Former High Court president was a ‘man of substance’

Richard Johnson was unstinting in his support for judicial independence, funeral hears

Nuala Johnson with her daughter Rebecca arrive at the funeral of Richard  Johnson. at the Church of the Sacred Heart, Donnybrook, Dublin. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Nuala Johnson with her daughter Rebecca arrive at the funeral of Richard Johnson. at the Church of the Sacred Heart, Donnybrook, Dublin. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

Former High Court president Mr Justice Richard “Ricky” Johnson was a “man of substance” who never shied away from controversy in his defence of the judiciary, mourners at his funeral heard.

Mr Justice Johnson died last Sunday at St Vincent’s Private Hospital at the age of 81. He was appointed to the High Court in 1987 and served as its president from 2006 until his retirement in 2009 when he was succeeded by Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns.

There was standing room only at his funeral Mass on Thursday in The Church of the Sacred Heart in Donnybrook, Dublin.

The service was attended by figures from the bar, judiciary and broader public life including Mr Justice Kearns, former chief justice Ronan Keane, president of the Court of Appeal George Birmingham, president of the Circuit Court Judge Patricia Ryan, Ms Justice Bonagh O’Hanlon and Ms Justice Leonie Reynolds; and former president Mary Robinson.

Chief Justice Frank Clarke was represented by his colleague on the Supreme Court Mr Justice John MacMenamin. President Michael D Higgins was represented by his aide-de-camp Capt Marie Carrigy while Comdt Caroline Burke represented Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

Christian faith

Chief celebrant Fr Christopher Dillon told the Mass that Mr Justice Johnson’s Christian faith “informed both his work and his life, however imperfectly”. This was something he regarded as “absolutely normal”.

He attended Mass every morning before court and regularly chatted with Fr Dillon about theology over their morning porridge, the priest recalled.

“But Richard Johnson was also a public man of substance in every sense of the word; a man who justified the burden that he was on the earth, as Homer would have put it,” Fr Dillon said.

Mr Justice Johnson’s father, also called Richard, was himself a judge of the District Court and played a key role in regularising the nascent judicial system of the Irish Free State.

Richard Johnson snr’s public service remained a guiding light to his son throughout his professional life, Fr Dillon said, and “inspired a devotion to integrity”.

The deceased “was a man of the law in the service of the State and society, a service which he took very seriously and to which he devoted his professional life”.

He was not shy about being controversial in defence of standards and judicial integrity during his High Court presidency, the priest said.

Retirement speech

On the day of his retirement in 2009 Mr Justice Johnson made a speech on the importance of judicial independence.

“If we allow the independence of the judiciary be undermined then we will have a situation where the judges will be subject to the same pressure as our TDs, councillors and planning officials are,” he said.

“The public do not want clever judges, they do not want brilliant judges, but they want honest judges and they want judges who they know have not been got at.”

Mourners heard the judge suffered from health difficulties in his final years but was always “deeply aware of and grateful for his good fortune in life”. Prayers of the Faithful from his grandchildren included a tribute to the doctors and nurses who cared for him.

Family

Mr Justice Johnson is survived by his “beautiful and gracious” wife, Nuala, who offered him “unstinting support”, Fr Dillon said, and his children, Rebecca, Murray, Kerry and Emily. Rebecca, Murray and Kerry all followed their father into the law.

Born in Blennerville, Co Kerry, Mr Justice Johnson studied law at University College Dublin before qualifying as a barrister in 1960. He practised on the south western circuit before being made a senior counsel in 1977 upon which he moved his practice to Munster and then Dublin.

Former preisdent of Ireland Mary Robinson attending the funeral of Richard Johnson at the Church of the Sacred Heart, Donnybrook, Dublin. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Former preisdent of Ireland Mary Robinson attending the funeral of Richard Johnson at the Church of the Sacred Heart, Donnybrook, Dublin. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
John Rogers SC attending the funeral of Richard Johnson at the Church of the Sacred Heart, Donnybrook, Dublin. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
John Rogers SC attending the funeral of Richard Johnson at the Church of the Sacred Heart, Donnybrook, Dublin. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins