Files reveal sectarian ‘imbalance in judiciary’

State Papers 1985: IRA singled out Catholic judges and JPs for attacks, said NI official

An aerial picture of the burnt-out La Mon Hotel. Photograph: Pacemaker

The severe under-representation of Catholics in the judiciary in Northern Ireland is revealed in State Papers from 1985 released by the Public Record Office in Belfast.

In a memo entitled 'A Critique of NI Justice' dated November 26, 1985, David Hill of the NIO's Law and Order Division commented on the imbalance on the Bench: "There is an imbalance in the religious composition of the judiciary. Of nine Supreme Court Judges only two are RC and only one of the 12 County Court Judges is an RC (though another is married to a Catholic.) However, eight of the 16 Resident Magistrates are Catholic and between one-third and one half of the lay panel of the Juvenile Court is RC."

The official explained that one reason for the overall imbalance was intimidation. He noted that since 1974, when the British Lord Chancellor became directly responsible for the NI Court Service, he had made "strenuous efforts to improve the balance by offering a post to suitably qualified Catholic barristers and solicitors' while all potential lay Justices of the Peace (JPs or lay magistrates) had to state their religion as part of "an explicit attempt to correct the traditional religious imbalance among JPs".

However, he noted, “very few Catholics apply for or accept judicial posts because of intimidation. Two Catholic judges have been murdered by Republican terrorists as has one Catholic RM; another [Judge Tom Travers] was severely injured and his daughter murdered on their way home from Mass”.


This was a reference to the assassination attempt on Judge Travers outside St Brigid's Catholic Church in Belfast's Malone Road in 1984 which resulted in the magistrate being badly wounded and his daughter being shot dead.

Hill concluded: “That Republican terrorists single out Catholic members of the judiciary is demonstrated by the fact that only one Protestant judge has been murdered.”

In a general comment on the judicial system, the official argued that there were many examples of cases where the NI Courts had “demonstrated a determination to oppose a strict interpretation of the law whatever the circumstances”.

In his view, the classic case was the acquittal of Edward Manning Brophy of the La Mon Hotel murders in 1978. Although the defendant admitted to the judge that he was a member of the Provisional IRA, the NI Court of Appeal and the House of Lords held that this acknowledgement could not be treated as evidence of his guilt.

On the other hand, the official went on, some judges were perceived as being "soft" on the security forces and many were presented as being "particularly hard" on Republican paramilitaries. "It is alleged that the listing of cases has been arranged to ensure that members of the security forces are tried by "sympathetic" judges. The obiter dicta of Lord Justice Gibson in the trial of RUC members for the alleged murder of suspected terrorists in South Armagh in the late 1980s may have reinforced such perceptions, but the furore which those remarks aroused in legal circles is itself clear evidence that they were widely seen to be improper."

He noted that Judge Gibson had later issued a “clarification” which was “an unexceptional statement of the attitude which judges should adopt in such circumstances”.

Gibson and his wife were murdered by the IRA in 1987.