Irish Woman Barrister Secures Acquittal for Client on Murder Charge, 1931

From the Waterford Standard, 14 March 1931:


When she defended Mary Ellen Farrelly, Goiley, Fordstown, Kells, at the Central Criminal Court, Dublin, this week, Miss K Phelan BL won the first murder case in which she had pleaded.

Farrelly was charged with the murder of her infant son, Thomas, on January 5th or 6th last, and the jury found her not guilty and she was discharged.

Miss Phelan, a promising young lady barrister, is daughter of the late Mr Robert Phelan, Quay, Waterford and Whitfield, and is a sister of Mr RA Phelan, the Quay.”

Miss Phelan seems to have been the same Kathleen Phelan, barrister, who had attended the International Conference for the Codification of Law the previous year as a delegate of the Irish Free State. She had been called to the Bar in 1927 and had previously made the papers on the 1st March 1929 as the first female barrister ever to appear in Waterford Circuit Court. The obituary of Miss Phelan’s brother, Dr James Phelan, in 1949, described her as a well known barrister and a distinguished scholar. Her own obituary in the Munster Express in the 1960s stated that she had practised for many years at the Bar and was also attached to the legal department of the Land Commission.

Miss Phelan holds the distinction of being the first woman barrister in Britain or Ireland to secure an acquittal for her client in a murder trial. Madame Guihauld, a French female barrister, had previously succeeded in having her client acquitted of murder in similar circumstances at the Carcassonne Assizes in 1904.

The first woman to appear for the prosecution in a murder trial was Enid Rosser in England in 1928. Also in England, Monica Cobb, barrister, assisted Junior Counsel for the Defence in the Pit Shaft Murder Trial of 1924 without herself appearing as Counsel.

The first woman to formally appear for the defence in a murder trial in either England or Ireland was Venetia Stephenson in the Pimlico Murder Trial of 1929, defending a young ex-Army musician charged with the murder of his grandfather. Summing-up, the judge in the case said that Miss Stephenson “had discharged her duty to her client in a manner which reflected the highest possible credit on her carefulness and her ability… everything than could possibly be said for this young man or done for him by advocacy has been said and done.” The accused, subsequently found guilty by a jury including three women, was reported as “dazed” on his conviction.

The next reported woman in England to receive a defence brief in a murder trial was Helena Normanton, who succeeded in having the charge against her client in the Aynsley Attempted Wife Murder Case of 1931 reduced to one of unlawful wounding, following a trial in which the judge repeatedly intervened to ‘help’ her.

Set against the above, Kathleen Phelan’s successful murder trial defence less than two years after her first appearance on the Waterford Circuit stands as quite an achievement – not just for her but for the Irish legal system generally!

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Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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