‘Outstanding’ defamation lawyer of his generation

Obituary: Kevin Feeney 1951-2013

Judge Kevin Feeney: chairman of the Referendum Commission

Judge Kevin Feeney: chairman of the Referendum Commission


Kevin Feeney, a judge of the High Court, who has died at the age of 62, came from a background where high achieving was expected.

Fr Charles Davy SJ, his brother-in-law, told mourners at his funeral this week that Mr Justice Feeney’s father, Kevin Feeney, an eminent obstetrician who was master of the Coombe hospital in Dublin, keenly encouraged “integrity and independence” in his children.

These characteristics, Fr Davy said, came to the fore in his youngest son’s career as a barrister and later on the bench.

Raised in Dublin, Kevin Feeney was educated at Gonzaga College, University College Dublin and the King’s Inns, and was called to the bar in 1973.

At both school and university, his long-time friend and fellow Gonzagan Peter Sutherland recalled this week, he was a very good debater “with a clear and cogent way of arguing his case”, something which developed in his later practice at the bar into a “calm, never overtly acrimonious but always extremely effective way” of presenting his clients’ cases.

Another brother-in-law, Dublin stockbroker Joseph Davy, observed that “courteous was the word which people constantly used about him; he treated everyone with respect and even when arguing with a colleague, he would never put him or her down” .

A fellow lawyer remarked that Kevin Feeney was “a wonderful colleague who was always tremendously helpful to others” and “the outstanding defamation lawyer of his generation in Ireland”.

He also described him as courageous, citing in particular his successful defence of RTÉ in the libel action taken against the broadcaster by Beverley Cooper-Flynn.

After his appointment to the High Court in 2006, Mr Justice Feeney became very involved in developing the case law concerning the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB).

He was recognised as having developed the jurisprudence in this area, seeking to balance the rights of the respondents in these cases with the need to give effect to the law. He showed conspicuous fairness in ensuring the rights of the defendants.

Particularly noted was his judgement in the “immensely complex” Kojer copyright case,” where colleagues say he showed outstanding skill in elucidating the issues.

Bar Council
Kevin Feeney became a district court prosecutor as early as 1977 and joined the prosecution panel in the Circuit Court from 1980, remaining until 1991.

He was called to the bar of Northern Ireland in 1988 and became a senior counsel in 1991.

He was a member of the Bar Council from 1986 until 1991 and of the barristers’ professional conduct tribunal from 1994 until 1998, and was its chairman from 1998 until 2006.

He was a bencher of the King’s Inns and served on its education committee and was also a member of the bar benevolent society for 15 years. Last year he chaired the Referendum Commission on the Fiscal Stability Treaty.

Apart from his legal work, Kevin Feeney was, as Peter Sutherland recalled, “an extreme degree of reader, interested in everything, including current affairs,” and was also “extremely interested in sports,” playing rugby, cricket and tennis at Gonzaga, where he played on both the junior and senior tennis cup teams.

Even in middle age, he was still playing on the Bar Council’s soccer team.

He played golf at Portmarnock Golf Club off a handicap of 17 and was a regular tennis partner at Fitzwilliam and Donnybrook tennis clubs of former Irish Junior tennis champion Jim McArdle, who spoke at his funeral.

Peter Sutherland, in drawing attention both to Kevin Feeney’s breadth of interests and his qualities of personality, described him as “a Renaissance man, in the sense that he was well-rounded, erudite but with a light touch, above all a man of equanimity who presented himself with a simplicity which belied his depth.”

Certainly he was well-regarded by those who knew him.

Mr Sutherland told The Irish Times that “my driver was told by one of the ushers at Donnybrook church that the only occasion when he had seen so many people there before was at Garret FitzGerald’s funeral”.

Family man
Mr Feeney married Geraldine Davy in 1979 and he is survived by her and their four children, Andrew, Peter, Kevin and Barbara, and by his brothers Jim and Peter.

An older brother, journalist John Feeney, was killed in the Eastbourne air disaster in 1984.

Joseph Davy told The Irish Times that Kevin Feeney was “undoubtedly happiest with his family,” and when he passed away suddenly at their holiday home at Ballycotton, Co Cork, last week, he was in their midst.