Lord Altamont’s legal legacy

County View

Lord Altamont’s legal legacy


John Healy

A lthough the late Lord Altamont has left significant monuments to his tenure at Westport House, not least as a pioneer in the promotion and marketing of tourism in the early days of that industry, he will be long remembered in judicial circles for his unique - and indeed courageous - contribution to Irish statute law. As has been widely reported in recent days, it was he who instigated the comparatively rare process of having a Private Bill guided through the Oireachtas and into the law of the land.
It was an action taken out of necessity, but was the only method left by which he could unlock a deed of  trust made in London in 1963 which, thirty years on, meant that the investment capital of Westport House was frozen, and Lord Altamont was unable to provide for his family of five daughters. That 1963 settlement had specified that the estate would be tied up and could only pass on to Jeremy Altamont’s son, and since the family  consisted of five daughters, the estate’s assets were now effectively frozen.
Ironically, while English statute law made provision for the amendment of such trusts where circumstances so warranted, there was no such equivalent in Irish law. Consequently, there was no other option but to seek to get the Oireachtas to agree to formally amend the Altamont Deed of Trust so as to set aside the 1963 conditions and allow the owner of Westport House to provide for his daughters and to go ahead with investing in and developing the estate.
The distinguished Castlebar solicitor, Michael J. Egan, was an accredited Parliamentary Agent and as such was authorised to bring a Private Bill to the Dáil and Seánad. And it was he who in 1990 set in train the complex procedure to have eventually enacted the Altamont (Amendment of Deed of Trust) Act, which was signed into law in 1993.
It was to be a long and torturous process, and there must have been many times when the bill’s proposers saw only false dawns. On its first outing, the Bill had made it through two stages of its passage when the Dáil was dissolved, and the process had to start all over again.
By 1991, the Bill had again passed the Second Stage, but the most difficult part was yet to come. A special sub-committee of the Oireachtas had to be formed to hear formal submissions from both Lord Altamont and from the trustees.
The Bill was first introduced in the Seanád in November, 1990, by Senator Avril Doyle, who made an eloquent and persuasive case for the dismantling of the 1963 trust. David Norris made the point that there should be fundamental reform of the trusteeship laws in general.
The Senators in general were well disposed towards the Bill and were sympathetic to the plight in which the Altamont family had found themselves.
It was left to Lord Altamont’s friend and neighbour, Senator Myles Staunton, to explain that the Attorney General had advised the applicant that it was extremely unlikely that the State would ever introduce general legislation to amend Trusts, and hence the need for Lord Altamont to follow the Private Bill route. And it was Senator Staunton who, in the end, had the honour of making the final, formal proposal that the Altamont Bill be signed into law.

3011 MPU