Hamilton, Liam (William Joseph Lyons) (1928–2000), lawyer and judge, was born 30 January 1928 in Mitchelstown, Co. Cork, the eldest of five children of Richard Hamilton, a member of the Garda Síochána and afterwards a chemist's assistant, of Mitchelstown, and his wife, Mary Ellen Lyons, a music teacher. Hamilton was educated at the local CBS. Financial circumstances did not permit him to attend university. Instead he won a place in the civil service; he joined the Department of Justice and was assigned to work in the central office of the high court in Dublin. He then availed himself of the opportunity for further education and studied law at UCD and King's Inns, was awarded the John Brooke scholarship, having achieved first place in his final bar examinations, and was auditor of the Law Students Debating Society of Ireland (1954–1956). He was called to the bar on 6 February 1956.
As a barrister Hamilton quickly established a reputation as a common lawyer, quick-witted and adept in court. Unusually for his generation he was a Labour party supporter and established close links with the trade union movement, frequently appearing in industrial relations cases and personal injury claims involving accidents at work. He stood in the local elections for Dublin corporation in his party's interest in 1958. Thereafter his work as a junior counsel rapidly intensified. Called to the inner bar on 1 March 1968, he established a substantial and lucrative practice as a senior counsel at a time when economic prosperity had vastly multiplied the number of cases brought to court in the area in which he had chosen to specialise.
Appointed to the high court bench in October 1974 by the Fine Gael–Labour coalition government, he sometimes expressed regret at the substantial financial sacrifice involved in that preferment, coming at a time when his contemporaries at the bar went on to earn multiples of his judicial salary. As a judge of first instance, his primary characteristics were energy and humanity, coupled with a desire to cut through lengthy lists. These characteristics sometimes supervened over concern for more arcane aspects of the law, which for him held little fascination. He possessed a wide knowledge of all areas of the law, ultimately familiarising himself with chancery and commercial as much as common law practice. He considered the practical and fair result of a case of far greater importance than that a judgment be used as a means of expanding legal principles. For this he was often criticised by legal scholars, a criticism he met with much equanimity. The sobriquet ‘legal pragmatist’ might have been coined for him. He would have perceived it as a compliment. He had no regard for ‘intellectualism’ of any description.
Hamilton's career as a judge mirrored to an extraordinary degree the vast political, economic and social changes that took place in Ireland in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Presiding over the non-jury special criminal court he dealt with a wide variety of cases arising from the IRA terrorist campaign. These trials included those accused of the murder of Earl Mountbatten near his Irish holiday home in Co. Sligo. One of the longest lasting cases tried in that court involved a group accused of robbing a mail train at Sallins, Co. Kildare. The hearing involved grave accusations of garda assault upon the accused while in custody and attracted widespread publicity. The accused were ultimately released by the government.
Exercising civil jurisdiction in the high court, Hamilton also dealt with a number of the cases initiated by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children against various groups relating to the distribution of information on abortion. His decisions, unfavourable to the defendants, attracted some media criticism. They were, however, reflective of his own outlook on the issue of abortion information at a time of rapid social change. In January 1985 he was appointed president of the high court by the Fine Gael–Labour coalition government.
In 1991 the government (led by Charles Haughey (1925–2006)) established a tribunal of inquiry, presided over by Hamilton, to investigate allegations of tax evasion and other irregularities in the beef industry. This tribunal took place against a background of concern regarding alleged close links between certain beef companies, government departments and some leading politicians. The inquiry caused widespread controversy because of its two and a half year duration, high legal costs, and the absence in its report published in July 1994 of findings adverse to the reputation of any politician (although it identified abuses in the industry itself). The political and media treatment of this report contributed to undermining the cohesion of the Fianna Fáil–Labour coalition government (led by Albert Reynolds (qv)).
In September 1994 Hamilton was appointed chief justice of Ireland by the Reynolds government. The Hamilton era supreme court reflected in its jurisprudence the characteristics of some of its more prominent members. Judgments were sometimes criticised as being fact-based and result-orientated. Two of the most influential personalities on the court were Hamilton himself and Mr Justice Hugh O'Flaherty. Both shared the view that practical justice should be a dominant consideration, rather than over-concern for an outdated precedent, earlier authority or over-reliance on ‘textbook law’. The pragmatic stance of this court was in contrast with the natural law principles espoused by its ground-breaking predecessor when presided over by Chief Justice Cearbhall Ó Dalaigh (qv) and much influenced by the thinking and scholarship of other judges, particularly Brian Walsh (qv) and Seamus Henchy. The ‘realist’ and humanistic approach of Hamilton perhaps reached its high point in a decision that a young woman, who had been maintained on life support for twenty years as a result of medical misadventure, should be permitted to die. In hindsight, and despite criticism, Hamilton considered that this was a judgment that the court had ‘got right’.
In his last year in office Hamilton was asked by the government to investigate and report on what became known as the ‘Sheedy affair’; this arose from an allegation of procedural impropriety against both a supreme court judge and a circuit court judge. In his report Hamilton criticised both judges, though in terms far less severe in the case of his supreme court colleague. In the event both judges resigned.
Immediately on retirement in January 2000 Hamilton was appointed to conduct an inquiry into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings of May 1974 in which many died, the result it was strongly suspected of collusion between loyalist terrorists and elements of British counter-intelligence in Northern Ireland. Forced by ill health to resign from this inquiry in October 2000, he succumbed to throat cancer after a short illness, dying on 29 November 2000.
He was married to Maeve Gibney from Kells, Co. Meath; this was a particularly close relationship that was a mainstay throughout his life. There were three children of the marriage: Ruth, Julie and William, the last of whom followed his father's career at the bar.
Ebullient, irreverent and gregarious, Hamilton was the antithesis of the caricature remote and aloof law-giver. He never forgot his Cork antecedents. He enjoyed socialising and was not entirely immune to the allure of publicity in an increasingly media-driven society. As a student and young man he had been a skilled soccer player. Later as a keen golfer he was captain of Milltown golf club. Despite being in the Dublin establishment, he was not entirely part of it. He sometimes seemed remote and detached from the concerns of the more conservative elements in the bourgeois Dublin legal environment and he failed to conceal his lack of regard for legal thinking that he considered staid or over concerned with procedural nicety. His identifying characteristics were a regard for ordinary people, especially from his native county, speed of thought and action, and very considerable drive and energy. A life-long smoker, he sometimes found it necessary to interrupt a hearing for a cigarette in his chambers. His upward progress did not detract from his popularity. Critics sometimes suggested that his desire to remain popular was a weakness as well as a strength. Though seen by some as overly ambitious, others considered that he was merely honest in displaying (and cheerfully admitting to) an attribute which, among persons more apparently self-effacing, is sometimes concealed by dissimulation. A portrait by Thomas Ryan hangs in the King's Inns dining hall.