SÉAMUS HENCHY, who has died aged 91, was a former Supreme Court judge whose many rulings helped shape constitutional law in Ireland.
He was among the judges in the Mary McGee case in 1973 who ruled that married people were entitled to obtain contraceptives for personal use. He was well-known for his dissenting judgment in the David Norris case in 1983, in which the majority of the court upheld the laws criminalising homosexuality.
And in the Raymond Crotty case in 1987 he participated in the majority judgment that ensured Irish people were allowed to vote on the Single European Act and all EU treaties that followed.
In 26 years as a judge, Séamus Henchy earned a reputation for “cold integrity” as a contemporary at the Bar and on the bench put it. While he was regarded as a liberal, what many lawyers respected in him might be regarded as the conservative virtue of writing out his judgments, his careful use of language and rigorous reasoning.
On his conferral with an honorary doctorate at NUI Galway in 1999, he was described as “one of the most outstanding judges and jurists of 20th-century Ireland”, who had embellished the law with “numerous superbly crafted judgments, which invariably advanced the cause of justice and bore the hallmarks of learning, sound judgment and stylistic elegance”.
Born in 1917, Séamus Henchy was the son of Patrick and Margaret Henchy who ran a shop in Corofin, Co Clare. His brother, the late Dr Patrick Henchy, was the former director of the National Library of Ireland and the Chester Beatty Library.
Educated locally and at St Mary’s College, Galway, NUIG, UCD and King’s Inns, he was called to the Bar in 1943 and to the Inner Bar in 1959. In 1948 he was appointed professor of Roman law, jurisprudence and legal history in UCD. For 15 years, he continued to lecture while also maintaining a solid, though not spectacular, practice at the Bar.
He was appointed a High Court judge in 1962 and to the Supreme Court in 1972. He presided over the Arms Trial in 1970.
Despite his academic interests, he did not publish extensively. In 1957 he contributed a detached, descriptive piece to Studiesentitled "The Communist Theory of Law". In it, he showed the intellectual ability – relatively rare in those cold war days – to distinguish between Marxist theory and Stalinist practice.
His “Precedent in the Irish Supreme Court” for the Modern Law Review in 1962 has been consulted by students since then. The article focuses on the balance between certainty and flexibility, consistency and justice. Better to err in the direction of the latter, he appeared to argue.
He was appointed chairman of the Independent Radio and Television Commission in 1988, a year before he was due to retire.
As is customary, his fellow members of the legal profession gathered at the last court sitting at which he officiated. There were the usual tributes and it was expected that he would respond in kind. Instead, he remarked that he had been present on many such occasions and had often wondered why those who had now nothing to lose by telling a judge what they really thought of him did not do so. He could get drunk on the tributes, he said, but preferred to let them waft by.
He went on to regale his audience with stories of experiences in court, revealing a hitherto unsuspected wit. “But then,” said a lawyer who was present, “there aren’t that many opportunities to show one’s wit as a member of the Supreme Court.”
In relation to the IRTC, he saw himself as engaged on a cultural mission, giving people multiple choice and protecting the expression of local identity in the face of an increasingly uniform communications corporations.
In 1965 he was appointed chairman of the commission set up by the International Commission of Jurists to investigate allegations of racial discrimination in British Guiana.
In 1972 he was appointed chairman of the Interdepartmental Committee on Mentally and Maladjusted Persons. He also served two terms as chairman of the Censorship of Publications Board.
He was one of four Irish members appointed to the Anglo-Irish Commission on Law Enforcement, established under the Sunningdale Agreement in 1974. He was one of three judges appointed to sit on the judicial inquiry into the Dáil allegations against the then minister for labour, Jim Tully, in 1975 and served as an observer for the International Commission of Jurists at the trial of Bishop Donal Lamont in Rhodesia in 1976.
He served as president of the Court of Criminal Appeal at various times in the 1970s.
Giving evidence at the Flood tribunal in 2000, he questioned the tribunal’s authority to inquire into the IRTC, arguing that the Dáil had not given it such power. Having made his point, however, he stayed on to be questioned about his role in the award of a licence to Century Radio.
In the 1940s he did research in Celtic studies at the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies and, as Séamus Ó hInnse, edited Miscellaneous Irish Annals(1947).
He was a member of Milltown Golf Club, Dublin, and of the Royal Irish Yacht Club, Dún Laoghaire. He is survived by his wife Averil (née Graney), nieces and nephews.
Séamus Henchy: born December 1917; died April 5th, 2009