The day before Robert Carswell was sworn in as a high court judge in 1984, he spotted a Provisional IRA booby-trap bomb attached to the underside of his car. The eventual lord chief justice of Northern Ireland and law lord, who has died aged 88, alerted the security forces, but an attempt to defuse the device was only partially successful.
“There was an immense amount of damage done to my car – which was a write-off – my house, [its] contents and, by way of after-effect, my wife’s health,” he said in a House of Lords debate in 1988. “I had to get on with my job, and happily I was able to do so. She was badly affected for a long time afterwards.”
It was not Carswell’s only experience of Provisional IRA violence aimed at the judiciary and courts during the Troubles. Three years later a close friend and colleague, Sir Maurice Gibson, a lord justice of appeal, and his wife, Cecily, were killed in their car by a remote controlled device planted by the IRA on a border road as they returned from Dublin.
In the view of the republican movement, Carswell was at the apex of a system that dispensed partisan justice in the name of the occupying crown forces. In his view, the Diplock court system – in which from 1973 judges sat alone to prevent paramilitary intimidation of juries – succeeded in upholding the courts’ impartiality and fairness, and he was a defender of them. Unintimidated by the threat of violence, he grew accustomed to living with a personal protection team.
Born in Belfast, the son of Alan Carswell, director of a family printing business, and his wife, Nance (nee Corlett), Robert was educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and Pembroke College, Oxford, graduating in classics and law (1956). Two years later he gained a doctorate from the University of Chicago law school. Called to the bar in 1957, he initially specialised in commercial cases, and took silk in 1971.
He was appointed counsel to the attorney general for Northern Ireland shortly afterwards, and in 1973 appeared for the Northern Ireland Office’s Ministry of Home Affairs at the inquest into the deaths of 13 civil rights marchers shot dead by soldiers of the 1st battalion of the Parachute Regiment on Bloody Sunday in January 1972.
His comments after the inquest, in which he criticised the Derry coroner, Hubert O’Neill, for describing the killings as “sheer unadulterated murder”, led to Carswell’s independence in subsequent Bloody Sunday litigation being challenged in court.
Following his appointment as a high court judge, he was promoted to the Northern Ireland appeal court in 1992 and became lord chief justice of Northern Ireland in 1997, serving until 2004.
In 2000 a judicial review case over whether newly appointed QCs should swear an oath of allegiance to the monarch landed him in some trouble. Two barristers, Seamus Treacy and Barry McDonald, had refused to do so, saying it discriminated against them as members of the nationalist community.
Carswell, it emerged, had written to the lord chancellor in London stating that objection to the oath was a “politically based campaign” and that he had consulted judges in Belfast who supported retaining it. Lord (Brian) Kerr, his eventual successor as lord chief justice, later questioned whether there really had been any judicial agreement over retaining the oath, and ruled that it should no longer be required in Northern Ireland.
From 2004 to 2009 Carswell sat in the UK’s highest court as a law lord. Having been regarded as a conservative and traditionalist, on arrival at Westminster he developed a less predictable approach. In the groundbreaking case in 2004 brought by the model Naomi Campbell against the Daily Mirror, Carswell ruled, along with Lady (Brenda) Hale and Lord (David) Hope, that the paper should pay Campbell damages for invasion of privacy after it published a photograph of her attending a Narcotics Anonymous clinic.
After retiring from the judiciary Carswell sat as a crossbench peer in the House of Lords. Following publication of the Bloody Sunday report in 2010, he pleaded for an end to further investigations. “If we are to develop as a mature and peaceful society,” he told peers, “it is better that we should do so without inquiries, which are commonly so prolonged and often controversial, and may produce too little real enlightenment in the end.” He retired from the Lords in 2019.
Outside the law, Carswell was chairman of council at the University of Ulster (1984-94), a keen golfer, supported the Scout movement, and was a regular attender at St Mark’s, Dundela, a Church of Ireland parish in east Belfast.
In 1961 he married Romayne Ferris. She survives him, along with their two daughters, Catherine and Patricia.
• Robert Douglas Carswell, Lord Carswell, barrister and judge, born 28 June 1934; died 4 May 2023