‘Degradation of the Irish Bench’ – Colum Kenny on Sir John Ross and a private plea in 1919

An Irishman’s Diary

Controversy about the quality and number of Irish judges is not new. A century ago, even as the British faced insurgency in Ireland, Sir John Ross appealed privately to Austen Chamberlain MP to do something about it.

Ross, himself a Chancery judge, claimed that he did not want to harm the Irish Lord Chancellor, Sir James Campbell. He suggested that Campbell was "unconscious" of having done wrong, but simply, "having his hands in the till, he thinks it right to spend the contents for the benefit of other good fellows."

As excuses go, it was not the best. In the summer of 1921, Ross himself would succeed Campbell to become the last Irish lord chancellor.

In 1919 Chamberlain was UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, and in 1921 he would become leader of the Conservative Party. In 1921 he was also part of the small team that negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty.


In January 1919 Ross told him about “the degradation of the Irish Bench”, marking his letter “private” and “most confidential”. Ross claimed that degradation due to political “jobbing” was “almost incredible”. He enclosed a letter endorsing his opinion from “the most experienced official in Ireland, Sir H. Robinson”, and advised Chamberlain that “the financial part concerns you”.

There was then a very small number of judges in the highest Irish courts. Even so, critics thought there were too many

Henry Robinson had indeed great official experience, of Irish local government in particular, and was respected even by some nationalists. But he was soon to leave Ireland on the advice of Michael Collins. Ross asked Chamberlain to "please burn at once" Robinson's letter when he had finished reading it.

The letter from Ross himself survives among Chamberlain papers in the University of Birmingham. So too does a copy of another that Ross had sent to Edward Shortt MP, chief secretary for Ireland until just week earlier when he was made Home Secretary in London. The appointment of Ross to succeed Campbell later in 1921 has been seen as a “surprise”, but these letters may help to explain it.

By comparison to today, there was then a very small number of judges in the highest Irish courts. Even so, critics thought there were too many. Ross advised, "Mr Justice Madden is about to resign" and "on no account [underlined by Ross] let his place be taken". Indeed, thought Ross, "the whole Four Courts system ought to be enquired into."

Ross laid on the flattery. In his letter to Shortt he praised the absolute virtue of English judges “who were never better than today”. One may take with a pinch of salt his assertion that the English judges were “on the whole carefully selected on the merits, and are not the nominees of political jobbers.”

A correspondent signing him or herself 'a loyal Irish taxpayer' had at one point written to the Spectator to lament 'the notoriously overmanned Irish bench'

In Ireland, as he explained it, there were two political camps: “One succeeds in perpetuating a few jobs (our appointments are now nearly all jobs), then compensation is made to the other camp in similar currency – all at the expense of the country.” Fortunately, the revolution then being fought would stamp out such political favouritism after independence.

Ross claimed that the English Bar had prevented Campbell from becoming a judge over there, but that Campbell was thereupon fixed up with a seat in Ireland. Ross also listed others appointment of which he disapproved.

In the 16 years before independence, changes on the bench came rapidly. Among them was that of William Moore, made a high court judge in 1917. According to Ross, "he was appointed to the astonishment of everybody – at a cost of about £4,000 per annum". Moore, a former unionist MP who robustly defended Ulster's right to armed resistance, later became chief justice of Northern Ireland.

A correspondent signing him or herself "a loyal Irish taxpayer" had at one point written to the Spectator to lament "the notoriously overmanned Irish bench". The writer thought, "There are at least twice too many High Court Judges in Ireland."

The National Library of Ireland has a sketch of Ross by Frank Leah in 1922, showing Ross in wig and gown at his judicial desk. Four years later FE Ball, in his two-volume review of the Irish judiciary between 1221 and 1921, described Ross as "able, courageous and consistent".

Ross was the son of a sometime Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and was a former MP for Londonderry. Later in January 1919 he wrote from his home at Oatlands, Stillorgan, to thank Chamberlain for confirming that he had destroyed Robinson's letter.

Ross then told Chamberlain, whom Lloyd George had appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer just weeks earlier, that there was "consternation among the high jobbers" in Ireland at his appointment.

He claimed that Bonar Law, Chamberlain's predecessor and a future prime minister, was "altogether in Campbell's hands."