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Sir Humphrey Francis O'Leary 1886 - 1953

By Sir David Smith

Humphrey Francis O'Leary was born on 12 February 1886 in Redwoodtown in Marlborough's Wairau Valley. His father had a large family to support but Humphrey won scholarships and was educated at Wellington College and Victoria University College. He had an Irish gift of speech and won the Plunket Medal in 1906. He got his early experience in the office of Wilford and Levi, a firm with a large criminal practice.

He soon became a leading counsel for the defence in criminal cases in the Magistrate's Court. After a while, however, as he told me, he felt the need of doing more civil work. So he practised in partnership with his friend Frank Kelly and soon obtained such a good general practice that he was invited to join the firm of Bell Gully and Co in 1921. He became a Kings Counsel in 1935.

Humphrey O'Leary enjoyed a wide practice throughout the country. He was very good with juries, he could put an argument well before a Judge, and he had a lot of common sense. He had much success. His greatest disappointment was, I think, his failure in 1936 to secure the acquittal of Mareo on his second trial for the murder of his wife by veronal poisoning.

Humphrey O'Leary gave much service to the Wellington and the New Zealand Law Societies, and he was President of the New Zealand Law Society from 1935 to 1946. He served on the Council of Victoria University College from 1934 to 1946 and he was Chairman of that Council from 1941 to 1946. He was a member of the Senate of the University of New Zealand for two years, retiring when he was appointed Chief Justice in 1946.

Humphrey was a genial and courteous Chief Justice and worked easily and well with his colleagues. Unfortunately, after some years of useful work, he began to suffer from ill-health. He died on 16 October 1953, aged 67.

Humphrey O'Leary seemed to me to be a man of all-round ability in the law, whose life was centred on his desire to reach the top. His desire was never obtruded but it seemed to be deeply embedded. he could be downright, but he also had a capacity for assessing the way in which the wind was likely to blow in any situation. He may have owed part of his success to this quality.

His principal reading was legal biography and famous trials. He had an extensive library on these subjects and was ever ready to lend a book to a friend. He acquired a large repertoire of legal stories and anecdotes. With that aid and with a natural gift for friendly banter, he made many vivacious speeches when proposing or responding to toasts at lawyers' dinners. Owing to the positions he held he was often called upon but he continued to be bright, cheerful and pointed. He leaves the memory of an able, kindly and friendly man who rendered much service to the legal profession and who, in due course, made his way to the top.

This was written by Sir David Smith at pages 129 to 130 of his chapter "Bench and Bar 1928-1950" in Portrait of a Profession, New Zealand Law Society, 1969. 

New Zealand Law Society President

The following was written by Sir Richard Wild in the chapter "Seven New Zealand Presidents" at pages 174 to 176 in Portrait of a Profession, New Zealand Law Society, 1969.

Humphrey Francis O'Leary was elected President of the New Zealand Law Society at the age of fifty in 1935. Without doubt he was the right man for the times. O'Leary came from small beginnings. His father was a country blacksmith and he himself was one oa large family. But he was born with a keen intelligence, a warm and loyal heart, a merry humour and a shrewd but compassionate judgement.

Scholarships took him to Wellington College and university where he stood out as a sportsman, debater and student leader so that, amongst the goodly company at Victoria University College in his day, it was "O'Leary plump and cheery who was the Coll's brightest star".

Beginning practice in his early twenties, he was immediately prominent and in nine years of regular criminal work he never failed in a jury trial. But this article is not concerned with legal prowess. O'Leary's merit spoke for itself when, in 1919, the firm of Bell Gully Bell and Myers, which in sixty years had never imported another practitioner, invited him to join the partnership.

The qualities which O'Leary brought to the Law Society presidency were his experience (he had served actively on the Council for 14 years), his sagacity, and his exuberant good fellowship. These, together with his exceptional reputation as a barrister, made him a natural and a strong leader at a time when District Societies and individual practitioners throughout the country were ready to awake to a true sense of unit.

In the Dominion Legal Conferences, revived in his second year and continued until the War stopped them, he was the central figure, his round humour enlivening the debate, his stories delighting the dinner table, and his warm personality pervading the whole proceedings. As President he enjoyed tremendous popularity and goodwill all over the country. In Council he was an excellent chairman, probably at his best with broad issues for he was not a man to be bothered with trivia.

Notable measures carried through in his time were the institution of the Disciplinary Committee, the incorporation of the Council of Law Reporting, a new set of rules for the Society, and rehabilitation programmes for men returning from war service.

In 1946 there was criticism of the Council for not protesting in what was known as the Lewis case when a Minister sought to remove a practitioner from the chairmanship of a Land Sales Committee for not carrying out the policy of the Government. But in those days the Council was peculiarly reticent about intervention in anything with a political flavour and this issue became the subject of a no-confidence motion in Parliament. For his own part O'Leary certainly did not lack courage or forthrightness, as he showed over and over again in court.

O'Leary's heart was always in the law. He was not a bookish man but he read legal biography avidly and his own collection was probably the finest in the country. His lack of self-indulgence, except for his love of racing and football, was almost spartan, and his tastes and aspirations were simple: one recalls his delight towards the end of his life at being elected a Vice-President of the Wellington Rugby Union. For such a personable man he was curiously shy of women (it is doubtful if he ever employed a woman typist) but he loved the company of men and, best, his fellow lawyers of all ages. Even in the sadness which darkened his last months it was the law and what was going on in the profession that remained his abiding interest.

O'Leary's presidency continued for 11 years. Some said he stayed too long, but he had behind him the examples of Bell (16 years) and Skerrett and Gray (eight years each), and he had the war years. His enthusiasm and loyalty never wavered and there can be no doubt that, as their leader, he carried always the admiration and affection of all ranks in the profession.

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Last updated on the 10th August 2019