Brilliant solicitor who acted in sensational 1960s fraud trial
Gerry Charlton: September 11th, 1934-October 2nd, 2015
Gerry Charlton: made his name in the early 1960s in one of the most sensational trials in Irish legal history, that of Dr Paul Singer and his colleagues Desmond and Diana Shanahan of the Shanahan Stamp Auctioneering firm.
Gerard (Gerry) Charlton, who has died aged 81, was one of the most respected litigation solicitors in Ireland for more than 50 years. He made his name initially in the early 1960s in one of the most sensational trials in Irish legal history, that of Dr Paul Singer and his colleagues Desmond and Diana Shanahan of the Shanahan Stamp Auctioneering firm, following its collapse.
Working with the firm of Herman Good, Charlton brought to the case an extraordinary competence and zeal. The writer Ulick O’Connor, then a practising barrister, who was briefed by Charlton to defend – successfully – Diana Shanahan, remembers: “I was lost in admiration for his attention to a brief . . . I never saw a better organiser of his own cases . . . He had a brilliant academic mind. He knew what you wanted and needed and he had a devastating attention to what he was after.”
Tom Marren, a colleague of Charlton from the 1970s in the practice of Reddy, Charlton and McKnight, which Charlton founded in 1964 with former Armagh footballer John McKnight, remembers the originality of his approach to a case. “He was very innovative in what type of evidence he would present. He would think outside the box.” O’Connor echoes that judgment, remarking that Charlton would produce “evidence which nobody else had considered”.
As senior counsel, Paul Callan, who worked as a junior barrister on the Singer case (in which the defence was led by Seán MacBride) recalls also that Charlton’s intellectual gifts were manifested by his discovery in the retrial which saw Singer finally freed from a 14-year sentence that the foreman of the jury which had originally convicted him had, in fact, been an investor in the failed company.
Another common thread identified by friends and colleagues was Charlton’s strong sense of social justice, O’Connor remarking that “he was more concerned with civil rights than anyone I ever knew”. Much of his work was pro bono. Early in his career he would represent poorer clients who could not afford a barrister in the courts before juries, at a time when that was very unusual.
Two other major cases were to bring Charlton into the public eye, very prominently, since he featured as a litigant in both of them. In 1977, he, his brother Hughie and two other investors were sued for recovery of loans by the Northern Bank Finance Corporation. They counter-sued, alleging fraudulent misrepresentation, and won both in the High Court and a year later on appeal in the Supreme Court.
This was the first case in the history of independent Ireland where fraud was proven against a bank. Callan remarks that “it was a very important principle” following the case that “it would be extraordinarily rare for the Supreme Court to overturn a finding of fraud in the High Court”.
The case was also notable for the steely determination it revealed in Charlton. Callan remarks that the solicitor and his fellow investors had put their personal homes on the line and that if they had lost, “they were really in the street”. Marren recalls that Charlton regularly represented debtors in cases against the banks and rescued “a lot of businesses” as a result.
The same determination was encountered by the broadcaster Pat Kenny, a next-door neighbour of Charlton in Dalkey, Co Dublin, who sought a declaration of adverse possession over land owned by the Charlton family. After a lengthy and costly legal action, he agreed to purchase the property involved when he failed to prove his case.
Gerard Garrett Charlton came from a background which gives a key to his later moral strength. His father, William Charlton, a general trader in Irvinestown, Co Fermanagh, from a Protestant – indeed Orange – family, married Alice Reilly, a Catholic who managed the local co-op, provoking the bitter hostility of many in the local community.
The couple had five sons and, after Alice’s death, when Gerry Charlton was just three, William continued to bring them up in their mother’s religion while remaining a Protestant himself.
Always close to his rural roots, Charlton somehow found time from his busy practice to farm in both Wexford and Kildare.
He was educated at St Macartan’s College, Monaghan, and at UCD. He is survived by his widow, Maeve O’Connor, his daughters Gearóidín, Denise and Valerie, a son Gerard, and by grandchildren. His brothers predeceased him.