Distinguished judge who valued empathy and individual rights

Anthony Hederman: August 11th, 1921-January 10th, 2014


Former Supreme Court judge Anthony Hederman, who has died aged 92, was described at his funeral by former chief justice John Murray as “earnest and passionate in everything he did, big or small”.

Friends also describe him as gregarious and charismatic, with a mischievous sense of humour and a love of storytelling. His life encompassed some of the highest legal offices in the State, along with an active engagement in politics.

He was born in August 1921, one of three children of William and Mary Hederman, who were drapers in Naas and Newbridge. His sister, Miriam Hederman O’Brien, became a highly distinguished public servant. His older brother, William, became a Vincentian priest but died at the early age of 38.

Vincentian connection
Anthony, who was known to his friends as Tony, attended a residential primary school before becoming a boarder at Castleknock College, run by the Vincentian order. He loved his time there and developed a deep attachment to the school, serving twice as president of the Castleknock College union and, in the last few years of his life, becoming a driving force behind Developing our Vincentian Ethos (Dove), a college initiative for student development. In November 2011 he was one of only two Irish lay people to be made an associate member of the Vincentian community.

Hederman studied legal and political science at UCD before attending the King’s Inns. He was called to the bar in 1944 and became a senior counsel in 1965.

He frequently acted in high-profile cases for the State, including representing Ireland before the European Court of Human Rights in Lawless v Ireland, in which Gerard Richard Lawless argued (unsuccessfully) that his human rights had been violated by his internment.

Hederman represented Ireland in the Ireland v United Kingdom case in the early 1970s, the first legal proceedings between states before an international human rights tribunal, where Ireland challenged the treatment of detainees by the UK government in Northern Ireland.

He was also heavily involved in politics before being appointed to the bench, serving on the Fianna Fáil national executive for 25 years from 1948 and as its treasurer from 1965 to 1981.

He was asked by Éamon de Valera to broker a deal to solve the 1957 Fethard-on-Sea boycott of local Protestants in the Co Wexford town, where he disagreed with the attitude of members of the Catholic hierarchy, pointing out that the Constitution envisaged people of different traditions living peacefully together.

Hederman served as attorney general in the Fianna Fáil government of 1977 to 1981, and was appointed a Supreme Court judge in 1981, serving until his retirement in 1993. He then served as president of the Law Reform Commission for more than five years.

As a Supreme Court judge he delivered a minority judgment in the X case, writing: “On the vital matter of the threat to the mother’s life, there has been a remarkable paucity of evidence. In my opinion, the evidence offered would not justify this court withdrawing from the unborn life the protection which it has enjoyed since the injunction was granted.”

Hederman stressed the importance of empathy in the role of a judge, stating in his retirement speech from the Supreme Court: “It is out of this capacity to understand the truth and integrity of other people’s experience that a genuine worldly wisdom can develop.”

While president of the Law Reform Commission he sought to visit every prison in the State when the commission was considering the topic of sentencing, feeling that otherwise he could not comment on penal policy.

Despite his long association with politics, Hederman was a fierce defender of judicial independence and the rights of the individual. He chaired the committee set up in 1999 under the Belfast Agreement to consider the Offences Against the State Act, and was co-author of a minority report that argued for the repeal of the core elements of the Act.

Charitable work
Hederman’s charitable and philanthropic work was extensive and, in the main, private. Among his public activities was being a founder of the National Association for the Deaf and serving as chairman of the MS Care Foundation and of the Gaisce President’s Awards.

He was a keen sportsman, having boxed and played rugby and golf. He also followed Gaelic football and, especially, horse-racing, for which he developed an early passion in his native Kildare.

At his funeral his friends joked about his lack of skill in driving, but despite this he continued to drive safely, “miraculously”, according to Mr Justice Murray, from Dublin to his hometown until a week before his death.

Hederman was a fiercely loyal friend, and his friends spread across all age groups. He particularly enjoyed the company of young people and acted as mentor to many young lawyers after his retirement from the Supreme Court. This extended beyond Irish shores: he lectured in Tanzania, Botswana, Ghana and Estonia, as well as in most Irish universities, into his 80s.

He is survived by his sister, Miriam, nieces Aoife, Dervilla and Eilis, and nephews Donat and Murrough.