Women have been appointed as High Court judges in Northern Ireland for the first time.
Senior legal figures Denise McBride QC and Siobhan Keegan QC have both broken through a long-standing glass ceiling in the region’s judiciary.
With their appointments having been approved by the Queen, the new judges were sworn in by Northern Ireland’s Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan.
While women are proportionately represented among judicial office holders as a whole in Northern Ireland, men dominate the higher positions.
Prior to the appointments, around 22% of senior judicial posts were filled by women, with none at High Court level or above.
Now two of Northern Ireland’s 10 High Court judges are women.
The two new appointees fill places on the High Court Bench vacated by Justice Reginald Weir and Justice Ronald Weatherup who were both elevated to Appeal Court judges over the summer.
Both women had applied for High Court posts in the past and been on a reserve list of candidates. The selection process run by the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission (NIJAC) has been ongoing for a number of months.
Sir Declan Morgan, who is chairman of NIJAC, welcomed the appointments.
To address the gender imbalance in the top jobs, Sir Declan had established a Joint Liaison Committee (JLC) involving senior representatives of the Bar Council and Law Society.
“Ms Denise McBride QC and Mrs Siobhan Keegan QC are excellent lawyers and meritorious appointments and I am confident they will serve as members of the judiciary for the benefit of the community as a whole,” he said.
“Since assuming the role of Lord Chief Justice and chairman of NIJAC, I have promoted a number of initiatives aimed at ensuring that the judiciary is as reflective as possible of the community, while at the same time emphasising that the merit principle should never be compromised.
“I will continue to encourage our most talented practitioners to put themselves forward for appointment, safe in the knowledge that merit will always be the overriding consideration.
“These appointments are a clear demonstration that diversity and merit go hand in hand.”
Ms McBride is a former pupil of Clough Primary School and Down High School, Downpatrick.
She graduated from Queen’s University, Belfast, with an LLB Honours degree in June 1988 and was called to the Bar of Northern Ireland the following year. She was appointed a Queen’s Counsel in September 2011.
Ms McBride has appeared as an advocate at all court levels, including the UK’s Supreme Court. She has specialised in chancery, family, civil and international law.
In 2006 she was appointed an Honorary Lecturer at Queen’s University in recognition of long service as a tutor and guest lecturer.
She also served as vice chair of the Bar Council between 2012-2014. She was replaced in that role by fellow new High Court judge Mrs Keegan.
The former pupil of St. Clare’s Primary School, Newry, and Scared Heart Grammar School, Newry, Mrs Keegan graduated with LLB Hons from Queen’s University in July 1993 and was called to the Bar of Northern Ireland in September 1994.
She was appointed QC in 2006 and while specialising in family law has also worked in a range of other areas, including criminal, judicial review, and other civil law.
Mrs Keegan has been a Bar member on the Children Order Advisory Committee, a long-standing member of the Judicial Liaison Family Law Committee and was Chair of the Family Bar Association for two years from 2011-2013.