Judge whose ruling crucial in recognising rights of trans people retires
William McKechnie’s career defined by commitment to fairness and access to justice
Mr Justice William McKechnie speaking at the Promoting and Protecting Human Rights in Ireland conference at the Law Society, 2012. Photograph: Alan Betson / THE IRISH TIMES
A senior and widely respected Supreme Court judge, Mr Justice William McKechnie, has retired on the eve of his 70th birthday after a legal career spanning almost half a century.
As a High Court judge, his significant judgment in the case of transgender woman Lydia Foy, who sued over the refusal to issue her a birth certificate in her female identity, was crucial to the recognition of the rights of transgendered people in Ireland.
In 2007, Mr Justice McKechnie made Ireland’s first declaration of incompatibility under the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003 after finding the State’s failure to legislate to recognise transgender persons in their preferred gender breached the ECHR.
In the Miss D case, also in 2007, he ruled that a 17-year-old girl in care could travel to the UK for an abortion and was sharply critical of the Health Service Executive’s handling of the girl’s situation.
He found it had failed to address Miss D’s best interests and failed to take into account her wishes and those of her mother, who supported her decision to travel. It is “imperative” to recognise the rights of children and parents and to recognise that children’s rights continue through childhood, he said.
As a Supreme Court judge since 2010, he has delivered many judgments underlining a strong commitment to the vindication of personal rights and fair procedures and ensuring access to justice. His judgments have also made a significant contribution on judicial methodology – precedent and interpretation of legislation.
He stressed in a 2017 judgment concerning the Hepatitis C Compensation Tribunal Act, CM v the Minister for Health, that remedial statutes should be generously interpreted, noting those were enacted in response to “widespread wrongdoing on a serious scale”.
He frequently dissented from the majority court in several cases, notably in the landmark JC appeal of 2015 when the court, by a four/three majority, relaxed the strict rule excluding unconstitutionally-seized evidence. He delivered a strong dissent in the 2018 case of DPP v Brown to the effect that consent should be a defence to the offence of assault causing harm.
In his last judgment earlier this month, he dissented from a four/three majority decision upholding the constitutionality of the legislation underpinning the State’s workplace dispute resolution process. His judgment set out a comprehensive analysis of what is meant by the administration of justice within the meaning of Article 34 and Article 37 of the Constitution.
A native of Cork, Mr Justice McKechnie was educated at Presentation Brothers, Cork and graduated with a law degree from University College Cork in 1971 and from the Kings Inns in 1972. He was called to the Bar in 1972 and became a senior counsel in 1987. His practice included commercial law, medical negligence, chancery law, the law related to local authorities, and judicial review.
Appointed a High Court judge in 2000, he presided over competition matters for six years of his 10-year tenure. He was appointed to the Supreme Court in July 2010.