I was in Brisbane on 10 April 2015 this week when I heard the heart-wrenching news that the Honourable John Leslie Toohey AC QC had passed away the previous evening. Although I knew his death was imminent I was still overwhelmed with sadness. John Toohey was a humble and gentle man from whom, and about whom, I never heard an ill word spoken. He was a gentleman in every sense. He talked with crowds and kept his virtue. He walked with Kings but never lost the common touch.
I had barely graduated from university when I began work for John in 1997. It was, and remains, for me, an unimaginably fortunate start to a legal career. John had an extraordinary intellect. He was a wonderful teacher. And most of all, he had a human touch without match. In court this manifested itself in a deep respect for his colleagues, for counsel and for his staff. I came to work for him as a fresh-faced graduate. His intellectual ability, his legal knowledge and his judgement intimidated me. But for the 12 month period of my associateship he treated me, as he did all of his law graduate associates, as an equal. For the two decades that followed, he and his incredible wife, Loma, remained mentors and confidants, and treasured friends.
When Dr Barnett asked me to write this short obituary to honour John Toohey, I accepted un oeil qui rit et un oeil qui pleure. The laughter was prompted by my knowledge that John had already read much of the obituary that I would write. Following his retirement in 1998, Natalie Gray and I wrote a short biography of him for the Journal of Judicial Administration. We had just completed a year as his final associates. John had retired from the High Court and we wanted to express our sentiments of the extraordinary esteem in which we held him, our pride in his powerful sense of service, and our respect for his empathy and compassion. He sent us a warm note of thanks. With his usual dry wit he told us that he was particularly grateful to be given the privilege of reading his obituary. Natalie and I returned to the subject again for the entry we authored on John Toohey in the Oxford Companion to the High Court of Australia. With his wry smile he made another remark about our calling as obituary writers. Continue reading