Supreme Court disproportionately composed of judges from well-off backgrounds, study finds

Supreme Court Disproportionately Composed Of Judges From Well-Off Backgrounds, Study Finds
The research paper on the educational background of all those who have ever been appointed to the State's highest court found the appointments are unrepresentative of the general population. Photo: PA Images
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Seán McCárthaigh

A new study on the membership of the Supreme Court since its establishment almost 100 years ago found it is disproportionately composed of judges from well-off backgrounds who attended fee-paying secondary schools and University College Dublin (UCD).

The research paper on the educational background of all those who have ever been appointed to the State’s highest court found they are unrepresentative of the general population.


It revealed that 70 per cent of all individuals who have served as judges of the Supreme Court were graduates of UCD, while almost two-thirds attended a private school at secondary level.

The study, which is published in the Irish Judicial Studies Journal, revealed that 32 of the 74 members of the Supreme Court to date attended both a fee-paying secondary school and UCD – a figure higher that either the total number of judges who attended non-fee paying schools or the number who attended any university other than UCD.

The study found 46 judges of the Supreme Court since the foundation of the State went to private schools, predominantly Catholic-run, single-sex schools.

Three fee-paying secondary schools for boys – Belvedere College, Clongowes Wood College and Blackrock College – account for 18 of the total; only two less than the total number of all Supreme Court judges known to have never attended a private school.


Although the study found 62.2 per cent of Supreme Court judges attended a fee-paying secondary school, it noted that only 6.7 per cent of second-level students currently attend fee-paying schools, despite enrolments at private schools being at record high levels.

The author of the study, barrister and law lecturer at Trinity College Dublin, James Rooney BL, said such a contrast “demonstrates the disparity in background between the population of the Irish Supreme Court and the population of Ireland in general”.

Dr Rooney said the results highlighted “a striking unrepresentativeness in the educational – and by implication, class – backgrounds of the members of the bench.”

He claimed it was largely a consequence of a legal profession “whose prohibitively high entry costs lead the pool of candidates for judicial office to be disproportionately populated by people form socio-economically advantageous backgrounds”.


The barrister said the study’s findings matter as the failure of the Supreme Court membership to reflect the general population runs the risk of impacting on the popular consensus that judges and their judgements are legitimate.

Dr Rooney claimed the importance of diversity of experience was recognised.

However, he said the predominance of privately-educated judges had the potential for their widely-shared background to indirectly inform the adjudication of the Supreme Court.

At the same time, Dr Rooney acknowledged that “prudential caution” was necessary when speculating how any specific legal decision may have been affected by the background of the members of the bench.


He added: “Rights protection is inherently politically controversial and it is highly likely that attitudes and perceptions towards particular rights – most obviously property rights and socio-economic rights – vary along socio-economic lines.”

Dr Rooney said the findings of the study allowed for the “possibility” that the Supreme Court’s decision-making has, in some form, been influenced by a common class background.

The study also noted that the first Supreme Court judge to have received their third-level education entirely in a university in the Republic outside Dublin – Liam McKechnie, a graduate of University College Cork – was appointed in 2010.

The first female member of the Supreme Court was only appointed in 1990, although women have been members of the Bar since the foundation of the State a century ago.


The study highlighted how a report commissioned by the Bar of Ireland in 2021 found the females accounted for 37 per cent of all members but only 18 per cent of the inner bar.

Of the 22 members of the Supreme Court between 1990 and 2000, all but two were graduates of UCD.

While the absence of Trinity College Dublin graduates from the Supreme Court in the 20th century was largely attributable to the ban on Catholics attending the university without special dispensation, the study said the UCD dominance has continued past its removal in 1970.

However, the number of TCD-educated members of the Supreme Court has increased considerably since the early 2000s.

The study noted that the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill which is currently due to be tested by the Supreme Court following its referral by President Michael D Higgins, requires the Judicial Appointments Commission in recommending a candidate for appointment to the bench to take into account the objective that judges “reflect the diversity of the population of the State as a whole”.

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