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30 June 2021

Retirement of Sir Declan Morgan as Lord Chief Justice

President’s valedictory remarks upon the retirement of Sir Declan Morgan as Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland

Nisi Prius Court - 30 June 2021

It is a privilege to be able to join in this tribute to Sir Declan, on behalf of the Law Society of Northern Ireland and its members, to mark his retirement as Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland.

One of Sir Declan’s most noteworthy initiatives has been his willingness to engage with Northern Ireland’s elected representatives in order to help demystify the work of the Courts and the Judiciary. This willingness to embrace greater openness and transparency in his role as Head of the Judiciary has been both timely and effective. The Chief Justice’s appearance before the Justice Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly only last week is a striking example of this, and engagements such as this have helped promote much greater understanding of the administration of justice in Northern Ireland.

The old aloofness that once characterised these relationships has, under Sir Declan’s leadership, been consigned to history. Indeed, his decision, in one of the first media interviews he gave following his appointment, to describe himself as a “civil servant” captured perfectly this new vision of the Judge as servant of the wider community in Northern Ireland.

A particular aspect of Sir Declan’s leadership, which has been ground-breaking, has been his determination to bring a measure of closure to victims of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, through the work of the Coroners’ Courts in their conduct of Legacy Inquests. While finding a satisfactory way to address the legacy of our troubled past has proved almost impossible for our elected politicians, Sir Declan’s commitment to provide effective and independent judicial investigations of legacy cases has demonstrated the value of an impartial and independent judicial process as a means of accounting for the tragedies of the past.

As well as giving his attention to the challenges of our past, Sir Declan has also been a consistent and persuasive advocate of the advantages of introducing a new model of court administration. As recently as at last week’s appearance before the Justice Committee of the Assembly, Sir Declan once again set out the case for repositioning the Court Service under a Judicial Leadership Board, as has already happened in Ireland and in Scotland. I am reminded that it took the Scottish Government almost 10 years to recognise the need for introducing greater independence into the oversight of the Courts in Scotland and, as we arrive at a similar milestone in Northern Ireland, it is earnestly to be hoped that the Lord Chief Justice’s advocacy of the introduction of similar arrangements here will finally secure this most desirable outcome.

The role of the Lord Chief Justice today is by no means confined to the courts of law. One of the Chief Justice’s most important extracurricular roles is leadership of the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission. The statutory duty fulfilled by the Commission is to secure a Judiciary reflective of the community in Northern Ireland. No-one could reasonably dispute that under Sir Declan’s leadership the Judiciary is today more fully reflective of the legal community than at any time in the past. The appointment of the first female High Court Judges and Chief Justice, along with the increasing recognition of the suitability of solicitor candidates for judicial office, are developments greatly to be welcomed and which were achieved under Sir Declan’s leadership.

If I may conclude on a more personal note, I am embarrassed to admit that it is almost exactly 50 years since I first encountered Sir Declan, when we were both undergraduates at the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world. He certainly – and possibly I too – was rather more floppy-haired then than now.  Much water has passed under the bridges on the River Cam since those distant days but I know that Sir Declan has maintained close links with the University over the years.  Indeed, he was elected an Honorary Fellow of his College, Peterhouse, in 2010 - an entirely fitting recognition of the distinction which he has brought both to that College and to the University itself. I was intrigued to find that the College’s website contains a list of “Eminent Petreans,” as alumni of Peterhouse are apparently known.  The list includes no less than five Nobel prize-winners, plus Lord Kelvin, the eminent scientist, and Lord Ellenborough, who was Lord Chief Justice of England in the early 19th century. Perhaps more controversially, the list also contains Michael Portillo, the politician and broadcaster, Colin Greenwood, the bass player with Radiohead, and David Mitchell, the comedian – but not Sir Declan. This is surely a shocking omission from such an eclectic mix.  Although it is very presumptuous to offer gratuitous legal advice, it does seem to me that he has been grievously wronged and should consider an immediate appeal! 

Chief Justice, on behalf of the solicitors’ profession in Northern Ireland, I thank you for your immense contribution to the legal system in Northern Ireland and for all that you have done to uphold and promote the rule of law in this jurisdiction. I wish you a long, happy and very fulfilling retirement.  

Rowan White


Law Society of Northern Ireland


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