Australia appoints first ever woman Chief Justice of the High Court.

I wrote a blog post in October of this year about women judges, and a Council of Europe report on the proportion of women judges across European jurisdictions. The report found that the judicial systems with the lowest percentage of women among professional judges were: Azerbaijan (11%), Armenia (23%), Northern Ireland (23%), Scotland (23%), England & Wales (30%) and Ireland (33%). To put the figures for Ireland, North and South, into perspective: the Europe-wide average for women representation among the judiciary was 51%.

In fact, it has now been over a year since the first two women in the history of the judiciary in NI were appointed to the NI High Court. Upon being sworn into office, Denise McBride QC and Siobhan Keegan QC were the first women to be appointed to the position since the High Court was established in 1921. I remember hearing the news, and feeling a weird sensation of pride and exasperation: pride that these talented and experienced women were being recognised, and exasperated at the fact that it had taken so long for women to be appointed in the first place.

Their appointments were welcomed by the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan, who established the Women in Law group in 2012. He said the appointments made him feel as though “the hands of history” were on his shoulder. After all, senior judicial ranks in NI have been a veritable citadel of male dominance since 1921. Moreover, this was not just confined to the judiciary. For much of that time, it was the status quo for the rest of the legal profession, too. Incredibly, during the first 50 years of the Bar Council in Northern Ireland, a mere eight women were called to the Bar. Of those eight women, only three went on to practice.

I was at once both similarly gladdened and frustrated by the news from Australia in late November: Susan Mary Kiefel AC was confirmed as the incoming Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia. Her appointment marks the first time a woman held the position in the court’s 113-year history.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbul confirmed that Justice Kiefel will take over from Robert French as Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia when he retires from the bench in January 2017. Her appointment was announced alongside that of 42-year-old James Edelman, who has been appointed as a High Court judge in order to fill the vacancy left behind by Justice Kiefel’s elevation. The appointments have received wide approval from both the Turnbull government and the Labour Party opposition, with shadow attorney general Mark Dreyfus havng described both appointments as ‘highly deserved’.

Justice Kiefel’s appointment is welcome news, especially given her background and fantastic legal career. Her career had been described by Prime Minister Turnbull as ‘an inspiration’ when he announced her appointment. Upon reading up on her biography, I found that ‘an inspiration’ is certainly a valid way to describe her career. It is illustrative of the view that there are more ways to enter the legal profession that the traditional straight from secondary school to a LLB, and onwards to the subsequent postgraduate training courses.

After dropping out of high school at the age of 15 in pursuit of financial independence, Justice Kiefel was employed as a secretary for a building society, an architect, and an exploration company before starting work as a receptionist for a group of barristers, Fitzgerald, Moynihan and Mack, a Brisbane law firm. She studied for completion of her high school qualifications part-time while working at the firm. In 1973, Kiefel joined solicitors Cannan and Peterson (which became Sly & Weigall Cannan & Peterson and is now Norton Rose Fulbright) as a legal clerk. She then commenced studying law part-time through the Barristers Admission Board, passing her course with Honours. After practicing at the bar, she then gained a Master of Laws from the University of Cambridge. She was awarded the C.J. Hamson Prize in Comparative Law and the Jennings Prize.  Justice Kiefel then became the first woman in the state of Queensland to take silk in 1987.

She was appointed to the Queensland Supreme Court in 1993, and the Federal Court of Australia in 1994. Finally, Justice Kiefel has served a tenure as President of the Queensland Bar Association. In 2008, she was elected to an Honorary Fellowship of Wolfson College, Cambridge.

In August 2009, Justice Kiefel was granted an Honorary Doctorate from Griffith University. Justice Kiefel was chosen to recognise her distinguished contributions to the legal profession and for leading the way for women in the industry. On 13 June 2011, she was named a Companion of the Order of Australia for eminent service to the law and to the judiciary, to law reform and to legal education in the areas of ethics, justice and governance.

In August 2007, Attorney-General Philip Ruddock announced Kiefel as the nominee to the High Court of Australia to replace the retiring High Court Justice Ian Callinan. Kiefel had previously been considered a favourite nominee to replace former High Court Justice Mary Gaudron when she retired in 2003, and again in 2005 as replacement for Justice Michael McHugh. Kiefel is the third woman High Court Justice, and the forty sixth overall. Her appointment alongside incumbent Justice Susan Crennan marked the first time two women sat concurrently on the High Court bench.

She is considered a conservative “black letter” lawyer in the mould of Justice Heydon. At the High Court, Justice Kiefel has been involved in high-profile judgements including dismissing the Australian government’s Malaysia refugee solution, the overturning of a same-sex marriage law and the collapse of a company owned by billionaire former MP Clive Palmer.

Many have heralded Justice Kiefel’s appointment as a milestone of women in the Australian legal profession, which is still working to shake off its historical ‘boys club’ status. In 2005, as Justice McHugh neared his retirement, he made a speech in which praised the only female judge in the High Court’s history, Mary Gaudron, and said he wanted a woman to succeed him. He was described as having ‘sealed his status as poster boy for women lawyers with his claim that there are 10 females who would make “first-class” High Court judges’. However, that it took two more years before Kiefel was appointed to the High Court, emphasises the ‘boys club’ nature of the Australian judiciary, despite Justice McHugh’s remarks.

In a short statement following the announcement, Justice Kiefel said the High Court was as relevant now as it was more than a century ago:

“The issues that come before the High Court affect many aspects of the life of the nation…

“It will be a privilege to walk in the footsteps of the eminent jurists who have been appointed chief justices since the court was established in 1903.”

Law Council of Australia president Stuart Clark described Justice Kiefel as a ‘trailblazer for women in the legal profession’ and ‘an inspiration to all young people considering a career in law.’

Australian Women Lawyers President Ann-Maree David also praised the appointment, but warned against complacency, saying:

‘The appointment of Justice Susan Kiefel as Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia gives us confidence that times are changing. However, neither Australian Women Lawyers nor the public they serve will wait another 113 years to achieve equality in all regards…’

Ms David further cited a persistent gender pay gap and poor elevation rates for women in private practice and the judiciary. It is evident that there is still work to be done in terms of gender parity, and recognition of women’s issues in the legal system. In this regard, Northern Ireland and Australia have something in common.

In a speech to graduates at Griffith University in 2009, Justice Kiefel spoke of her “fortunate” career as both barrister and judge:

“With the benefit of considerable hindsight it is quite easy to say how one may have a rewarding working life…

“It does not seem so simple when you are not there. You find that occupation or endeavour that suits your talents and your personality.

“It is what the educator Sir Ken Robinson calls being in your element … people in their element are doing the thing they love and in doing it they feel like their most authentic self.”

I feel that these are words we can all take away from this story: life and a chosen profession is about finding what suits you, what you are stimulated by and interested in, and smply being yourself.

We may not agree with Justice Kiefel’s interpretation of the law. But we can all surely appreciate her background, the trajectory of her legal career, and her trailblazing path which has ensured women have finally reached the highest position in the Australian judiciary.


Scotland, and the age of criminal responsibility.

I spotted an interesting legal story recently -at the start of December – on a topic which always proves to be controversial.It involves the Scottish legal system, the age of criminal responsibility, and the new proposal from a Minister in the Scottish Government to increase the age of criminal responsibility.

Mark McDonald, the Minister for Childcare and Early Years, announced a few weeks ago that Scotland’s minimum age of criminal responsibility will be raised to 12 years, in line with UN standards. The current minimum age of eight, which is the lowest in Europe, was labelled a “national embarrassment” by the Minister. The Scottish Government therefore would bring forward legislation to raise the age by four years, having called the case for it “clear and compelling”.

In a statement to Holyrood, Mr McDonald told MSPs:

“Having the lowest minimum age of criminal responsibility in Europe does not match with our progressive approach to youth justice and ambitions to give children the best start in life.

“Raising the age of criminal responsibility will mean people no longer face potentially damaging and life-altering consequences, such as a criminal record, for events that took place when they were a young child.”

He added that he recognised the need for safeguards in exceptional cases, and that police would still have powers to investigate serious offences committed by children under 12s.

Liam McArthur MSP, the Scottish Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Justice, welcomed the decision. His predecessor in the role Alison McInnes, had advocated the rise, but her attempts to alter the law by bringing forward amendments to a criminal justice bill in the last Holyrood session were voted down by the SNP.

Mr McDonald told the chamber on Thursday that he wanted to put on the record his thanks to Ms McInnes for pressing the issue.

The debate about the age of criminal responsbility in Scotland is not a new one. The Scottish government raised the age of criminal prosecution to 12 in 2010, assuring that no one under that age could be prosecuted or sentenced in the criminal courts but would be dealt with through children’s hearings. However, those outcomes would still be added to children’s criminal records.

A recent consultation with police, prosecutors and victims’ groups in Scotland found that 95% supported an increase to the age of 12 or above.

The minimum age of criminal responsibility in Northern Ireland is 10. Ths is the same in England and Wales. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has stated that setting the age of criminal responsibility below 12 is considered “not to be internationally acceptable”.

In 2008, Great Britain was urged by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to raise the age of criminal responsibility, ban corporal punishment (including parental smacking at home), and regulate the appearance of children in reality TV shows. While welcoming positive developments made by the then Labour Government, the UN Committee presented a harsh critique of the UK’s legal and social shortcomings in a major report. On raising the age of criminal responsibility, the report called on the UK Government to “fully implement international standards of justice” and “raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility”.

In Northern Ireland, the issue of raising the age of criminal responsibility was broached last year by the then Justice Minister, David Ford. Mr Ford called for the age to be increased t0 12, saying that young children who are criminalised in Northern Ireland should be “treated as victims, not offenders”. Mr Ford, a former social worker, stressed the importance of addressing the main cause of criminal and/or anti-social behaviour of young children:

“Often young people who offend are acting out offending behaviour which they witnessed or has been perpetrated on them, they are in need of care, not punishment – these children in many cases are victims themselves.”

Mr Ford added:

“Criminalising children is far less effective than addressing the root causes of their behaviour, working with them and their families to support more positive outcomes for them.”

He said children aged 10 or 11 accounted for less than 1% of those in the youth justice system in Northern Ireland.

Advocates of raising the of criminal responsibility, including the Probation Board for Northern Ireland, have urged Ministers in Northern Ireland to set an example for rest of the UK. (To read an excellent article about the movement to increase the age of criminal responsibility in Northern Ireland, see Dr Nicola Carr’s article on QPOL.)

Koulla Yiasouma, the Children’s Commissioner for Northern Ireland said in 2015 that raising the age to 12 would not open any floodgates, noting in 2012/13 there were no 10 or 11 year-old children convicted in any court. Moreover, she said she was bewildered that the Assembly had been unwilling to engage in reasonable debate on the issue: “Not only is there no appetite to raise the age, but also there is significant opposition.”

Interestingly enough, the Hillsborough Agreement of 2011 (which led to the devolution of justice powers to Stormont) recommended ncreasing the age of criminal responsibility.

This low age raises a bundle of contradictions: it is out of line with other responsibilities including the age of sexual consent (16), the age at which it is legal to drive a car (17) and the age at which a person is entitled to vote (18). This situation means that in Northern Ireland, a young person could be charged with a sexual offence at age 10 while they cannot actually consent to sex until age 16.

Moreover, there have been reports suggesting that the age of criminal responsibility in England, Wales and Northern Ireland could be “unreasonably low” given the emerging understanding of how slowly the brains of children mature, according to a report (2011) by the Royal Society. Widespread differences between individuals also mean that the cut-off age at which children are deemed fit to stand trial, at 10 years old, just might not be justifiable in all cases. The comments were part of an assessment carried out by a panel of scientists, lawyers and ethicists of how developments in neuroscience and brain imaging should inform the future practice of law.

Research has shown that there is huge variation between individuals and that the development of the slowest-developing parts of the brain is associated with comparable changes in mental functions such as IQ, suggestibility, impulsivity, memory and decision-making. In particular, the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making, impulse control and cognitive control, is among the slowest parts of the brain to mature and is not fully developed until around the age of 20. In contrast, the amygdala, an area of the brain responsible for reward and emotional processing, develops during early adolescence.

The legal question of criminal responsibility actually also shows how science, particularly neuroscience, should form part of general policy debates around criminal justice.

The minimum age of criminal responsibility varies across many countries. It ranges from 18 in Belgium, 15 in Denmark, 14 in Italy, 13 in France and 12 in the Netherlands. These inter-jurisdictional disparities reflect different attitudes and approaches to the treatment of children and young people. In countries with relatively higher ages of criminal responsibility, young people  are more often dealt with within child protection and welfare systems. In such countres, therethus  is a recognition that there are often underlying wider needs amongst these young people including experiences of multiple adversity – abuse, poverty, domestic violence, substance misuse and mental health difficulties. This was the very point that David Ford was trying to make whilst he was in post as Justice Minister in Northern Ireland.

It will be interesting to see whether the recent developments in Scotland reverbrate across the Irish Sea, and reach Northern Ireland.


Baroness Hale Strikes Again.

As we await the countdown to the judgment of the UK Supreme Court to various legal challengest to Brexit, it might be interesting to revisit the comments delivered by Baroness Hale regarding the planned Great Repeal Bill of Theresa May.

Prior to hearing the UK government’s appeal on whether the UK Parliament should be consulted on the invoking of Article 50, Baroness Hale said that the Prime Minister could be forced to repeal and then replace existing European legislation before she initiates Brexit.

In comments which set the scene for reigniting the row over the judiciary’s role in Brexit, Baroness Hale of Richmond, deputy president of the Supreme Court, said the Anglo-Welsh appeal case raised “difficult and delicate issues” about the relationship between Parliament and the UK Government.

Two weeks before Baroness Hale delivered her lecture containing the comments, three High Court judges held that the UK government must seek and acquire UK Parliamentary approval to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which sets out the two-year process by which Member States may withdraw from the EU.

In the lecture, Baroness Hale queried whether an Act of Parliament alone would be sufficient to enable the UK Government to commence the Brexit process, and said that ministers may have to replace legislation which confirmed the accension of the UK to the-then European Community.

The legislation Baroness Hale was referring to is the European Communities Act 1972, which legislated for the accession of the UK to the European Communities, the collective term for the European Coal and Steel Community, the European Economic Community, and the European Atomic Energy Community. The 1972 Act also provided for the incorporation and implementation of European Union law (then Community law) into the domestic law of the UK.

The Act has been amended several times to give legal effect to the Single European Act, the Maastricht Treaty which established the European Union, and most recently the Treaty of Lisbon. It is the 1972 Act which may or may not be repealed or amended following the decision in the EU Referendum to “Leave the European Union” on Thursday 23rd June 2016. In an interview with BBC News in October 2016, Theresa May promised that the UK Government would introduce a bill to repeal the Act, the so-called ‘Great Repeal Bill’.

Of the issue, Baroness Hale said:

“The argument is that the European Communities Act 1972 grants rights to individuals and others which will be lost if the treaties cease to apply…Such a result, it is said, can only be achieved by an Act of Parliament… Another question is whether it would be enough for a simple Act of Parliament to authorise the Government to give notice, or whether it would have to be a replacement for the 1972 Act.”

Lady Hale added:

“What is meant by the exercise of the executive power of the state? To what extent can it be exercised in a way which may undermine the exercise of the legislative power of the state? We do not have a written constitution to tell us.”

Baroness Hale was merely discussing the unique nature of UK law, given that the constitution is uncodified. That the UK Government have ended up in a legal tangled mess over Brexit must be the worst kept secret in Europe.

Unsurprisingly, Lady Hale’s comments prompted a furious response from Dominic Raab, a former justice minister and member of the Brexit Select Committee:

“I’m all for democratic debate…But you can’t have it both ways. If such a senior judge muses in public about a pending Supreme Court judgment, the judiciary can hardly scream blue murder if politicians, the media or public respond.

“If judges dip their toes in political waters . . . they are asking to get splashed back.”

Ministers are preparing a “bombproof” three-line Brexit Bill in case the government loses its appeal. It has been drawn up so tightly that ministers hope it cannot be amended by MPs attempting to derail Brexit.

But first, we must hear from the UK Supreme Court. And so we will look to the New Year, and wonder what it will have in store.

Women top EurActiv’s ‘Power List’ of Top 50 Brexit influencers.

All talk in relation to the UK’s referendum on its contnued membership of the EU and subsequent Brexit result has focused more on policy than people, and issues rather than individuals. What do we know about those politicians and leaders who will oversee the invoking of Art 50, and negotiations? Who will be important to watch during the transitional stages of withdrawal?

Here is where it gets interesting. For you see, a website has conducted research to determine the power-players to watch during the negotiations. And it has complied quite the list. With a twist, I should add: despite the UK’s referendum on the EU being called by a man, and both the Leave campaign and the Remain campaign being led by men, women actually have been found to now hold most of the cards when it comes to negotiating Brexit.

Unsurprisingly (at least in my opinion) Theresa May, Angela Merkel and Nicola Sturgeon top the 50-strong list of the key figures who will influence the next two years (or more) of talks on the future EU-UK relationship.

The British Prime Minister (who is adamant she will not call a General Election), German Chancellor (who recently declared her intent to seek re-election) and Scottish First Minister (safely returned with her majority SNP government in May) head a list of influencial persons, which sees 22% women representation. Another eight women  make up the #Brexit50, which was compiled by an expert panel comprised of academics, journalists,  and think-tankers.

Daniela Vincenti, editor-in-chief of said of the list:

“This unprecedented political divorce will be hugely important to the futures of both sides of the split. Our Brexit50 ranking gives you a glance at the movers and shakers that will play a key role in this process in the months and years ahead.”

Readers would not be surprised at the UK and German politicians’ pole positions; these women are the two most powerful leaders in the talks. (EurActive did describe both as ‘democratically-elected’, yet it should be noted that Ms May was not elected as Prime Minister, nor as the leader of the Conservative Party this summer). Ms Sturgeon took third place given her powerful platform dervived from the Scottish Remain vote: not only an overwhelming pro-EU vote nationally, but from every constituency.

That has led to the Scottish Government joining an ongoing legal case arguing for Article 50 to be triggered through the Westminster Parliament. The Scottish Government hopes the requireent of a Parliamentary consultation and vote might even possibly extend to the devolved administrations (Northern Ireland also voted to stay in the EU.)

The remaining personalities from Top Ten – all men, it should be noted – are:

  • Michel Barnier, the chief EU Brexit negotiator,
  • Donald Tusk, who as President of the EU Council must keep all 27 other heads of government in agreement,
  • Francois Hollande, President of France (although not for much longer),
  • Phillip Hammond, the UK Chancellor,
  • David Davis, the Secretary of State for the EU,
  • Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, and
  • Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s lead negotiator.

All will find the coming 24 months largely dominated by the talks, which are already shrouded in secrecy, ucertainity, frustration and some mistrust.

Overall, the UK and Germany top the list in terms of nationalities of the personalities involved, with 22 and nine, respectively. More than 10 other nationalities are represented. Most are politicians, followed by officials from the institutions, plus the media and other stakeholders.

The most powerful media figure was held to be the editor of the Eurosceptic Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, in 25th place.

An unexpected figure was Gina Miller, one of the plaintiffs in the English legal challenge to ensure the British Government consulted the UK Parliament over Article 50.

The power ranking is also transitory, and based upon the current standings of those involved. As previously mentioned, President Hollande is unlikely to still be French President in a year’s time. Moreover Martin Schulz announced last week he would leave the European Parliament – although that move is likely to see him end up as German Foreign Minister, or maybe even Chancellor.

And others, who say they are departing, are likely to continue to carry some weight. Former UKIP Leader Nigel Farage might be rumoured to be departing soon for the US, but that does not mean he will not follow the negotiations.

A timely note of caution before we celebrate the prominent positions of women politicians on this list. The potential election of another woman, Marine Le Pen of the FN, (number 38 in the list), as French president next year, could just throw the whole future of the EU itself into doubt.

A Brexit Legal Challenge a Day…

The British Government is already in the middle of a legal battle to stop MPs getting the final say over triggering the Article 50 process. This coming week sees that particular legal challenge be heard on appeal before the UK Supreme Court.

But did you know that the British Government is now facing a legal battle over whether the UK stays inside the single market after it has left the EU?

Typical. You wait for a Brexit legal challenge, and multitudes appear all at once.

Lawyers have said any potential risk of uncertainty over the UK’s European Economic Area (EEA) membership means Ministers might be stopped from withdrawing the UK out of the Single Market. They will submit the UK will not automatically leave the EEA when it leaves the EU, and Parliament should decide on this very issue.

Quelle surprise, the British Government disagrees, and says it believes the UK’s EEA membership will end when the UK leaves the EU.

But why is the Single Market suddenly so important, I hear you ask. Well, in a nutshell: the Single Market enables the tariff-free movement of goods, services, money and people within the EU.The EEA,established in the 1990s, extends those benefits to some non-EU members including Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. Non-EU members are outside the Common Agricultural Policy and customs union, but do however receive barrier-free trade with the Single Market in return for paying into some EU budgets, and accepting the free movement of workers.

The pro-Single Market think-tank British Influence is writing to the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis, to inform him that it is planning to seek a formal judicial review of the Government’s position.The organisations has warned that if the Government does not receive a clear legal opinion on the issue, it ultimately could potentially end up acting outside the law.

To be fair, it is rather a complex issue, especially because there is no precedent to look to as an indicator of what might occur. But it does serve to highlight once again the lack of consideration and thought of David Cameron’s Government in deciding to hold a referendum on EU membership.

You see, all EU member states are in the EEA, and it had been assumed that when the UK leaves the EU, it would automatically leave the EEA as well. Let this be a lesson in avoiding assumptions, and of the need to thoroughly research before reaching a decision.

For some lawyers argue that leaving the EEA would not be automatic, and indeed would happen only if the UK formally withdraws by triggering Art 127 of the EEA agreement. (I know, another article of another agreement. But get used to it; you will hear a lot about Art 127 going forward I do believe).

The legal question is essentially focused on whether the UK is a member of the EEA in its own right, or because it is a member of the EU.

Should the courts support the legal challenge, thereby granting the UK Parliament the final determination on EEA membership, then MPs would have the pportunity to vote to ensure the UK remains in the Single Market until a long-term trading relationship with the EU has been agreed. And if MPs are found to have the authority to decide on Article 127, they could potentially overcome the Government’s small majority, and keep the UK within the Single Market post- Brexit.

Of course, this would infuriate Brexiteers, but pro-EU campaigners say MPs would feel able to do this because the electorate voted in the referendum to leave the EU and not the single market. Recall the precise wording of the referendum this summer: it was put to the electorate to submit their opinion on the UK’s membership of the European Union, not the Single Market (or indeed, whether there should be a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit, but that is another battle for another time.)

Paradoxically though, the legal uncertainty over EEA membership could just end up being good news for the Government.

If its negotiations with the EU went badly and it was unlikely a satisfactory deal could be reached, the UK could threaten to stay within the EEA after Brexit. This would be politically hard for the Government to sell as it would still involve EU workers moving freely within the UK. But it might be economically better than having to rely on World Trade Organisation rules, which could involve high tariffs and barriers to trade.It would lso meanthe UK might be ble to force the EU into accepting a transitional period. This would be a useful tactic for UK negotiators to deploy, as there does not appear to be any mechanism for the EEA to force out one of its members.

At the the very least, this latest threatened legal challengemay result in a lengthy legal process – potentially involving the European Court of Justice – that could delay Brexit negotiations. Moreover, if the courts find that Art 127 does need to be invoked, there is the question of whether an Act of Parliament would be needed for it to be authorised.

Downing Street said the UK was only party to the EEA agreement through its EU membership, and the Government’s position was clear that “once we leave the EU we will automatically leave the EEA”.

In other words: Brext means Brexit. So that’s alright then.

It all appears to be quite the legal, political and economic tangled mess, doesn’t it? Almost as if the British Government has (to excuse The Smiths’ reference) started something, and now it’s not too sure…


Another law firm comes to (Belfast) town.

I recently wrote about how DWF, an international law firm, has arrived in Northern Ireland and established an office here through a takeover of Belfast-based firm C & H Jefferon. Today, I have discovered another law firm will make the trip across the Irish Sea.

Northern Ireland law firm McManus & Kearney, which specialises in debt and insolvency, has been taken over by English practice Shoosmiths in the latest in a wave of mergers between Northern Irish firms and English firms.

McManus & Kearney is based at Montgomery Street in Belfast, and was founded in 1990. It now will become Shoosmiths’ 12th office in the UK. The office will henceforth be known as Shoosmiths, but partners Mary Frances Kearney and Jason Byrne will remain at the practice. The 14 staff currently working at the practice will also remain there after the merger.

Shoosmiths has offices in Birmingham, Edinburgh, London, Manchester, Reading, Milton Keynes, Northampton, Nottingham, Southhampton, and Basingstoke. This week saw the firm open a new office in Leeds. The overall practice had a turnover of £102m in the year to the end of April.

Shoosmiths’ Chief Executive, Claire Rowe, said of the Northern Irish merger:

“our opening in Northern Ireland is symbolic of our commitment to our clients across the UK and ensuring our award-winning commerical and recoveries services are the very best on offer.

“The move was motivated by client demand and by our wish to have a commerical presence in Northern Ireland as a result of he complex work we undertake in recoveries and commercial financial services.

“It is a pleasure to bring Shoosmiths to Northern Ireland, through a well-known, trusted and successful business such as McManus & Kearney.”

Mary Frances Kearney, who established the firm with now-retired Gerard McManus, said:

“We have known of and worked with Shoosmiths for a long time. It’s a terrific cultural fit.

“The firm’s reputation in the recoveries market is exemplary and Shoosmiths as a whole has an unsurpassed reputation for client service.

“We are thrilled to be a part of Shoosmiths after working very hard to build our successful business over 30 years and look forward to playing a part in building Shoosmiths’ presence in Northern Ireland.”

Shoosmiths’ partner, Stephen Dawson, lives in Northern Ireland and it is believed he will also assist in the development of the new office.

I wonder if there will be more news to come regarding mergers between Northern Irish firms and firms elsewhere? This week saw two stories about mergers; evidence of the strength of the Northern Irish legal market.



It’s feeling like 1997.

There have been little snippets of stories over the past few months which harken back to a different age in politics.

Between the EU Referendum, the never-ending Labour leadership contest, the resignation of a Prime Minister and the subsequent topsy-turvy Conservative leadership contest, this summer was a rollercoaster of politics and unheaval. You might have been forgiven for missing a little story from one Mr Tony Blair, a former Prime Minister of the UK.

In August, Mr Blair admitted that his brand of politics may have “had its day” when involved in a discussion about the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Sen Bernie Sanders in the US as apparent new standard-bearers of the left. Mr Blair said politicians must offer solutions to people’s concerns rather than just “riding the anger”. He offered the success of Hillary Clinton in holding off the insurgent Mr Sanders to win the Democratic presidential nomination as evidence that centrist solutions to concerns raised by globalisation were perhaps still possible.

Speaking to Politico, Mr Blair said:

“It’s a very open question whether the type of politics I represent really has had its day or not…

“There were times when I was growing up in politics and when I was prime minister when I had complete confidence in my own ability, just as a professional, to predict the course of politics. The last few years have caused me to question [that].

“I’m re-evaluating the whole time but I haven’t come to the conclusion that centrist politics is wrong or dead…I think it’s very much alive but it needs to be given a renewal, a revival, and a muscularity which it presently lacks.”

And so Mr Blair edged his way back into the news, after a brief moment in the spotlight campaigning in the EU Referendum. But Brexit was in the headlines, with business fears and queries about the triggering of Art 50, and so Mr Blair’s comments were lost in news. Moreover, it was noted that this was the first time Mr Blair had been interviewed and reported on since the publication of the Chilcott Report.

Then came September. Mr Blair announced he was closing down the majority of his commercial business ventures, declaring that 80% of his time would be taken up with not-for-profit work, which will also benefit from the “substantial financial reserves” from the closing firms.

Over nine years Mr Blair and his staff established a group of organisations which employed around 200 people and working in more than 20 different countries round the world. In September, an email was sent around to staff explaining he would close Tony Blair Associates because he wanted to “expand our activities and bring everything under one roof”. Associated companies Windrush and Firerush were also be wound up, although Mr Blair said he would retain a “small number of consultancies”.

Again, nothing too much was made from this story. All this story seemed to generate were comments, especially on social media, about Mr Blair’s work since he had left office. Mr Blair was reported to have made millions advising foreign governments, including Kazakhstan and Serbia, as well as multinational companies. He has also been subject to criticism and query alike for the amount of income received from his business ventures over the years.

Fast forward to the start of October. Mr Blair was back in the headlines (or headlights?) once more, and suddenly the steady stream of news came together.

Tony Blair indicated that he was preparing to return to UK politics seemingly in an effort to prevent the “tragedy” of Britain becoming a “one-party state”. The former Prime Minister warned that the rise of the hard-Left in Labour means that “the centre ground is in retreat” as he urged moderate politicians to “rise to the challenge”.

Asked in an interview with Esquire magazine if he is planning to return to British politics, he said:

“There’s a limit to what I want to say about my own position at this moment. All I can say is that this is where politics is at.

“Do I feel strongly about it? Yes, I do. Am I very motivated by that? Yes. Where do I go from here? What exactly do I do? That’s an open question.”

He Who Won three elections as Prime Minister after helping to transform Labour in the 1990s then accused Jeremy Corbyn of taking the Labour Party “back to the Sixties”. He warning that Mr Corbyn’s views are “very, very remote from the way that the broad mass of people really think”. He did also admit that he had deliberately chosen not to intervene in the Labour leadership race because he was concerned it would damage the campaign of Owen Smith, the rival for the Labour leadership.

Interestingly, after criticising Mr Corbyn, Mr Blair sought to claim that “this is not about Jeremy Corbyn” but rather it was a case of two different cultures attempting to co-exist within the same political party. Mr Blair give his explanation behind the two cultures (currently at war) within the Labour party. He explained that one of the cultures was the culture of the Labour Party as “a party of government”. He submitted that this was why the Labour party had been formed: in order to win representation in Parliament, and ultimately to influence and to be the government of the country. The other culture, Mr Balir said, was the ultra-Left, which “believes that the action on the street is as important as the action in Parliament”. It was that culture which had taken the leadership of the Labour Party under the leadership of Mr Corbyn. Mr Blair was evidently suggesting the two cultures are different in aim and method, and could not be reconciled.He described this as a “huge problem” because:

“…they live in a world that is very, very remote from the way that broad mass of people really think.

“The reason why the position of these guys is not one that will appeal to an electorate is not because they’re too Left, or because they’re too principled. It’s because they’re too wrong.

“The reason their policies shouldn’t be supported isn’t because they’re wildly radical, it’s because they’re not. They don’t work. They’re actually a form of conservatism. This is the point about them. What they are offering is a mixture of fantasy and error.”

This was a cause for concern, given that more than ever there was a vital need for an united Labour Party to serve as a true Opposition to the UK Government. He said:

“In the UK at the moment you’ve got a one party state. When you put it all together [taking into account that the Conservative leader and UK Prime Minister Theresa May was not elected], there’s something seriously wrong.

“Frankly, it’s a tragedy for British politics if the choice before the country is a Conservative government going for a hard Brexit and an ultra-left Labour Party that believes in a set of policies that takes us back to the Sixties.”

After the interview was published, and the media (and Twitter users) indulged in endless speculation as to the return of Mr Blair, a spokeperson for Mr Blair appeared. He said Mr Blair would not be returning to frontline politics. Indeed, the former Prime Minister merely wanted “to play a part in the debate because the true centre ground is vacant”. So that’s all right then. Mr Blair had voiced his belief that the centre ground was “in retreat”. This was a challenge which we must rise to meet.

And of course, the Blair Return does not end there. For recently Mr Blair was at pains to say that his return to politics would be strictly behind the scenes, and not on the frontline. The former prime Minister ruled out frontline politics because of his belief that there were parts of the media  which would ‘move to destroy mode’.

In an interview with the New Statesman (tellingly entitled ‘Unfinished Business’), he said:

“I’m dismayed by the state of Western politics, but also incredibly motivated by it. I think, in Britain today, you’ve got millions of effectively politically homeless people.

“…I can’t come into frontline politics. There’s just too much hostility, and also there are elements of the media who would literally move to destroy mode if I tried to do that.”

Mr Blair said that such is his dismay by the current state of Western politics that he intends to play a significant role behind the scenes in shaping the political landscape. He said he will work to revive the ‘progressive centre or centre left’.

Mr Blair, who has consistently made clear his desire for Britain to keep its options open in relation to Brexit, said the process can be brought to a halt. (But that’s another post fo another time.)

Whilst he said he thought Labour had been ‘captured’ by the far left, he was sure to firmly deny he described Jeremy Corbyn as a ‘nutter’. (It had been suggested that Mr Blair had described the current Labour leader in such a manner).

I found the New Statesman interview to be interesting and revealing. I feel that Mr Blair knows, especially after the mauling he received in the Chilcott Report, that generally neither the British public nor Parliament wants him back. Mr Blir soared such dizzy heights of populrity in his hey-day that it was only ever inevitable he would plummet.He might know this.But I feel that he also believes there is some place for him in UK politics today.Perhaps he feels that Labour would gladly welcome him back, given his impressive election record, at a time when Labour is regularly defeated in the polls when compared to the Conservative Government.

But Labour is not the same party Mr Blair remembers leading. He himself has acknowledged there is a clash of cultures within the party. Moreover, grassroots activists are also markedly more left wing than he and many of the PLP. These grassroots activists will not be eager to welcome him back with open arms.

Brexit is the excuse Mr Blair is using to re-enter the political arena, frontline politics or not. The question is: will this end in a case of Shakespearian proportions, with Mr Blair exiting stage (ultra) left? We must wait and see how the next few months roll out. But I am sure we shall have another newstory involving the former Prime Ministe by Christmas.