John Leckey obituary: Inspirational figure in North’s legal system

Lawyer who conducted Omagh inquest helped to engender public trust

John Leckey helped to transform public trust in the administration of justice in Northern Ireland

John Leckey helped to transform public trust in the administration of justice in Northern Ireland

 

John Leckey Born: August 25th, 1948 Died: August 5th, 2021

John Leckey, who has died aged 74, was an inspirational figure in the legal system of Northern Ireland who helped to transform public trust in the administration of justice in the jurisdiction.

He is remembered principally as the former senior coroner of Northern Ireland who conducted the inquest, finally realised in 2000, into the murder of at least 29 people in the 1998 bombing of Omagh by the self-styled Real IRA. It was the worst single atrocity of the Troubles. Victims included two unborn, eight-month-old babies whose mother, Avril Monaghan, was also killed along with her mother, Mary Grimes, thus wiping out three generations in a single incident.

It was in this role that he demonstrated a defining characteristic of his career and his personality; an ability to empathise with people, no matter who they were, or what their politics might have been. As Michael Gallagher, who is closely involved in the organisation Omagh Support and Self-Help Group, and whose son, Aidan, was one of the victims, put it: Leckey “was extremely dignified, humane, and professional, able to rise above the circumstances”. His conduct of the inquest into the deaths of those killed in the atrocity “was one of the few moments of that time [1998-200]” from which he, as a father, could take comfort.

But it was more than that which distinguished Leckey’s role in the aftermath of the tragedy. Gallagher describes as “above and beyond what a coroner would normally be expected to do” his treatment of the relatives of the victims.

“He met us [the relatives’ victims] in a pre-inquest meeting in the courthouse in Omagh and explained to families what he was going to do, and what was going to happen, that his role was not to really investigate the crime, but to determine what actually happened… he dealt with it in the best way possible and in my view better than anyone else could have done it.”

One of the difficulties Leckey faced in conducting the inquest was that, for legal reasons, he was unable to include in his findings of murder the deaths of the two unborn twins of Avril Monaghan. However, as Gallagher recalls, Leckey went out of his way to assert, as far as he was able, the rights of that family. “He requested the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to appoint a lawyer to represent the family [in respect of the twins]… he went as far as he possibly could to recognise the lives of those two [unborn] children.”

However, as his widow, Janet, put it, “whilst much of the focus in the press has been on the Omagh inquest, John conducted many inquests unrelated to the Troubles: baby deaths, motor-bike racing deaths, farm accidents, drug deaths, etc… [He should be] remembered as the man who showed compassion and respect for all those who had sadly been bereaved and whose losses required investigation by a coroner. It was a challenging career as Troubles and Legacy inquests became politicised, but he took on all those challenges and never veered from being independent, which probably did not endear him to the ‘establishment’.”

John Land Leckey was born in Belfast in 1948, the eldest child of Sheila (nee Land) and Norman Leckey. He was the eldest of three children, including a sister, Ruth, and a brother, Richard, the latter of whom would predecease him.

His parents were farmers at Magheragall near Lisburn, Co Antrim and he was educated at the Quaker Friends’ School in Lisburn, although he was Church of Ireland and a member of the congregation of the High Church St George’s in Belfast.

After graduating in law from Queen’s University, Belfast (QUB) he qualified as a solicitor in 1974, and thereafter joined the firm of John McKee and Son in Belfast, in which he became a partner. In 1984 he was appointed deputy coroner for Greater Belfast and in 1992 left private practice to become a full-time coroner, becoming senior coroner for Northern Ireland in 2006, a post he held until his retirement in 2015. In 1997 was appointed on a part-time basis as the first Northern Ireland Commissioner to the newly-set-up Criminal Cases Review Commission, and served later as a parole commissioner.

He co-authored, with Desmond Greer QC, the standard textbook Coroners’ Law and Practice in Northern Ireland, published in 1998. In 2015 he was awarded an honorary doctorate in law by the University of Ulster, in recognition of his “outstanding public service”.

He was involved privately with several charities, including Cancer Focus, the Ulster Society for Promoting the Education of the Deaf and the Blind, Radius Housing and the Halifax Foundation, NI. He also sat on an ethics committee at his alma mater QUB.

He is survived by his wife, Janet, and their two sons, Simon and Peter, and his sister, Ruth.