Friday 22 March 2019

Ms Justice Mella Carroll

Kieran Fagan

JUDGE Mella Carroll, who died on January 16, soon after retiring from the Bench, had been the longest serving judge of the High Court. She was the first woman appointed to the High Court, and her distinguished career made her a role model for later generations of women, many now holding high judicial office.

Mella Elizabeth Laurie Carroll was born in Dublin on March 6, 1934, the youngest daughter of Patrick Carroll, a Garda chief superintendent, and Agnes Mary Caulfield. She attended the Sacred Heart convent in Lower Leeson Street and continued her studies "around the corner" in University College, Dublin, then in Earlsfort Terrace, where she graduated in French and German. Though she loved to travel, she always returned to her familiar places in Dublin, where Ranelagh and Rathmines blend into each other. There and in the King's Inns, she enjoyed entertaining family and friends with very gracious hospitality.

After UCD, she studied law at King's Inns and was called to the Bar in 1957. In 1976 she was called to the Bar in Northern Ireland and a year later became a Senior Counsel. For a while she was the only female Senior Counsel practising in the Republic and in 1979 she was elected chairman of the Bar Council. In 1980 she became the first woman judge of the High Court.

Mella Carroll's legacy as a judge is remarkable for its depth, scope and diversity, Dr Hugh Brady, president of University College, Dublin, cited some of her cases, when she was granted an honorary doctorate in law by her alma mater last year. "In the field of constitutional law she is remembered for her decision in the Attorney General of England and Wales v Brandon Books [1986] IR 597, in which she refused an application by the British government to restrain the publication in Ireland of the memoirs of a former member of the British intelligence service (One Girl's War by Joan Miller). In reaching this decision the public interest of another state was not allowed to curtail freedom of expression within this jurisdiction."

During the abortion controversies Ms Justice Carroll refused to commit student leaders and to grant an interlocutory injunction, in SPUC v Grogan [1989] IR 753. In Mhic Mathuna v Ireland [1995] 1 IR 484 she ruled that it was not unconstitutional to give greater assistance to unmarried mothers than to married parents. There were too many other judgments to mention here, but her firm handling of the Catherine Nevin murder trial won her respect.

Those who appeared in her court, or served on committees she chaired, quickly came to appreciate her courtesy, good humour and decisiveness, but they also recognised her determination, as did the bin tax protesters she jailed for contempt in 2003.

For 15 years, until 2002, she served on the administrative tribunal of the International Labour Organisation in Geneva, becoming its vice president. She also became president of the International Association of Women Judges.

Mella Carroll chaired the County Borough Electoral Commission in 1984, and the Commission on the Status of Women from 1991 to 1993. More recently she chaired the Commission on Nursing, the effects of which are still working their way through the health service. When she died, she was serving as chancellor of Dublin City University, and as chairwoman of the UCD Irish Centre for Commercial Law Studies, where her wise counsels will be missed.

Last year, when she knew her time was limited, she combined two great passions of her life, music and travel, by visiting Bayreuth, the home of Wagnerian opera.

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