Susan Denham

Susan Jane Denham[1] SC (née Gageby; born 7 May 1945[2]) is a retired Irish judge who served as Chief Justice of Ireland from 2011 to 2017, she was the first woman to hold the position. She served as a Judge of the Supreme Court from 1992 to 2017, and was the longest-serving member of the court on her retirement. She also served as a Judge of the High Court from 1991 to 1992.[3][4]

Susan Denham
Susan Denham 2014.jpg
11th Chief Justice of Ireland
In office
25 July 2011 – 28 July 2017
Nominated byGovernment of Ireland
Appointed byMary McAleese
Preceded byJohn L. Murray
Succeeded byFrank Clarke
Judge of the Supreme Court
In office
1 May 1992 – 28 July 2017
Nominated byGovernment of Ireland
Appointed byMary Robinson
Judge of the High Court
In office
11 July 1991 – 1 May 1992
Nominated byGovernment of Ireland
Appointed byMary Robinson
Personal details
Susan Jane Gageby

(1945-05-07) 7 May 1945 (age 75)
Sandymount, Dublin, Ireland
Spouse(s)Brian Denham (m. 1992)
EducationAlexandra College
Alma mater

Early lifeEdit

Susan Gageby was born in Dublin in 1945 and educated at Alexandra College, Dublin. She is the daughter of the former editor of The Irish Times, Douglas Gageby, the sister of another barrister Patrick Gageby and maternal granddaughter of Seán Lester.[5] She is from a Church of Ireland background.[6]

She attended Trinity College, Dublin, the King's Inns, and the Law School of Columbia University, New York City (LL.M. 1972).[7][8] She was involved with the Free Legal Advice Centres while studying in Dublin and was a founder and president of the Archaeology and Folklife Society at Trinity College.[9]

Legal careerEdit

She was called to the bar in July 1971 and became a Senior Counsel in October 1987. She was the fourth woman to enter the Inner Bar.[6] She became a senior counsel on the same day as future Supreme Court colleague Mary Laffoy.[10] She worked on the Midland circuit until 1979, following which she was based in Dublin. She was involved in a number of leading cases while a junior barrister and a Senior Counsel particularly in the area of judicial review. [11]

Judicial careerEdit

High Court and Supreme CourtEdit

She became a High Court judge in 1991. In 1992, at the age of 47, she was the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court.[11][12] She was considered for appointment to the role of President of the High Court in 1994, but declined to have her name put forward.[13] She made two dissents early on in her period on the Court.[6] Throughout her tenure as a judge she was seen by commentators to be a "liberal" judge.[14][9][10]

In Kelly v Hennessy in 1996, she outlined criteria for a court to consider as evidence of the existence of nervous shock in Ireland.[15] In 2001, she was the sole member of the Supreme Court to dissent in TD v Minister for Education. The court overturned a decision of Peter Kelly in the High Court to direct the government to build secure care units for certain children.[16]

From 1995 to 1998, she chaired the Working Group on a Courts Commission, which was responsible for a significant reform of the organisation of the courts since the foundation of the state.[4][17] It led to the establishment of the Courts Service.[8] She was on the Interim Board of the Court Service and served on the Board of the Court Service from its inception, and chaired the board from 2001 to 2004.[8] She chaired the Committee on Court Practice and Procedure which recommended in 2002 the establishment of a commercial court within the High Court.[18]

From 2006, she chaired the Working Group on a Court of Appeal. The report of the group was published by the government in August 2009. It recommended the establishment of a general Court of Appeal. This was ultimately established in 2014, after a referendum in 2013.[8]

Denham was part of the Irish delegation which, with the Netherlands and Belgium, established the European Network of Councils for the Judiciary (ENCJ) and she continues an involvement in this Network. From 1 January 2015 to 31 December 2016, she was President of the Network of the Presidents of the Supreme Judicial Courts of the European Union which is an association of Supreme Court Presidents and Chief Justices of EU Member States.[19]

She wrote the judgment in McD v. L (2009), upholding the parental rights of a sperm donor.

Chief JusticeEdit

On 4 July 2011, she was nominated by Taoiseach Enda Kenny to become Chief Justice of Ireland, she was appointed as Chief Justice by President Mary McAleese on 25 July 2011.[20] She was the first woman appointed to the office and as a member of the Church of Ireland, she was the first non-Catholic to hold the position. She was also the first graduate of Trinity College, Dublin to have been appointed; Chief Justices have largely been graduates of University College Dublin.[21] She succeeded John L. Murray.[22]

During her tenure as Chief Justice, the Supreme Court issued suspended declarations of unconstitutionality for the first time.[10] The possibility to delay the effect of a court declaration that a piece of legislation is contrary to the Constitution was first explored by Denham in A v Governor of Arbour Hill Prison.[23] The court first adopted this approach in N.V.H v Minister for Justice & Equality in May 2017.[24]

As Chief Justice, she oversaw changes in the operations of the Supreme Court and the courts generally. She oversaw the removal of the requirement for judges to wear wigs while hearing cases.[25] In 2015, the Supreme Court sat outside Dublin for the first time since 1931, sitting in Cork.[26] She corresponded with the Office of Public Works over the lack of heating in the Four Courts, threatening to cancel sittings if the issue was not resolved.[27][28] She advocated for the inclusion of a new courtroom for the Supreme Court in plans to develop a new family court complex on Hammond Lane.[29]

In her capacity as Chief Justice, she oversaw the administration of the Presidential Declaration of Office at the inauguration of President Michael D. Higgins in Dublin Castle in November 2011.[30]

She retired from the position in July 2017, and was succeeded by Judge Frank Clarke. She was the third-longest serving Supreme Court judge ever at the time of her retirement.[10] In her remarks on her retirement, she drew attention to the government's failure to institute a judicial council, having first attempted to persuade the government to establish one in 1997.[31]


The Courts Service announced on 24 August 2020 that the Supreme Court had appointed her to review the attendance of Supreme Court judge Séamus Woulfe at a dinner organised by the Oireachtas Golf Society.[32] She was appointed on a non-statutory basis as the relevant section in the Judicial Council Act 2019 on judicial conduct had not yet been commenced.[33]

Personal lifeEdit

She is married to paediatrician Dr Brian Denham and they have four children.[9]

From 1996 to 2010, Denham was a Pro-Chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin.[21]


  1. ^ "University and College Officers" (PDF). TCD. Retrieved 3 March 2020.
  2. ^ Curley, Helen, ed. (2000). Local Ireland Almanac and Yearbook of Facts 2000. Local Ireland. p. 297. ISBN 0953653706.
  3. ^ "Susan Denham to become Ireland's first female Chief Justice". 19 July 2011.
  4. ^ a b Carr, Aoife (19 July 2011). "New Chief Justice appointed". The Irish Times.
  5. ^ "Judge becomes pro chancellor of TCD". The Irish Times. 23 March 1996. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  6. ^ a b c "The Bar Review" (PDF) (22(6)). December 2017. Retrieved 9 December 2019.
  7. ^ "Susan Denham". LLM Uniiks. 21 July 2011. Retrieved 19 August 2011.
  8. ^ a b c d "Current Judges of the Supreme Court". The Supreme Court of Ireland. Retrieved 19 July 2011.
  9. ^ a b c Coulter, Carol (24 April 1999). "Denham report becomes the security blanket for all". The Irish Times. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  10. ^ a b c d Cormaic, Ruadhán Mac (29 July 2017). "The Susan Denham way: low-key, principled and effective". The Irish Times. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  11. ^ a b Supreme Court of Ireland. "Chief Justice Susan Gageby Denham". Supreme Court of Ireland. Archived from the original on 7 November 2014. Retrieved 7 November 2014.
  12. ^ "Members of the courts reform group". The Irish Times. 22 May 1996. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  13. ^ Daniel, Ann (22 May 1998). Scapegoats for a Profession: Uncovering Procedural Injustice. Routledge. p. 102. ISBN 978-9057022777.
  14. ^ Kennedy, Geraldine (4 May 1996). "Supreme Court faces unprecedented change". The Irish Times. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  15. ^ Russell, Nicholas. "COMPENSATION FOR POST TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER". O’Shea Russell Solicitors. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  16. ^ Carolan, Mary. "Peter Kelly profile: Fearless legal force for half a century". The Irish Times. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  17. ^ Tynan, Maol Muire (21 May 1996). "Owen gives backing to new plan for courts". The Irish Times.
  18. ^ Coulter, Carol (17 January 2003). "Judge Kelly to head up new commercial court". The Irish Times. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  19. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 6 August 2017. Retrieved 6 August 2017.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  20. ^ "Appointment of Mrs Justice Susan Denham as Chief Justice". Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  21. ^ a b "Susan Denham nominated for top Irish legal post". BBC News. 20 July 2011.
  22. ^ Reilly, Gavan (19 July 2011). "Susan Denham to become Ireland's first female Chief Justice". Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  23. ^ Kenny, David. "Guest Post: David Kenny on NVH v Minister for Justice | Constitution Project @ UCC". Constitution Project. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  24. ^ Carolan, Eoin (6 December 2017). "Eoin Carolan: Suspended Declarations of Invalidity in Ireland?: The Story So Far". UK Constitutional Law Association. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  25. ^ "Judges' wig rule abolished". The Irish Times. 13 October 2011. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  26. ^ Hosford, Paul. "The Supreme Court is leaving Dublin for the first time ever". Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  27. ^ "Cold case: Chief justice uses thermometer to prove faulty heating in courts". Irish Examiner. 4 April 2015. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  28. ^ "Cold case: Chief Justice warns of trial cancellations as judges shiver in court". Irish Independent. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  29. ^ Gartl, Fiona (31 December 2015). "Chief Justice wanted Supreme Court space in proposed new complex". The Irish Times. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  30. ^ "Higgins to be sworn in as Ireland's ninth President". Irish Examiner. 11 November 2011. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  31. ^ "Outgoing Chief Justice criticises lack of council". RTÉ News. 28 July 2017. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  32. ^ "Supreme Court orders review into Woulfe attendance". RTÉ News. 24 August 2020. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  33. ^ Carswell, Simon (24 August 2020). "Supreme Court orders report on Seamus Woulfe's attendance at Clifden golf dinner". The Irish Times. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
Legal offices
Preceded by
John Murray
Chief Justice of Ireland
Succeeded by
Frank Clarke