Judge lived a life committed to the law

Kevin Feeney: Became judge in 2006. Picture Sam Boal/ Photocall Ireland.
Kevin Feeney: Became judge in 2006. Picture Sam Boal/ Photocall Ireland.

GOOD lawyers don’t look for popularity in the cases they take but even Kevin Feeney must have wondered how he got landed with one particular brief which looked like it could only put him in a lose-lose situation.

As barrister for the newspaper accused of libelling a district court judge lampooned for stopping proceedings to take a mobile phone call in the late 1990s, Feeney found himself facing down a claimant and witnesses he’d normally refer to as “his lordship”.

Lose the case and his client would be miffed, win and people in his professional circle might feel similarly. As it happened, the judge won the case but little of the hefty associated costs so everyone involved lost something.

Such outcomes didn’t seem to faze Feeney, however. As he developed an expertise in defamation law, he became used to representing media outlets that defended claims more in hope than expectation.

Broadcaster Marian Finucane, rugby international Mick Doyle, republican Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy, and politicians such as Mary Harney, Prionsias de Rossa, and Beverly Flynn were among those who came to the High Court claiming ruined reputations.

Murphy and Flynn were notable exceptions to the rule of thumb that meant the defendants usually settled, apologised, paid up or some combination of all three. But if Feeney was often on the losing side in the verdict, his versatility, tenacity and courtesy meant he was on the winning side in terms of his own reputation.

Before he was made a High Court judge in 2006, he worked on two of the longest-running and most complex commercial cases to come before the courts — the Bula mines debacle and the Fyffes insider trading claims.

But he was equally at home untangling the intricacies of the financial world, as he did in a case that resonates with more recent events — the fallout from the State’s bailout of AIB after the collapse of its subsidiary, ICI; and with the medical world as he did in the Beaumont Hospital Inquiry and numerous Medical Council cases.

On his appointment to the bench, he immediately presided over high-profile cases, within days finding the behind the scenes goings-on in Áras an Uachtaráin opening before him in a personnel dispute involving one of President Mary McAleese’s staff.

He also heard two of the most emotive deportation cases to come before the courts, the ultimately unsuccessful appeals by the family of autistic boy Great Agbonlahor and by Pamela Izevbekhai, not to be returned to their native Nigeria.

In 2007, he heard his first Criminal Assets Bureau case, the battle over land in Carrickmines in south Dublin owned by the Jackson Way property company embroiled in the planning corruption scandals.

Soon after, he had his first encounter with John Gilligan, who was instructing lawyers from his prison cell in an effort to recover €17m in assets frozen by CAB.

He would meet the former drugs gang boss repeatedly throughout the following years as Gilligan, who is still battling CAB, tried every avenue to explain his inexplicable wealth and prevent disposal of the assets he held.

He was later given charge of the entire CAB court list and made many orders under the Proceeds of Crime Act allowing gardaí to seize, hold, and dispose of property in the possession of senior criminal figures.

In between CAB cases, he presided over a varied list, and chaired the Referendum Commission for the 2012 fiscal treaty referendum.

Judge Feeney, who was 61, was from Dublin, the son of Margaret and Prof John Feeney, a consultant obstetrician. He graduated from University College Dublin with a degree in history and politics before going on to study law and qualified as a barrister in 1973.

He married Geraldine and the couple had four grown-up children, a daughter, Barbara, and three sons, Kevin, Andrew, and Peter. Judge Feeney, himself one of four boys, lost one of his own brothers, journalist John Feeney, in the Beaujolais plane crash in 1984. Another brother, media consultant Peter, also went into journalism and is a former head of current affairs at RTÉ.

Judge Feeney died suddenly on Wednesday while on holidays in Ballycotton, Co Cork.

Tributes were led yesterday by Justice Minister Alan Shatter who said his death of one so dedicated to public service was a loss for the entire country. “Kevin was a judge of exceptional ability who graced the High Court bench with courtesy and good humour. He will be sadly missed by everyone who had the privilege of knowing him.”

Attorney General Máire Whelan, said his death would leave a “a great void in the Irish legal community”.

“As a judge, Mr Justice Feeney combined enormous intellectual ability with a compassion and courtesy which left an abiding impression on litigant and lawyer alike.

“As counsel, he acted in a series of landmark commercial actions, and he was unquestionably the leading defamation lawyer of his generation, making the sometimes recondite nature of libel law accessible for a jury.

“He leaves a legal legacy of incalculable value in his body of reported case law, which will continue for many years to be the bedrock of jurisprudence in matters which concern the recovery of the proceeds of crime.”

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