First Female Judge Elected to Lead the European Court of Human Rights

Sofra O’Leary, a Dubliner, will begin her three-year tenure in November. The Irish judge is the first woman to assume the role of President of the European Court of Human. The Dubliner, who has served as the court’s vice-president since January, will begin her three-year tenure in November. She takes over for Robert Spano of Iceland in the role.

In an interview with The Irish Times last summer, Judge O’Leary stated that the invasion of Ukraine had brought about a “watershed moment” for the court since it served as a reminder of the significance of “this organisation, the court, and the convention system.” The court’s goal, according to her, is to prevent Europe from experiencing the tragedies of the past again.

Prior to earning a PhD at the European University Institute of Florence, Italy, Judge O’Leary earned her undergraduate degree in civil law from University College Dublin in 1989. Before joining the Cabinet of a judge at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, she lectured at universities around Europe, including the Universities of Cádiz, Cambridge, and Dublin.

She was nominated to serve as Ireland’s representative on the European Court of Human Rights and chosen in 2015 for a nine-year term. Judge O’Leary assumes the role at a time when the court is dealing with difficulties, such as member states’ failure to implement judgements and tense relations with the United Kingdom, where the ruling Conservative Party has reacted negatively to some of the court’s decisions.

Liz Truss, the new British prime minister, declared at a hustings event that if reforms aimed at limiting the court’s authority in Britain were failed, she was “prepared” to withdraw from the document that established the court, the European Convention on Human Rights. The European Court of Human Rights, a separate organisation that existed before the European Union, was set up in the 1950s with the intention of preventing a recurrence of atrocities committed during the Second World War. The 1979 Airey v. Ireland case, brought by a Cork lady who couldn’t afford legal representation to leave her abusive husband, was one of its many landmark rulings addressing Ireland over the years. This decision resulted in the creation of a civil legal aid programme. It is renowned for the 1988 case taken by current senator David Norris that contended Ireland’s criminalization of gay conduct conflicted with the right to privacy. It also gave important judgements on abortion that prompted changes in Irish legislation.

Since Britain has come under pressure this year from the court’s governing body, the Council of Europe, for failing to put the court’s rulings into action and ensure adequate investigations, several judgments have found that deaths in Northern Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s involving state agents were not adequately investigated. Following the invasion of Ukraine, the Council of Europe decided to exclude Russia as a member, marking a first.

Written by:

Nicola Miley

Senior Litigation Executive, PI Team Leader

Written by:

Sarah Hogan

Trainee Solicitor