O'Hanlon, Roderick Joseph (‘Rory’) (1923–2002), barrister, judge, and jurist, was born 11 April 1923 in Dublin, the third son of Terence O'Hanlon, journalist, of 14 Royse Road, Phibsboro, and his wife, Mary (née Hally). He was educated at Coláiste Mhuire, Dublin, UCD, and King's Inns (1943–6). He graduated with a BA in modern languages from UCD, where his qualities as an incisive and witty speaker made him a notable figure in the Literary and Historical Society. He was called to the bar in 1946 and supported himself in his early days as a barrister by working at night as the Irish language editor of the Irish Independent.
An accomplished linguist, he had a particular love for Irish and was in much demand by litigants who wanted their cases conducted in Irish. Unlike some of his clients, however, he did not have extreme views on the use of language: although he acted for some years as the Irish examiner in the King's Inns, he conducted in later years an unsuccessful campaign for the abolition of the written and oral test which prospective barristers had to undergo, arguing that it was a futile procedure which did not increase the use of Irish in cases.
O'Hanlon had an extensive practice as a junior counsel on the Dublin circuit, but he was also interested in academic law and was appointed professor of criminal and constitutional law at UCD in 1962. He was called to the inner bar in 1967 and rapidly established himself as a leading senior counsel. Among the many well-known cases in which he was briefed perhaps the one that gave him most satisfaction was his appearance for Ireland in the action brought by the state against the United Kingdom in the European court of human rights in Strasbourg arising out of allegations of torture by the security forces in Northern Ireland. Although the original charge was diluted to one of ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’, the conviction of the United Kingdom led to measures to ensure that the more serious excesses of counter-insurgency techniques were discontinued. He also took on many cases where there was little hope of being paid, and one at least brought about a notable change in the law: in The State (Healy) v. Donoghue (1976) he persuaded both the high court and the supreme court that impecunious defendants facing criminal charges were entitled as a matter of constitutional right to legal aid.
His success as an advocate was due not simply to his knowledge of the law, although that was extensive, or to his capacity for work, which was immense. His attractive courtroom manner beguiled many judges, not least because of his mischievous sense of humour which was never far below the surface. His colleagues at the bar not only regarded him as fair and honourable, but also admired his zest for life: he was as much at home in the opera house or concert hall as on the golf course or in the gambling casino or immersed in late night games of chess and Scrabble. His private life, however, was clouded by tragedy: his first wife, Mary Ingoldsby, to whom he was devoted and with whom he had seven children, died relatively young. But he found happiness again in his second marriage, to Barbara Keating, with whom he had five children.
O'Hanlon was appointed a judge of the high court in 1981. His conduct of cases was characterised by the same patience, courtesy, and fairness as he had displayed at the bar, and some of his judgments were notably robust and trenchantly expressed. In The State (Lynch) v. Cooney (1982) he held that section 31 of the Broadcasting Act 1961, which empowered the relevant minister to ban particular organisations from the airwaves and which had been used against Sinn Féin, was unconstitutional as being in violation of the freedom of expression guarantee; although his finding was reversed by the supreme court, some academic commentators preferred O'Hanlon's approach. In Attorney General v. Hamilton (no. 1) (1993) he rejected a claim by the attorney general that proceedings of the cabinet were absolutely confidential and could not be enquired into by a court or tribunal. Again a majority of the supreme court took a different stance: again there was much support for O'Hanlon's view. In O'Donoghue v. Minister for Health (1994) he held that the constitutionally guaranteed right to free primary education obliged the state to provide assistance to severely disabled children who were ‘ineducable’ in the conventional sense.
In 1992 O'Hanlon was appointed president of the law reform commission. His experience as a barrister and judge and his academic interests made him an obvious choice, but within a matter of weeks of taking up office he became embroiled in a public controversy that was to overshadow the closing stage of his judicial career. It arose out of the celebrated decision of the supreme court in Attorney General v. X to discharge an injunction granted in the high court to restrain a fourteen-year-old girl, who was pregnant as a result of being raped, from travelling to England for an abortion. The court held that a constitutional amendment passed in 1983, which guaranteed the right to life of the unborn ‘with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother’, did not preclude a termination where the mother was suicidal, as the majority found to be the case. The decision provoked widespread controversy in which O'Hanlon joined by contributing an article to a legal journal in which he argued that the people had voted for the amendment in the belief that it provided for an absolute ban on abortion, and suggested that they be given the opportunity of reversing the X decision in a further referendum. While his intervention was an unusual step for a judge to take, it probably would not have had any particular consequences for his career had it not been for subsequent events which led the government to take action.
The debate that followed the X case was complicated by the imminence in Ireland of a referendum (June 1992) to ratify the Maastricht treaty, providing, among other measures, for the establishment of economic and monetary union. Responding to concerns that the widening powers of the European Community might extend to the wholesale legalisation of abortion in Ireland, the Fianna Fáil–Progressive Democrat coalition, led by Albert Reynolds (qv) as taoiseach, persuaded their EC partners to agree to the annexing to the treaty of a protocol designed to safeguard the Irish constitutional position on abortion. As public controversy developed on the merits of the protocol, with pro-life groups and some politicians urging the holding of a separate referendum to reverse the X case decision on the grounds that the protocol did not go far enough, O'Hanlon intervened again. In a newspaper interview he reiterated his views but went further by saying that if the legalisation of abortion was the price to be paid for membership of the EC he thought Ireland should leave the EC. It also emerged in the interview that he was a member of Opus Dei, the Roman catholic prelature; while some of his critics questioned the propriety of a judge's belonging to an allegedly secretive body, he had never in fact sought to conceal his association with the organisation.
There followed a meeting between taoiseach, attorney general, and judge at which O'Hanlon was told that the government regarded his intervention in a matter of public controversy which might come before the commission at some stage as incompatible with his presidency of the body. O'Hanlon for his part maintained that he was entitled in his role as president to comment on matters of this nature. The government thereupon removed him from his position as president; his position as a high court judge remained unaffected. In a letter to the taoiseach he disputed the right of the government to dismiss him, but he refrained from bringing proceedings until after he left the bench in April 1995 on reaching the retiring age. The case was settled on terms that included the payment of compensation to him and an acknowledgement by the government that his removal as president of the commission was not intended as a reflection on his conduct as a judge. Following his retirement from the bench, he took an active part in the campaign opposing the referendum to amend the constitution by permitting divorce (November 1995).
O'Hanlon died of stomach cancer on 27 March 2002, survived by his wife and twelve children. After his death leading figures in the legal world expressed their regret that the controversies which dogged the last period of his life had distracted attention from his notable qualities as an advocate and a judge, and the charm and good humour which had won him so many friends. However, while some lawyers and politicians praised his principled opposition to abortion, the more widespread view was that he had made a serious error of judgment in deciding to conduct such a campaign while he was still a judge.