Statement by Chairman of the Council of The Bar of Ireland, Micheal P O’Higgins SC on the retirement

17 June 2020


Peter Kelly is an advertisement for the Irish Bar and Bench. He was an outstanding barrister and leader of the Bar until his elevation to the High Court in 1996. As a High Court judge, judge of the Court of Appeal and, since December 2015, President of the High Court, he has been a beacon for the highest standards of competence, rigour, propriety and independence.


As a barrister, he commanded an extensive practice, first as a busy junior and then as Senior Counsel following his admission to the Inner Bar in 1986. On a given day, he could deliver the closing address to the jury in a high-profile defamation case and, on the next, in another court, present a pitch-perfect opening in a complex commercial action to a judge of the Chancery Court. The owner of a sonorous and commanding voice, he was a much sought after as an advocate and was briefed in many of the big cases of the day. His elevation to the High Court in 1996 was celebrated by judges and colleagues alike, the latter for perhaps not exclusively altruistic reasons.


His formidable intellect and work ethic quickly earned him a reputation as a judge before whom a case had to be fully prepared and properly presented. In Judge Kelly’s Court, the highest professional standards were encouraged and expected.


Appointed to the Bench at the relatively young age of 46, he is now the second longest serving judge in the Irish Courts with 24 years’ service. He presided over several difficult lists in the High Court such as chancery, judicial review, the Commercial Court and, as President, the professional regulatory lists and the Wards of Court. He was the leading figure in the establishment of the Commercial Court in 2004, a lasting and international legacy. His work in the wardship list, where justice, humanity and the law co-exist to vindicate the rights of the elderly and the vulnerable, gave him particular fulfilment. This may say something about him.   


Regarded as an accomplished legal writer, his many written judgements stand as jewels of logic and learning and have contributed to the development of the law in many areas. Equally impressive is his ability to frame a clear, fluent and reasoned ex tempore (on the spot) judgement, within minutes of a case concluding, often with Newmanlike balancing clauses.  


His independence and fearlessness as a judge stand as an example to his colleagues. A believer in the separation of powers, he clashed with the Government over the treatment of vulnerable adolescents detained in the care of the State, when dealing with the Minors list in his first few years on the Bench. The same independence of mind was evident when, as President of the Association of Judges, he had to defend the judiciary at a point in time when relations with Government were less than warm.   


For a short period, he held the dual role of President of the High Court and acting President of the Court of Appeal when its President was rendered temporarily unavailable due to illness. This earned him the affectionate title “Kelly PP”. 


Outside of the law, Peter Kelly has many friends and interests. Music, theatre, literature, history, opera and a love of all things Italian. He sits on the board of a hospital and a schools trust and helped found two hospices. His voluntary work is pursued quietly and below the radar. Having made an enormous contribution to our courts and legal order, he will now have a little more time to pursue these interests. We feel he has earned it.


On behalf of the Council of The Bar of Ireland, we wish him well in his retirement.