James Comyn, Belvin Hall, Tara: 8 March1921 – 5 Jan 1997
Obituary in “The Times”.
James Comyn was reckoned by many to be the finest all-round advocat at the English Bar when he ascended the High Court bench at the beginning of 1978. He had mighty powers of assimilation and recall, a genius for simplification, a golden voice and a warm and winning way. He was as effective before a judge as before a jury.
His most spectacular victory was in 1964 in a libel action taken by the convicted robber Alfred Hinds against Detective Chief Superintendent Sparks, who had stated in his memoirs that Hinds was guilty of the crime of which he had been convicted. Comyn opened for the plaintiff with what the judge in the case described as the most shattering remark he had ever heard in court: “This man Hinds is innocent- and Sparks knows it.” Hinds was released after the verdict and the law was subsequently changed to prevent a criminal conviction being again challenged through libel proceedings. But better procedures were established to review miscarriages of justice.
James Peter Comyn was the only child of a barrister from the old Munster circuit, a Clare man- also called James who with his more able elder brother, Michael, espoused the Republican cause in Ireland in the years immediately preceding independence in 1921. Eamon deValera hid in their house during the Irish Civil War and often turned to the Comyn brothers for legal advice in the following years as he sought to displace the Government that had defeated the Republicans in the Civil War. But when de Valera came to power in 1932 there was a falling out when Michael Comyn was not made Attorney General. Old James vented the family ire by taking his son away from Belvedere, the Dublin Jesuit day school, and sent him to school in England. Young James went to the Oratory in Birmingham, then at the zenith of its prestige and proud to number among its recent old boys the Duke of Norfolk of the time. It was a long way from the Irish Republican world in which he had been reared.
Assisted by a trust bequeathed by his mother, who had died when he was only two, Comyn went on to read law at New College, Oxford, where he took a second. In 1940 he defeated Roy Jenkins to become president of the Oxford Union by a margin of four votes after several recounts.
Shortly afterwards he suffered the first in a series of nervous breakdowns that were to plague him throughout his adult life. After a period in hospital in Ireland he returned to London, where he worked for the Empire service of the BBC.
In 1942 Comyn was called to the Bar by the Inner Temple and in 1944 started his pupilage with Edward Holroyd Pearce (later Lord Pearce), going on to join Pearce Chambers in Fountain Court. He practiced on the Western Circuit as well as in London. He used to recall how rude some of the judges were in those days, mentioning particularly Rayner Goddard and commenting ruefully: “After Goddard, then Lord Chief Justice, rang me up asked me to take on his granddaughter as a pupil, I said to myself he would never be rude to me again. In fact, he was even ruder than before.”
Comyn took silk in 1961. He quickly established himself in the first ranks of Queen’s Counsel. He was regularly retained by the Official Solicitor and was counsel in a series of cases that established mandatory blood testing in paternity and matrimonial cases. Times newspapers was another regular client as he argued with success against the efforts of the Labour Attorney general, Sam Silken to injunct a serialisation by The Sunday Times of the Crossman Diaries. In 1970 Comyn defended Will Owen, the North East labour MP who was charged with passing secrets to agents of the Czech Government. He was acquitted. With justice it was said at the bar that “Jimmy Comyn can take the stink out of everything.”
As well as being successful Comyn was immensely well liked by his colleagues. To high and low alike he was equally friendly and courteous. He served as chairman of the Bar Council in 1974. But it was not inevitable that he would be raised to the bench. He had not volunteered for the Armed Forces in the Second World War and he clung to his Irish Passport, although even at that stage IRA violence had deprived Irishness of much of its charm for English people. And, while his courage in facing recurring depressions was admired, his mental health raised questions about his fitness for judicial office.
Nevertheless he was in 1977 nominated by the Labour Lord Chancellor, Lord Elwyn-Jones (he had previously refused a similar invitation from Lord Hailsham ) to become a high court judge. At first he sat in the family division for a couple of years but did not relish the regular diet of child custody cases, which he found depressing and troubling. He was, therefore, relieved to be reassigned to the Queen’s Bench Division. A man of kindly disposition he proved a lenient sentence, so confirming a reputation he had first earned as Recorder of Andover when he was known as “Probation Comyn”. Coming from a more relaxed society it is possible that he did not fully share the Englishman’s sense of outrage about crimes of dishonesty or offences against property.
For six months, stretching over 1980 and 1981, he had the distinction of presiding over what was then the longest libel trial in English history, when a member of the Moonies failed in an action against the Daily Mail. He missed, however, the companionship of the Bar and found life on the bench rather lonely. The old “Black Dog” returned on several occasions and he resigned on grounds of ill-health in 1985, well before completing the normal pensionable period of 15 years.
Comyn was a model son and nephew to the older generation of his own family and such was his devotion that –in Irish style- he postponed marriage until they had all died. Throughout this time at the bar he had travelled regularly to Ireland to help to manage an aunt’s farm in Co. Meath, which he eventually inherited and expanded.
He kept a pedigree herd of Aberdeen Angus cows and at one stage owned Victor, the three times champion bull of Ireland at the Royal Dublin Society’s spring show. He also exhibited at agricultural shows throughout the country during the long vacation, while all the Irish country people accepted him as one of their own. He played an occasional game of golf at Royal tara Golf Club.
Any one of Her Majesty’s judges was a possible target for IRA terrorists and in 1981 the Provisional IRA burnt his house at Tara to the ground, coincidentally destroying in the process many family memorabilia of the republican movement in bygone days.
He had already written a book about his father and uncle entitled “Their Friends at Court”. It was a fine act of pietas. But those who had known them discerned that it was a gilded picture with much left unsaid. He also wrote books on famous trials, as well as volumes of memoirs and anecdotes, which included some verses of his own. These books were entertaining and easy to read but perhaps not of lasting value. It was characteristic of him that his account of his own career was sanitised of anything that was unpleasant.
Comyn married in 1967 Anne Chaundlier, a solicitor. He is survived by her and by an adopted son and daughter. He died in Navan hospital.