificate in the Cistercian College, Roscrea. Although he always wanted to study law, he had a great hunger to broaden his horizons, and so, after he left school, he decided to set off for a three-year trek through Europe, Africa and the Middle East before embarking on his legal degree in UCD.
The summer he qualified as a barrister, Lavan went to Chicago and joined a US law firm and seriously considered making a career for himself there. It was to be a seminal period of his life and the ties he made with the American legal system were to colour his outlook on reforming our own system of justice here many years later. He returned home eventually and was called to the Bar in 1969.
He very quickly went about founding FLAC, the voluntary free legal aid service, along with three other friends -- former Attorney General David Byrne SC, Denis McCullough SC and retired Hong Kong magistrate Ian Candy, and they set up their first centre in Mountjoy Square. In an interview with Le-Ann Campbell, he said he was appalled at the fate of "penniless civil litigants who are put through procedures after procedures compared to wealthy criminals who receive legal aid without any questions asked".
It was this hunger for justice for the underdog and a belief in constantly reforming from within that shone through his legal career. He was a member of the Bar Council from 1970 to 1982, and its treasurer from 1976 to 1980. He joined Fianna Fail in 1974 and ran their communications department for six domestic and two European elections. He has been an honorary member of the American Bar Association since 1980, a member of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers in the US and a member of the Panel of Conciliators and Arbitrators of the International Centre for Investment Disputes. He also served as President of the Law Reform Commission between 1998 and 2000.
As a Junior and Senior Counsel, his practice was wide and general although he earned a reputation as an expert in building contracts and as a consequence was in high demand.
When he was appointed to the High Court in 1989, he was a huge advocate of participating parties trying to agree a settlement if at all possible. He was particularly good at gently suggesting to stubborn litigants the implications of their actions and wiser counsel knew when it was time to reach an amicable resolution. It's ironic then that a judge who abhorred the cost and length of civil litigation should find himself presiding over the criminal trial of Brendan O'Donnell, which became the longest in Irish legal history.
Mr Justice Vivian Lavan is survived by his wife Una and four children, Myles, Viv, Naomi and Sarah.
He once said, "I became a judge to do justice". It was a simple statement that reflected the highest principles he maintained throughout his judicial career.