Obituary: Sir James Comyn

The IRA unit that in May 1981 fire-bombed the Irish home of Sir James Comyn in the hope of striking another blow against British imperialism could hardly have found a more inappropriate target. Comyn, the son of a nationalist barrister from County Clare, was the least imperious of judges - British or Irish - and he had a natural sympathy for the underdog. Somerset Maugham's suggestion that judges, as a reminder of their humanity, should come on to the bench bearing a toilet-roll rather than a nosegay would have been lost on him.

His father, another James, and an uncle, Michael, were barristers and were political and legal advisers to Eamon de Valera. It was Michael Comyn KC who defended the English-born republican Erskine Childers and who had to advise the Court of Appeal in Dublin that his client had been executed while the appeal was pending.

The Comyn home, Beaufield House, in Stillorgan, Co Dublin, was one of the "safe houses" used by de Valera during the civil war. But, just before de Valera gained political power in 1932, he and the Comyn brothers had an irreparable falling-out. The consequences for their legal practices were severe and it was decided that the young James, who wanted to become a lawyer, might have a brighter future on the other side of the Irish Sea.

He arrived at the Oratory School in Birmingham shortly after his 12th birthday and thus began an association with the school and the Oratorians which continued until his death. After school there followed a six-month stint as a trainee journalist on the Irish Times under the formidable editor R.M. Smyllie. After a joke concerning the matrimonial status of a distinguished ecclesiastic which he added to an obituary notice found its way into print he was banished to the racing department and decided to abandon journalism.

He entered New College, Oxford, at 17 and in 1940 defeated Roy Jenkins to become President of the Oxford Union. He worked briefly at the BBC until his call to the Bar at the Inner Temple in 1942.

In Summing It Up: memoirs of an Irishman at law in England (1991), he wrote affectionately and well of his early years as an impoverished young barrister doing the rounds of the magistrates and county courts and attempting to make ends meet by giving night classes in banking (of which he knew nothing) to ambitious young clerks. One of his early successes was tinged with trepidation as he had won a suit for negligence against the bank which was providing his much-needed overdraft.

He was fortunate in getting a pupillage and later a place in chambers with Edward Holroyd Pearse KC (later Lord Pearse), to whose friendship and guidance he attributed most of his later success. In dedicating one of his books to his former master, he used Goldsmith's phrase: "An abridgement of all that is pleasant in man."

His tremendous powers as an advocate were soon recognised and in his heyday it was regularly said of him that "Jimmy Comyn can take the stink out of the worst of cases."

One of his most spectacular successes was in winning libel damages for the former safe-blower and jail-escaper Alfie Hinds against a detective chief inspector of Scotland Yard and Reynolds's News. Hinds had been given 12 years by Lord Goddard for a West End safe-blowing, which he always denied being involved with. In an effort to prove his innocence he escaped three times from prison and once from the Law Courts.

When in 1964 Det Ch Supt Herbert Sparks published his memoirs he said that Hinds was indeed guilty and should take his punishment like a man. The subsequent action for defamation provided a "trial within a trial" and Comyn, who believed passionately that Hinds had given up crime and was attempting to go straight, convinced the jury that Hinds had been framed. He opened the case to the jury by saying, "This man Hinds is innocent - and Mr Sparks knows it." The trial judge, Mr Justice Edmund Davies, said in his summing-up: "If these words be true, then they are the most terrible I have heard in 30 years at the law." Hinds was awarded pounds 1,300 damages and the Home Secretary ordered his immediate release. Until his death in 1991, Hinds invariably sent Comyn a Christmas card.

In 1970 Comyn successfully defended the Labour MP Will Owen, on charges that he had passed secret information to the Czechs. He acted in many famous defamation cases and defended Private Eye on the charge of criminal libel brought by Sir James Goldsmith in 1977. He appeared on family matters for Lord Lucan. As a trial judge he tried what was then the longest libel action in British legal history, The Daily Mail v the Moonies, and the case of Derek James v the BBC.

James Comyn was appointed Recorder of Andover in 1964. He served as Chairman of the Bar Council of England and Wales in 1973-74 and was appointed to the High Court in 1978. He was also a member of the Irish Bar and the Hong Kong Bar.

Comyn never forgot his Irish roots and throughout his career divided his time between England and his beloved home, "Belvin", in Tara, Co Meath, where he bred Friesian cattle. He was married to Anne Chaundler, a solicitor.

James Comyn, lawyer and farmer: born Dublin 8 March 1921; called to the Bar, Inner Temple 1942; called to the Irish Bar 1947; QC 1961; Recorder of Andover 1964-71; Recorder of the Crown Court 1972-77; Chairman, Bar Council 1973-74; Kt 1978; Judge of the High Court of Justice, Family Division 1978-79, Queen's Bench Division 1979-85; married 1967 Anne Chaundler (one son, one daughter); died Navan, Co Meath 5 January 1997.

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