Sir James Peter Comyn, Irish-born barrister and English High Court judge, is born at Beaufield House, Stillorgan, County Dublin on March 8, 1921. Considered by many to be “the finest all-round advocate at the English bar”, he is appointed to the High Court of Justice in 1978, serving on the bench until his retirement in 1985.
Comyn is the son of Nationalist barrister James Comyn KC and of Mary Comyn. Through his father he is the nephew of the barrister Michael Comyn KC. Both his father and uncle had been political and legal advisers to Éamon de Valera, who at one point uses Beaufield House as a safe house. However, the Comyn brothers have a falling out with de Valera shortly before he comes to power in 1932, and Michael Comyn is passed over as Attorney General of the Irish Free State. As a result, James Comyn, who is then attending Belvedere College in Dublin, is sent by his father to attend The Oratory School in England. He spends six months as a trainee at The Irish Times under the editor R. M. “Bertie” Smyllie, but abandons journalism after a joke he added to an obituary is printed in the paper, leading to his demotion to the racing department.
Comyn then matriculates at New College, Oxford, where he reads law, graduating with Second Class Honours. In 1940, he defeats Roy Jenkins for the presidency of the Oxford Union, winning by four votes. After suffering the first of several breakdowns through his life, he briefly works for the BBC‘s Empire Service during World War II.
Comyn is called to the English bar by the Inner Temple in 1942, the Irish bar in 1947, and the Hong Kong bar in 1969. In 1944, he begins his pupillage with Edward Holroyd Pearce KC, later a law lord, and joins his chambers at Fountain Court. He practises in London and on the Western circuit, supplementing his earnings by teaching banking, a subject of which he knows nothing. On one occasion, he rises in Lambeth County court to cross-examine a female defendant in an eviction case. Just as he begins by saying “Madam,” the defendant opens her bag, takes out a dead cat, and throws it at him. The judge’s reaction is to tell the defendant, “Madam, if you do that again, I’ll commit you.” Comyn wins the case.
Comyn takes silk in 1961, and acquires a large practice as a senior, appearing in many high-profile cases. In 1964, he wins damages for libel for the former safe-breaker Alfred George Hinds against a Scotland Yard inspector by convincing the jury that Hinds is in fact innocent. In 1970, he successfully defends the Labour MP Will Owen, who is accused of providing information to the Czechoslovak intelligence services. In 1975, he defeats the government’s attempt to obtain an injunction against the publication of the diaries of former minister Richard Crossman.
Comyn is Recorder of Andover between 1964 and 1971 (honorary life recorder from 1972), commissioner of assize for the Western Circuit in 1971, and a Recorder of the Crown Court between 1972 and 1977. He is elected a bencher of the Inner Temple in 1968, and serves as chairman of the Bar council from 1973 to 1974.
Having refused a previous invitation by Quintin Hogg, Baron Hailsham of St. Marylebone to join the bench, Comyn is again nominated by Elwyn Jones, Baron Elwyn-Jones, in 1977, and is appointed a High Court judge in 1978, receiving the customary knighthood upon his appointment. Initially assigned to the Family Division, he does not take to the work and is reassigned to the Queen’s Bench Division in 1979. He has a reputation for leniency in sentencing, first acquired as Recorder of Andover. In 1980–81, he presides over an unsuccessful libel action by a member of the Unification Church, colloquially known as the Moonies, against the Daily Mail, the longest libel trial in England up to that time. His Irish background makes him the target of Irish Republican Army (IRA) action, and in 1981 the Provisional IRA burns his house in Tara.
Recurring bouts of depression lead to Comyn’s early retirement, on grounds of ill health, in 1985. In retirement, he divides his time between England and Ireland, whose citizenship he has retained. He writes a number of books, including memoirs, light verse, and books on famous trials. He also breeds Friesian cattle. He dies in Navan, County Meath on January 5, 1997 at age 75.