Peter Kelly: Independent judge who stood up to governments

Chief Justice candidate appointed head of High Court in 2015

Peter Kelly: a dominant presence in the judiciary for many years

Peter Kelly: a dominant presence in the judiciary for many years


Since his appointment as president of the High Court since 2015, Peter Kelly has been the third most senior judge in the State. He has been a dominant presence in the judiciary for much longer than that, however.

A High Court judge since 1996, Kelly came to national prominence in the late 1990s when, as the judge in charge of the minors list, he saw at first hand the distress and misery caused by a lack of secure educational facilities for children with severe behavioural problems.

It appalled him. At one point in 1999, he described the situation as a “scandal” and took the unusual step of making an order compelling the Minister for Justice to act on plans for a new facility within a specified timescale. The following year, in TD v Minister for Education, he did something similar, but in a landmark decision the Supreme Court overturned him – a decision seen as putting a brake on moves towards a more expansive judicial role in recognising social and economic rights.

In 2000, he threatened to hold three government ministers in contempt over the treatment of a girl in care.

Those decisions irritated the government of the day intensely, but they earned Kelly a reputation as an independent-minded judge who was not afraid to stand up to the Government.

Devout Catholic

He also stood out for other reasons. In a judicial corps that is now almost entirely secular, he is a devout Catholic. With his deep baritone and easy presence, he exudes authority. He is also known for his organisational abilities.

He was the key figure in the setting up of the Commercial Court in the 2000s, just as commercial litigation was exploding as a result of the economic crisis. Its efficiency made it a model for other courts.

Kelly’s reputation for speaking his mind has extended beyond his judgments and rulings from the bench. As founding president of the Association of Judges of Ireland, he was in the front line in the fraught years 2011-2014, when disputes over pay and pensions poisoned the relationship between Merrion Street and the Four Courts.

In a 2012 interview with The Parchment, the journal of the Dublin Solicitors’ Bar Association, Kelly was asked whether he would like to be a Supreme Court judge. He dismissed it as a possibility.

“It’s purely political in any event, the appointments to that court, and I never had any politics.” Kelly is due to retire in three years.