Mrs. Justice Siobhan Keegan has been appointed as Lady Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, making her the first woman to hold the highest judicial position in Northern Ireland.
Mrs. Justice Keegan, who in 2015 became one of the first two women to be appointed as High Court judges in Northern Ireland, moves to the Chief Justice role following her time as presiding coroner for Northern Ireland since September 2017. Last month, Mrs. Justice Keegan concluded the long-running inquest into the killing of ten people in Ballymurphy, west Belfast, following a British Army operation in August 1971. In her ruling, Justice Keegan highlighted that the ten victims were “entirely innocent”.
Mrs. Justice Keegan will have to deal with several immediate challenges on being sworn into the Chief Justice role, with ongoing issues in relation to Troubles legacy cases continuing to hit the headlines in both Northern Ireland and the UK in recent months. Crown Court cases have also saw a significant increase from 352 to 531 since the first lockdown. Mrs. Justice Keegan’s predecessor, Sir Declan Morgan, has also highlighted the threat Brexit has posed to the Rule of Law in Northern Ireland, warning that “forces of darkness” have used it as “a catalyst for violence”. Most recently, anger within the unionist and loyalist communities has saw unionist politicians challenge the Northern Ireland protocol in the Northern Ireland High Court. This judicial review awaits decision.
In welcoming the new Chief Justice appointment, Bernard Brady QC, Chair of the Bar of Northern Ireland, commented that “having worked alongside Mrs. Justice Keegan over many years on the Bar Council… her vast experience will enable her to administer the office with great distinction… and the appointment will hopefully help to inspire other female members of the profession… to follow the path she has successfully charted.”
This sentiment was mirrored by Rowan White, President of the Law Society of Northern Ireland, who also extended his congratulations stating that “The Law Society is delighted that Mrs. Justice Keegan is to become the first female Chief Justice of Northern Ireland. 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.”
Mrs. Justice Keegan will be sworn in as Lady Chief Justice at the start of September 2021 at a ceremony in the Royal Courts of Justice.