Northern Ireland news

Unexpected death of Northern Ireland Supreme Court justice Lord Kerr 'end of an era'

Lord Kerr of Tonaghmore, Justice of the Supreme Court, has died aged 72. Picture by Supreme Court/PA Wire

THE unexpected death of Lord Kerr yesterday marks the end of an era with the passing of the last Law Lord ever to be appointed in the UK.

Sixty-one years after he was born in Lurgan, Co Armagh, Brian Francis Kerr crossed Parliament Square in London in 2009 to become the youngest justice on the newly established Supreme Court.

Three months earlier, the former St Colman's College, Newry head boy had been created Baron Kerr of Tonaghmore, of Tonaghmore in the County of Down - the last person to be given a law life peerage under the 1876 Appellate Jurisdiction Act.

It was the culmination of a stellar career which had seen him appointed a high court judge in 1993 at the age of just 44 after a "distinguished" 15 years serving as `crown counsel' for the British government and five years as Lord Chief Justice, the north's most senior judge.

However, his most important work was arguably yet to come.

Behind Lord Kerr's avuncular appearance lay one of the finest legal minds of his generation, but his real strength as a judge lay in his conviction that, rather than existing as theoretical academic discipline, the law must serve its citizens.

Popular with his eminent colleagues for his "wonderful combination of charm and efficiency", the 72-year-old was "particularly conscious of the problems experienced by people in their ordinary lives and of the importance of developing the common law so as to respond to the problems and values", according to President of the Supreme Court Lord Reed.

Among his rulings was that doctors have a duty to take reasonable care to explain to patients the risks of treatment to allow them to make informed decisions, after a young woman was not given key information about the risky delivery of her baby.

Lord Reed said this ruling "resulted in changes to medical practice", while another touching on the overturning of a conviction in New Zealand had far reaching implications for so-called "false confessions.

Lord Kerr himself regarded his most important case as the 2018 legal challenge to Northern Ireland abortion law brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.

With four of the seven justices, Lord Kerr ruled in prohibiting abortion in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality the law in Northern Ireland was incompatible with human rights legislation.

"One only has to read the dreadful circumstances of the young women who were courageous enough to give … an account of their experiences in order to be struck how dreadful those experiences were," he said in an interview with the Guardian to mark his retirement.

"It was an extremely important case and one which I was very pleased to be part of."

Lord Reed said his colleague had a "human response to the plight of the vulnerable", a "strong instinctive sense of justice" and believe that "legal reasoning must be tempered with a healthy dose of realism and common sense".

Lord Kerr "stood out in the Supreme Court for his sensitivity for the responsibility that judges have to ensure that the lawfulness of government incursions into individual freedoms is subject to careful scrutiny".

Despite his advancing years, he remained keenly interested in progress and innovation. After pioneering the use of new technology in Northern Ireland courts, he led efforts to increase the use of IT in courtrooms, preparing the ground for the move to remote hearings after the pandemic forced the suspension of physical hearings.

His retirement in September - by then the longest serving Supreme Court justice - came not as a dwindling end of a once venerable legal career but a mere coda to a lifetime of public service.

There is no doubt that had his death not come unexpectedly he would have been a key figure in public discourse in the years ahead.

Last month in a newspaper interview he was condemning British prime minister Boris Johnson's persistent abuse of the judiciary as "unbridled power" and a "slippery slope to dictatorship".

And just two weeks before his death he joined The London Court of International Arbitration (LCIA) Database, one of the world's leading international institutions for commercial dispute resolution.

He is survived by his wife Gillian, their two sons and families, a unit from which he derived his deepest joy.

His Who's Who entry listed under `recreation': "Trying to be and hoping to make my family happy".

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