John M Collins

Caring barrister whose hard work won him the Bar Council Pro-Bono Award


A few weeks before he passed away from Covid-19, my husband John Collins was still going into work as a barrister. Only weeks before the outbreak of the virus, he took on a new job. He was 88 years old.

When his chambers had to close, he did not retire but sought a seat in a new chambers. Park Square Barristers (PSQB) eagerly embraced him, describing him as a “North Eastern Circuit legend”. He was totally committed to his life as a lawyer, his family and his Judaism, which guided him throughout his life.

John was born in Leeds to Ruby and Emmanuel (Manny) Cohen, MBE. After Leeds Grammar School he studied classics at Queen’s College, Oxford. It was a school trip to the Leeds Courts that inspired his chosen career. He was called to the Bar in 1956 and started in chambers in Park Square, Leeds. Within 10 years he was head of chambers, a role he held for 36 years, leading an increasing number of barristers.

His early days at the Bar were neither easy nor remunerative. His first brief at Guildford County Court was never paid, although marked at “3 guas” (guineas). Indeed just before we married in 1968 he had a brief which would pay for our honeymoon. Seven years later he received payment. Over his lengthy career he practised and had a working knowledge of most areas of law. He particularly focused on personal injury cases including medical and professional negligence.

In 1988 he was sworn in as a recorder, proudly taking the oath on the Old Testament. He served until 1998, having reached retirement age. Only a week or so later, he was asked to return to Middlesborough Court, as they were short of judges.

At an early sitting, he was visibly upset by the sentence he had given, feeling it was too high, despite contrary reassurances from his clerk. He recalled being on a murder trial when the death penalty was still in use, and represented the mother of the last victim of the Yorkshire Ripper. (Hill v Chief Constable of W. Yorkshire ( 1989) . He served continuously for 30 years on the Legal Aid Committee, helping people who needed financial aid in order to go to court.

Always kind and caring, he treated everyone in the same way, whether it was a substantial case or, as in Ilott v Mitson, a pro bono case on which he worked for seven years. This was a potentially law-changing case about whether an adult child, excluded from a parent’s will, can claim a share in the estate. The Supreme Court did not rule in his favour but he was pleased that at least his client was provided with a home for life. The seven years he had worked on this case won him the prestigious national Bar Council Pro Bono Award. As the presentation was due on a Jewish holiday and John could not be there, it was presented in the Supreme Court by the head of the Bar Council. He also received the Yorkshire Pro Bono Award .

Ever attentive to the welfare of his pupils and colleagues, his door in chambers was open to all who sought advice. Through his efforts a Sikh was permitted to wear his dastaar (turban) in the Court of Appeal, but John’s modesty prevented him from speaking of this and other kind deeds both at work and in the community.

John was a council member of Beth Hamidrash Hagadol Synagogue, where he had served as president, and was president of the Leeds Jewish Representative Council. His legal expertise at the Leeds Jewish Housing Committee was extremely helpful. He was a member of the Board of Deputies (1970-1992) and the Leeds Kashrut Commission.

John enjoyed his family, especially his three grandchildren in whom he took such delight. Proud of his grandson Noah’s barmitzvah two years ago, sadly he did not live long enough to enjoy his second grandson Louis’s barmitzvah last month. However, on the day before he passed away, John listened repeatedly, with great pride, to a recording of Louis practising for the occasion. And was so happy to learn, just before his illness, that his granddaughter Sienna had been offered a place at Leeds Grammar School. John and I travelled extensively — to China, India, Myanmar, South America and the Galapagos. We regularly visited Israel, which held a special place in his heart. He had joined a mission there during the Gulf War and regaled me with tales of gas masks and shelters.

He is survived by me, our daughter Simone Baxter, son-in-law Adam, grandchildren Noah, Louis and Sienna and brother Robert Collins .


John M Collins: born June 25, 1931. Died April 6, 2020

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