18 Jun 2021

First woman appointed to head Northern Ireland's judiciary 

Mrs Justice Siobhan Keegan appointed to top role as incumbent warns of Brexit's threat to rule of law   

Photo of Siobhan Keegan

Mrs Justice Siobhan Keegan has been appointed to lead Northern Ireland’s judiciary, making her the first woman judges’ chief in any of the nations that make up the UK. 

Her appointment comes in the same week that the current incumbent, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, has highlighted the threat posed to the rule of law in Northern Ireland by Brexit, warning that it has provided “fertile ground” for “forces of darkness”. 

Mrs Justice Keegan will be sworn in as Lady Chief Justice in September, having already achieved one landmark for women lawyers in 2015, when she was one of two women appointed as High Court judges in Northern Ireland for the first time. 

She is currently presiding coroner for Northern Ireland, having been appointed to the position in July 2017 and was formerly vice-chair of the Bar of Northern Ireland. Last month, she concluded a long-running inquest into the killing of ten people in west Belfast in August 1971 in the wake of an Army operation by ruling they were "entirely innocent". 

Rowan White, president of the Law Society of Northern Ireland, said: “As women now make up at least half of the legal profession in Northern Ireland it is encouraging to see a female become the head of the Judiciary. The Law Society looks forward to working with Chief Justice Keegan in her new role.” 

A woman is yet to be appointed to head the judiciary in either England and Wales – in the role of Lord Chief Justice – or Scotland, as Lord President of the Court of Session, although in 2017 Baroness Hale became the first woman president of the UK’s Supreme Court, the final court of appeal for all UK civil cases, and criminal cases from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

Mrs Justice Keegan looks set to be taking up her role during a challenging period for Northern Ireland, given unrest within the unionist and loyalist communities sparked by anger at the Northern Ireland protocol, which is currently being challenged in Northern Ireland’s High Court by unionist politicians and a loyalist pastor.  

Speaking at a conference on Brexit’s impact on the rule of law on the island of Ireland, which was organised by The Bar of Ireland, he said the adherence of elements of the community “to the notion of success through violence hangs over us like a dark, foreboding shadow”, according to The Irish Times

He said he believed EU law would continue to affect Northern Ireland’s executive, legislature and judicial branches, a fact that “in itself is a catalyst for violence and a consequent breakdown in adherence to the rule of law in Northern Ireland society”.  

He added” “It is painfully obvious in Northern Ireland that we have experienced too often a failure of politics to focus on solutions and as a consequence this has promoted division.”  

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