Serjeant-at-law (Ireland)

This is a list of lawyers who held the rank of serjeant-at-law at the Irish Bar.

Origins of the office of SerjeantEdit

The first recorded serjeant was Roger Owen, who was appointed between 1261 and 1266, although the title of serjeant itself was not commonly used in Ireland until about 1388; the earlier terms were "serviens", "King's Narrator" or "King's Pleader". However, there is a reference to Richard le Blond as the King's "Serjeant pleader" in 1305 or 1306. In the early years of the office, appointment as serjeant might be temporary and might cover only a part of the country, although John de Neville was acting as Serjeant in 1295-6 "for all parts of Ireland".[1] As a rule, they were licensed to appear in all of the Royal Courts, although John Haire in 1392 was described as "Serjeant-at-law of our Lord the King in the Common Pleas".[2]

The serjeant's duties were numerous and varied.[3] Early serjeants spent much time suing to recover Royal lands which had been unlawfully disposed of, and recovering other Crown property like weirs and fisheries.[3] They also spent a surprisingly large amount of time protecting the Crown's right of advowson: i.e. the right of nomination of a priest to a particular church (many private landowners also acquired the right).[3]

In 1537 a Royal Commission on law reform considered recommending the abolition of the office of Serjeant, and the transfer of his functions to the Attorney General, but nothing came of the proposal, due probably to firm opposition from the Serjeant-at-law of the day, Patrick Barnewall, who appealed to tradition. He argued that the Serjeant-at-law had argued in Court on the Crown's behalf for 200 years, and the system worked perfectly well.[4]

The role of the Serjeant-at-lawEdit

In contrast to England, for many years there was only one Serjeant-at-Law in Ireland, who was known as the King’s Serjeant or simply Serjeant. In 1627 another officeholder was appointed, and the two were known as the Prime Serjeant and Second Serjeant. In 1682 a Third Serjeant was appointed. In 1805 the Prime Serjeant became known as First Serjeant.

Until the nineteenth century, the need for three serjeants was often questioned, especially as the office of Third Serjeant was often left vacant for several years. It seems that the position of Third Serjeant was created simply as a form of "consolation prize" for Sir John Lyndon, the first holder of the office, who had been passed over as both a High Court judge and as Second Serjeant, and no particular duties attached to the office. Certainly, Sir Richard Ryves, the Recorder of Dublin, was able to combine the notoriously gruelling office of Recorder with the position of Third Serjeant, and later Second Serjeant, which suggests that he was not overworked in his role as Serjeant. Alan Brodrick, 1st Viscount Midleton, who was removed from his office of Third Serjeant in 1692, complained about his dismissal, but admitted that in his two years in the office he had almost no work to do. Hewitt Poole Jellett, Second Serjeant in the early 1900s, was so old in his final years that his office was clearly an honorary one.[5]


The position was extremely lucrative, at least until the late eighteenth century. Although in theory the salary in the 1690s was fixed at £30 a year, it was well known that in practice the various perquisites attached to the office brought it up to between £900 and £1000 a year, in addition to what he earned from private fees, as it was the serjeant's right to continue to take briefs on behalf of clients other than the Crown. In the early centuries, it was apparently normal procedure for the Serjeants to take private work,[6] although it was understood that Crown work took precedence:[6] a retainer agreement between William of Bardfield, King's Serjeant, and his client Nicholas, son of John of Interberge, in the early 1300s spells this out.[6] By the late nineteenth century, according to Maurice Healy, the rule had grown up that they could not take cases against the Crown,[7] and by then they had ceased to receive a salary.

Duties and precedenceEdit

The Serjeant usually had a seat in the Irish House of Commons. As a Government officeholder, he was expected to manage Parliamentary business in the Commons on the Government's behalf. Because he was a Government appointment he was liable to summary dismissal on a change of government, as happened notably in 1714. In the early centuries he was invariably a member of the Privy Council of Ireland;[3] later the Attorney-General took his place (as early as 1441 Stephen Roche, the King's Attorney, is recorded as a member of the Council).[3]

The serjeants-at-law ranked ahead of the Attorney-General for Ireland and the Solicitor-General for Ireland (who on occasion was the same person) until 1805, when the law officers took precedence, the office of Prime Serjeant being downgraded to First Serjeant, with precedence over the other two Serjeants but not the Law Officers.[8] From about 1660 onwards they were expected to consult with the Attorney General and were discouraged from acting on their own initiative: in 1692 the Prime Serjeant, John Osborne, was dismissed for repeatedly acting in opposition to Crown policy.[9] From the 1560s on the serjeants acted as "messengers" to the Irish House of Commons i.e. they were summoned to advise the House on points of law, just as the High Court judges advised the Irish House of Lords. The role of messenger lapsed around 1740.[10]

Most sixteenth-century Serjeants, including Thomas Rochfort, Thomas Luttrell, Patrick Barnewall and John Bathe, were Solicitors-General at the same time, suggesting that the latter office was both junior and not very onerous. At least one Serjeant of the era, Richard Finglas, combined the office of Serjeant with the subordinate office of Principal Solicitor for Ireland.[11]

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Serjeants often acted as extra judges of assize. Although the practice had its critics, it survived intermittently into the nineteenth century: Walter Berwick was Chairman of the East Cork Quarter Sessions from 1856 to 1859, while also serving as Serjeant, and Sir John Howley was both Serjeant-at-law and Chairman of the County Tipperary Quarter Sessions for 30 years. Howley however was criticised for what was called his "legal pluralism".[12] At least one Serjeant, Sir John Bere (1609–17), went as a judge of assize while sitting as an MP in the Parliament of 1613-15, which would be considered entirely unacceptable nowadays.[13]

Many, but not all, Serjeants went on to become judges of one of the courts of common law. Hewitt Poole Jellett followed a somewhat unusual path in that he was appointed Serjeant after retiring from office as Chairman of the Quarter Sessions for Queen's County (now County Laois) and returning to practice at the Bar. Even more surprisingly, he remained a Serjeant for life and was still in office when he was eighty-five.[5] Joseph Stock was a judge of the Irish Admiralty Court both before and during his long tenure as Serjeant (1840–51), although he was clearly only a part-time judge.[14]

Abolition of the office of SerjeantEdit

No serjeants were appointed after 1919, and on the establishment of the Irish Free State the rank ceased to exist. The last surviving serjeant, Alexander Sullivan, moved to England where he practised at the English Bar, and as a mark of courtesy was always addressed as Serjeant Sullivan.

King’s Serjeants, 1261–1627Edit

Prime Serjeants, 1627–1805Edit

First Serjeants, 1805–Edit

Second Serjeants, 1627–Edit

Third Serjeants, 1682–Edit


  • Casey, James The Irish Law Officers Round Hall Sweet and Maxwell 1996
  • Hart, A.R. A History of the King's Serjeants at law in Ireland Four Courts Press Dublin 2000
  • John Haydn and Horace Ockerby, The Book of Dignities, 3rd edition, London 1894 (reprinted Bath 1969)
  • Healy, Maurice, The Old Munster Circuit Michael Joseph Ltd. 1939 (reprinted Cork Merciet Press 1979)
  • Smyth, Constantine Joseph Chronicle of the Law Officers of Ireland London Butterworths 1839


  1. ^ Hart p. 14
  2. ^ Hart p.171
  3. ^ a b c d e Casey p.8
  4. ^ Hart p.30
  5. ^ a b Hart p.123
  6. ^ a b c Hart p. 13
  7. ^ Healy p.84
  8. ^ a b Haydn, p. 590
  9. ^ Hart pp.89–91
  10. ^ Hart p.62
  11. ^ Smyth p.173
  12. ^ Hart p.118
  13. ^ Hart p.50
  14. ^ Thom's Directory of Ireland 1850
  15. ^ Hart p.9
  16. ^ a b c d Haydn, p. 591
  17. ^ a b c d Haydn, p. 592
  18. ^ a b c Haydn, p. 593
  19. ^ a b c Ronan Keane, ‘Sullivan, Alexander Martin (1871–1959)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 23 Sept 2012