Irish laws may be challenged:

  • in the High Court and Supreme Court against the guarantees given to Irish citizens by the Constitution
  • in the European Court of Human Rights against the guarantees given by the European Convention on Human Rights
  • in the European Court of Justice of the European Union.

Many unjust laws remain in force because no one ever challenges them. The Commission on the status of women report and the Women's Liberation Movement had made women and men more aware of inequality and several challenges were made through the courts from the 1970s on.

The job of bar waiting in Dublin City had long been reserved for males only and a trade union representing bar waiters placed a picket on a public house which employed female bar waiters. The High Court in 1972 ordered the trade union to remove the picket, on the grounds that they were trying to force the publican to dismiss women employees solely because they were women and that this was in breach of women's constitutional rights to earn a living.

In 1973, Mrs Mary McGee who claimed her health would be endangered by further child-bearing, challenged an Act passed in 1935 which prohibited the importation of contraceptives even for private use. The Supreme Court found the Act breached her right to privacy in marriage and was inconsistent with the 1937 Constitution.

Máirín de Burca and Mary Anderson successfully appealed against the 1927 Juries Act which confined jury service to those who held property and which excluded women unless they applied specially. The government brought in a new Juries Act in 1976.

Women in difficult family situations who had no independent income found it was impossible to take legal action. Some measure of free legal aid in family law cases was made available after Mrs Josey Airey took her case against the State all the way to the European Court of Human Rights and won in 1979.

Laws could also discriminate against men and the High Court found that an Adoption Act did so when it prevented widowers but not widows from adopting children in certain circumstances.

Women and men were given opportunities to challenge sex discrimination in the workplace and to extend their rights in employment under the Employment Equality laws of 1974 and 1977.

Francis and Mary Murphy, a young married couple, challenged the situation whereby a married couple paid more income tax on their combined incomes than two single people. The Supreme Court found in their favour in 1980.

Mary Robinson
Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson, a barrister, later to be President of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, actively supported and encouraged the extension of human rights by legal challenge.

In the 1970s, individual Irish women began to challenge the constitutionality of laws that discriminated against them. In this brave and expensive endeavour they frequently employed a young woman barrister, Senator Mary Robinson, who was counsel in most of the constitutional cases where women's rights were vindicated.
Yvonne Scannell, 'The constitution and the role of women' in Brian Farrell (ed.), De Valera's constitution and ours, Dublin, 1988, p.131.



  1. List the courts in which Irish laws may be challenged.
  2. Discuss briefly the role played by legal challenges in the extension of women's rights in Ireland.
  3. Do you think there are still situations affecting women and/or men which could be legally challenged? Give reasons for your answer.


  1. Prepare a claim for court, for or against the action being taken in any of the above cases.
  2. Write a brief newspaper report on the outcome of any of the above cases.
  3. Research the career of Mary Robinson.
  4. Research any of the above legal challenges. They were widely reported in the newspapers at the time.
  5. Research the role played by legal challenges in the extension of human rights in general in Ireland.
  6. Research the publications concerning the rights of women on the website of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
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