Palles, Christopher (1831–1920), judge, was born 25 December 1831, third (but second surviving) son of Andrew Palles, attorney and solicitor, of Dublin and of Little Mount Palles, near Mountnugent, Co. Cavan, and his wife Eleanor, daughter of Matthew Plunkett of Rathmore, Co. Kildare. The Palleses claimed descent from kinsmen of Octavian de Palatio (qv), the fifteenth-century archbishop of Armagh, who had settled in Ireland during his term of office. At the age of 11 he was sent to join his brother Andrew as a boarder at Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare. His education by the Jesuits there was cut short when not yet 16, as a result of his father's being struck off the rolls for allegedly forging a deed to place a charge on a client's property. The allegation was subsequently found groundless. Matriculating in Dublin University in 1847, Palles graduated BA (1852) as a senior moderator in mathematics. Admitted as a student of King's Inns in 1849 and of Gray's Inns two years later, Palles was called to the Irish bar in 1853, being one of the first students actually to have passed the new bar examination. Palles then joined the home circuit. His practice was slow to take off, but finally did when word spread of his consummate ability in presenting an argument, conducting a cross-examination, and, in particular, drafting pleadings. In 1860 Palles proceeded LLD and two years later he married Ellen (d. 1885), the only daughter of Denis Doyle. They had one son, also named Christopher, who suffered from an incurable mental illness but who lived until 1953.
Taking silk at the early age of 33 in 1865, Palles soon filled the office of senior crown prosecutor in Co. Kildare. As he was a staunch whig, further preferment followed at the hands of the Liberals. In 1872 he was made successively solicitor general and attorney general for Ireland. The two ensuing years as a law officer were marked by the prosecution of District Inspector Montgomery for the murder of William Glass, the bank manager at Newtownstewart, Co. Tyrone; the prosecution of Dr Patrick Duggan (qv), the Roman Catholic bishop of Clonfert, and twenty clergy over intimidation at the Galway election (a task for which Palles, as a loyal churchman, had little evident relish); and his own failure to gain a parliamentary seat at the Londonderry by-election of November 1872.
Early in 1874, on the eve of leaving office, Gladstone appointed Palles to succeed David Pigot as chief baron of the Irish exchequer. Palles was just 43. He remained chief baron until retirement in 1916, achieving in the course of his long judicial tenure an extraordinary reputation, not only in Ireland but generally in the common law world. Palles's court itself became a mere division of the new high court in 1877 which was, in its turn, merged with the queen's bench division in 1897. Retaining his title and precedence as chief baron throughout these changes, Palles, invariably described as courteous and dignified, shone in an age of great Irish judges.
The reputation Palles came to enjoy was partly based on his fearless impartiality, best evidenced in his celebrated rebuke of the Irish executive over the shameful fiasco of the evictions carried out in 1886 on the Woodford estate of the marquis of Clanricarde in Co. Galway: necessary police intervention had initially, on instructions, been deliberately withheld. Mr Justice Samuels (A. W. Samuels; qv) in a posthumous tribute singled out Palles's ‘mastery of law as a science in all its ramifications; his penetrating research; his remarkable “case memory”, his grasp of common law, of equity and of statute law; his assimilation of every branch of jurisprudence; his methods of historical ratiocination, convincing deduction, and lucid exposition’ (DNB). These various qualities more than compensated for a style of writing that somehow lacks the fluency and grace of his contemporary and colleague Hugh Holmes (qv), or a discussion of precedent that seems too laboured or pedantic for modern tastes, a discussion productive of that ‘inflexible logic’ over which the earl of Halsbury was to criticise him in 1902 in Quinn v. Leathem. In the field of the law of torts, Palles, demonstrably no ‘timorous soul’, was prepared even so to move with the times. In Bell v. Great Northern Railway Co. of Ireland (1890), Palles pioneered liability for nervous shock. In Cooke v. Midland and Great Western Railway co. of Ireland (1908), he recast the law on child trespassers. (On the other hand, he was not prepared to concede liability for pre-natal injuries, as is clear from his undelivered opinion in the case of Mabel Walker (1890), a case, like Bell's, which arose out of the Armagh rail disaster.) In the law of trusts, an enduring contribution was O'Hanlon v. Logue (1906), where, overruling a previous decision of his own in 1875 – Attorney general v. Delaney – Palles held that in Ireland a bequest for masses was charitable, irrespective of whether the mass was celebrated in public or in private. Of this remarkable volte-face, The Times was to write in its lengthy obituary: ‘It was symptomatic of the judicial spirit of the man that he addressed himself in the court of appeal to a thorough and critical examination of his formerly expressed views with the same detachment and singlemindedness as if they had been pronounced by another.’ Palles seems to have particularly relished the challenge of the novel and obscure. Not long after his elevation to the bench, he handed down a key ruling on the law of several fisheries – the case concerned the Munster Blackwater – in which proof of title obliged Palles to embark on a strenuous legal historical investigation. Duke of Devonshire v. Neill (1876), in the result, is pure scholarship, as is Palles's exhaustive analysis of medieval marriage rituals in a suit that concerned the claim, ultimately upheld by the chief baron, that at common law a clandestine Roman Catholic marriage ceremony might yet be valid despite contravening the rules laid down at the council of Trent (Ussher v. Ussher (1912)). In 1892 Palles had been sworn of the privy council of England (on his appointment as a law officer he had earlier automatically been sworn of the Irish). This facilitated the issuance of the invitation to him in July 1912 to sit on the judicial committee in London to hear an appeal on the right of the Canadian provinces to enact laws regulating marriage (In re Marriage Legislation in Canada). For an Irish judge, this was no customary accolade.
Following the death of his wife, his niece Bessie came to keep house for him both at his town residence in Fitzwilliam Place, given up in 1903, and at his rural retreat, Mountanville House, near Dundrum in the foothills of the Dublin mountains (where Palles's pride was his fernery and his orchid-house); in the 1870s and up to 1885 he had had a country address at Roriston, Co. Meath. In 1896 he appears to have led opposition to a plan to confer knighthoods on all Irish superior court judges, as a consequence of which the plan itself was dropped. Outside the courtroom again, Palles became prominent in the politics no less than in the actual administration of education. He served as a member of the board of national education and on that of intermediate education; for many years, too, he was president of Clongowes Union. A member of the senate of the new National University of Ireland, established under universities legislation in 1908, he served as chairman of the commissioners formed to frame and apply the NUI's statutes. He had a particular association with one of the new university's constituent colleges, UCD, and it was entirely fitting when a lifelong friend and the university's first chancellor, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Dublin, William Walsh (qv), acquired, on Palles's death, his library, which contains some of his unreported and undelivered judgements as well as much early Irish printed legal material (including rare reports of nineteenth-century special commissions), and presented it to that college.
Palles received honorary degrees from the Royal University (1909), Cambridge University (1910), QUB (1913), and Dublin University (1914). His interest in legal education was acknowledged by his election as an honorary member of the Society of Public Teachers of Law when that society was established in 1909. Palles was in poor health in his last years and died at Mountanville House on 14 February 1920. He was buried in Glasnevin cemetery. He left personal estate valued at £59,234.
A portrait done in oils by Hubert von Herkomer hangs in Dublin University; there is a copy in King's Inns. King's Inns also possesses a cartoon by C. Norman Kough and a fine sketch by Jack B. Yeats (qv): ‘The chief baron in a tram in Dublin, 1906’. Delany's biography reproduces a second cartoon by Thomas Bodkin (qv). The whereabouts of Palles's gold collar SS, prominently featured in von Herkomer's excellent portrait, is not now known. No plaque as yet (2003) marks any of Palles's known successive Dublin town residences (5 Gardiner St. Lower; 26 Temple St. Upper; 53 Summerhill; 59 Mountjoy Square West (1862); 28 Fitzwilliam Place (1878)) – a strange omission, considering the worldwide reputation Palles was destined to acquire.