Obituary: Paul Carney – committed judge not afraid to speak his mind

Paul Carney: April 27th, 1943 – September 23rd, 2015

The death of Paul Carney, just a few months since his reluctant retirement from the Central Criminal Court, means the legal world has lost one of its most colourful, controversial, committed and courageous figures.

In his long career on the bench, spanning 24 years, he presided over many of the highest-profile criminal trials in the State, during which he did not hesitate to express his views on the nature of the crimes and the conduct of the perpetrators. However, he hit the headlines as frequently for his remarks off the bench as on it.

He presided over the Central Criminal Court, the division of the High Court devoted to rape and murder offences, from its inception, and his personality marked that court. Although devoted to maintaining some of the more arcane court practices, such as the wearing of wigs, long after they had been officially abandoned, this did not divert him from conducting trials effectively and fairly.

Supported by a series of able registrars, he worked very hard and ensured the Central Criminal Court ran smoothly and effectively. He also introduced a number of innovations, including having the court sit outside Dublin, bringing it to cities and towns such as Cork, Limerick, Galway, Ennis and Castlebar.

This reflected his conviction that justice should be available to people in their communities, and that juries reflected the communities from which both victim and accused came.

Plain speaking

With the help of his registrar he also compiled statistics from the Central Criminal Court that were more detailed than those from the Courts Service, giving an insight into the work of the courts and trends in serious crime and sentencing.

His style in court was a mixture of formality and plain speaking. He hated being called “Judge”, preferring “Your Lordship” and insisted on wigs. Yet he gave homely examples to the jury to illustrate points of law.

“He didn’t like people coming in with armloads of books and making long, convoluted arguments. He thought you should know your stuff and say what you had to say in a few sentences,” said one practitioner.

“He was genuinely independent. One thing that did not impress him was the status of people. If you said you wanted to get off jury service because you were a senior partner in a leading accountancy firm, it would be like a red rag, but if you were self-employed and had just got your first work in weeks he would say, ‘Off you go’.”

He was also very kind to young lawyers, welcoming new “devils” to court and ensuring that when he was on circuit, they were invited to the dinners that were a regular feature of the High Court on circuit.

His predictability was also such that those who regularly appeared before him in murder trials knew his address to the jury off by heart. In it he said murder was unlawful killing, explaining that this differed from lawful killing, using the executions by British hangman Albert Pierrepoint as an example.

He would then explain the concept of “transferred malice”, saying this would arise if he “took out a Derringer” and aimed it at someone he disliked, missing and shooting instead a person for whom he had the highest regard. “Tough!” he then exclaimed to the jury.

When he retired one of his retirement presents was an imitation Derringer pistol.

He refused to bow to popular opinion or intimidation, facing down the intimidating atmosphere associated with Limerick crime gangs by attempting to hold the trial of those accused of the murder of Kieran Keane in the city, though this was thwarted when the court failed to empanel a jury.

He also refused to allow a defence of self-defence to Pádraig Nally for the killing of Traveller John Ward in 2005, though his conviction for manslaughter was later overturned by the Court of Criminal Appeal.

He had his blind spots, none bigger than the Court of Criminal Appeal, complaining that many of the judges sitting on it had no experience of criminal law. Many lawyers consider this not to be a bad thing, especially when it contains judges who are expert in constitutional law.

Some of his rulings and sentences were overturned by this court, and this led to his making controversial decisions. He referenced a CCA judgment when imposing a suspended sentence on Adam Keane from Co Clare for the rape of Mary Shannon, though he later reactivated the full sentence.

Much of the controversy he engendered arose from his pronouncements outside court. He was adjunct professor of law in UCC and NUI Maynooth and clearly enjoyed those roles and the opportunities they brought for him to elaborate on his views on criminal law. His remarks in UCC, where he referred to stabbings and sentencing policy, led to the murder convictions of Warren and Jeffrey Dumbrell being found unsafe as he was presiding over their trial at the time. He was forced to withdraw from speaking at a conference in Dublin in 2004 when then chief justice, Mr Justice Ronan Keane, objected to some of its contents.

Although he attracted controversy, this did not deter him from seeking publicity and he always made sure journalists had notice of his public appearances and copies of his speeches.

He was very sociable and extremely shy. He enjoyed parties and socialising, but was incapable of small talk or the light banter common on such occasions.


There are legions of people who can describe excruciating evenings in his company when hardly a word was exchanged. He was never to be found on the golf circuit popular with many of his colleagues.

Yet he was held in great affection by colleagues and members of the Bar. Shortly before his retirement a dinner was held for him in the King’s Inns, itself unusual. “The hall was full and not just of criminal practitioners,” said one lawyer.

The only child of two distinguished Celtic scholars, he attended school for two years in Uppsala, Sweden while his parents established a Department of Celtic Studies at Uppsala University. He also attended Gonzaga and UCD, followed by the King’s Inns. He married Marjorie Young, a consultant dermatologist and now barrister, with whom he had four children.

He devoted his life to law, having entered the profession in 1966 at the age of 23. He became a senior counsel in 1980 and a judge of the High Court in 1991, serving until his retirement earlier this year.