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John Nelligan | In memoriam

It is with great sadness that we advise that Ottawa has lost one of its titans of the legal profession. John Nelligan passed away January 7, 2019 at age 97.

John Patrick Nelligan was born in Hamilton Ontario. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Toronto where he met his future wife Marion, then served overseas in the Second World War. Upon his return, he became a Barrister at Law (with Honours) from Osgoode Hall Law School in 1949. Mr. Nelligan practised in Toronto until 1955 when he moved to Ottawa. In 1963, he opened his own law office and in 1969, he and Denis Power established the firm of Nelligan Power (now Nelligan O’Brien Payne). He was considered to be a masterful and consummate advocate. During his career, he was counsel on numerous high-profile cases and the media came to refer to him as “Ottawa’s Perry Mason”. He was made Queen’s Counsel in 1972. He celebrated 50 years at the Bar in 2000 but still practised for many years after that.

He was a past President of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. He was the first President of The Advocates’ Society who practised outside Toronto. He was a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers and a Fellow of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers.

Among the many honours John Nelligan received, he was the recipient of:

  • The Law Society Medal
  • The Advocate’s Society Medal
  • The Carleton Medal
  • The Laidlaw Medal for Excellence in Advocacy
  • Award of Merit from B’nai Brith of Canada
  • Doctorate of Laws, University of Ottawa – Common Law

He was predeceased by his wife Marion and their son Jack. He is survived by their daughters Peggy and Kathleen and their children.John Nelligan’s exceptional advocacy skills and his commitment to his clients, often “the little guy”, are well known and were of course a source of constant inspiration to me as I developed my own practice.

However, even more than that, since the first time I met him as a young student in the early 70’s, I was struck by his commitment to his firm and his support and encouragement to all who joined him, from the most senior to the most junior, professionals and staff included.

So much of my success as the first female lawyer in the firm was due to his unwavering support from the moment he and Denis Power first decided to welcome a young female articling student to their firm.

He always referred to the firm as his family and until the end of his life never stopped caring about how we were doing, collectively and individually.

John and I met for lunch a number of times in the last years of his life and I could always bring a smile to his face when he asked about the firm – and he always did.

I will miss him and the special connection we had.

Until the end of my working life, I will strive to honour and celebrate his legacy in my own work and relationships in our firm.

Janice Payne

Some of you may know that I worked a lot with John in the first few years of my practice. I juniored for John on a handful of hearings.

John was a stunningly brilliant advocate….the kind of Courtroom lawyer that you see in the movies. Very simply: I’ve never seen any other advocate who could do the things that John could do in a Courtroom.

He was also a fabulous human being, with a marvelous sense of humour and a quick wit. What a terrific fellow he was to work with.

When I decided to article with Nelligan Power (as it was at the time), it was because John took the time to speak with me – an articling student candidate – when we happened to take the same elevator following my interview. He said how delighted he was to meet me and he went out of his way to say that he hoped I might join the firm.

That meeting with John Nelligan made my decision for me about where I hoped to start my law career.

I’m grateful to have known John, and I will surely miss him.

Jim Davidson

“The First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers.” Shakespeare wrote that because he didn’t know about John Nelligan. We do. What total privilege!

The first thing we do, let’s honour Mr. Nelligan – the lawyers’ lawyer.

Wing Yan

I feel privileged to add my name to the many whose lives have been enriched by friendship and association with John Nelligan.

I met John in 1987, when I worked closely with him on a civil action that was well beyond my years of experience. John was retained as counsel to assist me at the examination for discovery. Our work together on that case left a mark on me. I considered John a legal giant. As much as he was brilliant in absorbing the complex factual underpinnings of my case literally overnight, John was kind hearted in his mentorship: he treated me like an equal and at the same time taught me lessons in advocacy that young counsel can only dream of. His zeal for the law and advocacy was infectious. I told myself that the joy of working with John Nelligan was one I’d likely never have again, but I was wrong. I was blessed to be welcomed into the firm less than 5 years later when, in 1992, I found myself unmoored following the dissolution of my legal partnership. I turned to John for advice in relation to a plan of action for the next 5 years of my practice, never imagining that John would speak to his managing partners about inviting me to join the firm.

I can say, without the shadow of a doubt, that practicing with John and the many talented lawyers at Nelligan Power and later Nelligan O’Brien Payne, paved for me a road in practice that gave me the opportunity, experience and mentorship that made it possible for me to later contemplate a career on the Superior Court of Justice for Ontario, in the East Region. That is where in 2003 I joined my colleague, Denis Power, who was appointed in 2000.

John saw something in me that I was unable to see in 1987. You could say that John and others I count among my friends at Nelligans made me who I am today. Thank you is too small a word for all of this.

Although John has passed on, his legend will live on.

Giovanna Toscano Roccamo, J.

I have been struck by how accurate the tributes have been with regard to Mr. Nelligan’s combination of brilliance and kindness. That was also my experience.

My fondest memory was, however, his (in my world famous) comment to me when he, Cathy and I made the big trek to Toronto on the OMERS case near the end of my articles. I was in terror most of the three days we were there, but I had managed to remember to bring a roll of dimes for the photocopier (yes, we are all really that old). At one point, he raced into the library (with me in tow), looked for a case, found it and we raced to the photocopier (me following along like a pitiful puppy all the way). We got to the photocopier, whereupon I anticipated my moment of glory: he had no dimes and I had a whole role. I gleefully presented my roll of dimes, and awaited the praise that I so richly deserved. Whereupon Mr. Nelligan said: “Thank you so much. Best thing you have done all year”.

I will remember him very fondly and can only imagine, notwithstanding the sadness of it all, how the stories are flying at Nelligan O’Brien Payne this week. It was a life well-lived. Warm regards,

Judy Wilson

I am so sorry for your loss.

I had the honour and pleasure of interacting with John on several occasions in the courtroom and in life, and, on each occasion, I was awed by his genius, skill ,civility and goodness.

He was a giant in the law and in life.



Like others who have contributed here, I too was originally “hired-back” to be Mr. Nelligan’s junior. During this time I had the privilege of frequently watching him in action as he would engage a witness in cross-examination.

It never ceased to amaze how he managed to tame the fiercest of litigation opponents through his skill, civility and politeness. It seemed to always start with Mr. Nelligan agreeing with the witness’ view of the evidence and, then without notice even to that witness, would completely turn around ending up with them agreeing with his, not-coincidentally, more critical view of the elements of the case. “That’s right!” he would always assure them, as he elicited the response he was after all along, leaving the rest of us wondering, “how the heck did that just happen?”

While this was a frequent occurrence, one such instance was particularly satisfying to watch. A well- known, international, corporation had withheld a sizeable commission from our client, a very kind, older man. This commission was going to enable this kindly gentleman and his wife to finally retire to live happily-ever after. Our client spent many emotional days testifying including under cross-examination. Well into the second week of trial, it was finally the company’s turn and its “star” witness took the stand.

Mr. Nelligan had really only just started, deferentially asking this star witness those initial perfunctory questions he needed to get his familiar rhythm going, when the witness completely broke down. A long recess ensued together with a settlement offer that resolved the case quite satisfactorily for our client. I think that time Mr. Nelligan may have even surprised himself as he later confided he hadn’t even gotten to the tough questions yet.

He remained of course, as always, respectful of the witness and the other side’s lawyer while championing for the rights of his client – who was, more often than not, the underdog.

It was not, however, only his courtroom prowess that defined him as a lawyer or as a person. Perhaps even more importantly, it was the strength of his commitment to the values he held, like honesty, integrity, and equality, and his adherence to them in both his professional and personal life.

But whenever I think of Mr. Nelligan, above all else, I am always reminded of his devotion to his wife, Marion, and the very special place she clearly held in his heart. And, of course, above all virtues the greatest of them is love.

A life very well lived, a legacy well remembered and a role model to so many.

Siobhan Devlin

As many of those who practiced with him have so eloquently stated, John Nelligan was a great lawyer. I know this to be true because I had the privilege of working directly for him when I started my articles in May of 1972.

For one memorable year I followed him around the courts as his student. I recall spending days and nights in the library preparing research briefs. He always wanted the good cases and the bad ones to present to the court so he could put his own interpretation on them. What took me ten hours to prepare took him ten minutes to digest. I occasionally recognized my own efforts in his presentations to the court. He had a way with words which the judges were always grateful to receive.

John Nelligan was more than a great lawyer. In the years immediately following my call to the bar the courts were busy and he was able to demonstrate on numerous occasions different courtroom strategies and tactics. He was always absolutely prepared and brevity was his credo. I watched on numerous occasions as he mopped up an opposing argument in less time than it takes to boil an egg. The opposing counsel would be left waiting for more but John Nelligan had spoken and there was no room left for further argument. All that was left was the egg.

Sadly my articles came to an end. As each year passed new students appeared and their excitement grew as mine had with their opportunity to follow John Nelligan. I smiled as they came back each day with new stories of his latest appearance at court.

Decades later the tributes from those who knew him leave clear evidence of the mark he left on generations of lawyers. I was privileged to be one of them.

John Johnson

Personal Loss
Everyone who knew John feels a personal loss.

John interviewed me for an articling position, signed my articles, chose me to be his “junior” (seemed to last about 40 years) and to be his partner in the practice of law.

He was my mentor and in many ways my “father in law”. As a father he did not demand your best, but he expected no less than your best, and you did not wish to disappoint him.

John bestowed many intangible gifts upon me, but the greatest one was his trust. I visited John on the day before my recent South Asian trip. I believe we both thought that it might be the last time we would see each other. As I left his room, I said “I’ll see you in about 3.5 weeks and I’ll tell you about my trip”. He summoned his booming voice and replied “My boy, I’m looking forward to it, Merry Christmas”.

John the Advocate
John emphasised and treasured the privilege that we have to represent the interests of our fellow citizens. John and his clients did not win every case, but John, his clients and our judicial system were all winners when John Nelligan put on his gown and entered the court.

John was a generous teacher of the general principles and techniques of court room advocacy … yet it was so frustrating. No matter how hard I tried, I never came close to the grace and elegance of John Nelligan in “full flight”. From his righteous indignation, to his cross examinations, wherein he developed a friendly relationship with the witness, I marvelled at his skills.

John was an artist. We recognized his masterpieces. We also recognized the ease, elegance and simplicity of his strokes and learned that his brilliance could not be duplicated.

We are all better to have known him.

Al O’Brien

I had the great fortune to be mentored by and then to be a partner with John Nelligan. I received no better education in my life than the one I did from him in what it takes to be a great advocate.

There was no curriculum, no syllabus and no lectures. The lessons were all ad hoc and taken from the cases I worked on with him. But there were tests to be sure. He expected a great deal from himself and all those who worked with him. If I have turned out to be half the advocate he was, I would have reason to be proud.

He reminded me of Jimmy Stewart. A tall, kindly-looking gentleman with a twinkle in his eye. But when called upon, those eyes could turn cold as steel. Make no mistake, he was never harsh or angry or over-bearing. He did not need to be. He had the ability to be powerful and unyielding without being uncivil. His remarkable intelligence and total command of each case armed him with all that he would ever need. He was surgical in his questioning and argument. Most witnesses and lawyers did not know what had happened to them until after he was done. But he always did it with such grace.

John fashioned himself along the lines of the classic British barrister. He took on a case no matter what the cause, even if it may have run counter to public opinion or his own thoughts and beliefs. No matter the client, he knew it was his obligation to provide the same exemplary representation without judgment from him.

John Nelligan was a generational lawyer and I doubt we will see the likes of him again. I feel blessed to have shared the time with him that I did and to have been touched by him.

Peter Cronyn

John Nelligan exemplified what it could mean to be a lawyer.

He was skilled in ways that are hard to describe to someone who never had the pleasure of seeing him in court. His ability to cross examine was so efficient and effective, it rose to the level of high art. His advocacy was like none I have ever seen. It was said that some judges advised waiting a little before deciding a case once you had heard him argue, because the natural inclination was almost always to hold in his favour.

He had an exceptional legal mind. There were very few problems that he couldn’t condense to a few simple propositions that later seemed so obvious.

You could learn a lot from him. The cleverest came to understand that his level of skill and competence was something to aspire to, but that few would ever reach.

The most important things I learned from John Nelligan, though, were much more fundamental: have compassion for your clients, respect your colleagues and adversaries, share your time with those around you, and understand of the role and responsibility of a lawyer in his or her community. He had a strong sense of justice and fairness in the way those words are most commonly understood, and he did his best to make that sense contagious.

I feel as if we have all lost a great man.

Sean McGee

I was saddened to hear about the recent passing of John Nelligan and I am writing to express my condolences to you, your firm and his family.

I was lucky enough to meet Mr. Nelligan once about 20 years ago. I was still at the University of Ottawa law school and was part of a club that invited Mr. Nelligan to speak one evening. He would have been in his late 70s at the time and he basically showed up and asked “So, what do you want to know?” I cannot remember how long we had scheduled him for, but I do remember that he kept us entertained with stories of his career and stayed overtime until he had exhausted the supply of questions that we had for him. He was very clearly an intelligent and kind man and he was so generous to share his time in that way with a random group of students. The time Mr. Nelligan spent with us that evening made a positive impression on me that has stayed with me for 20 years.

On behalf of everyone at LaBarge Weinstein, please accept our deepest condolences. All the best to you and everyone at your firm.

Shane McLean
Managing Partner
LaBarge Weinstein LLP

I remember when I first met John Nelligan as if it were yesterday.

It was my first day of articling, and I was walking down the hallways of the Nelligan Power offices looking for someone to whom I should be announcing my arrival. It was a very busy place.
All of sudden a very distinguished gentleman walks up to me and hands me a letter. ‘What is the date on this letter?’. I read the date. ‘That was three weeks ago – never ever let a letter go this long without being answered. Go prepare a responding letter and see me in my office’. I almost apologized… I had just met John Nelligan.

I had just been caught up in the John Nelligan tornado, a tornado that had a tremendous impact everywhere it would land. We should all be grateful that this tornado landed in the judicial system. John Nelligan, by becoming one of the few great lawyers of his day, and actually any day, inspired confidence in our judicial system. He also inspired every lawyer who worked next to him or against him to aspire to attain what is the best of our profession.

I would go on to learn from Mr. Nelligan in many trials, where opposing counsel and even judges would be awestruck by effective he was. I remember Justice Elmer Smith saying that he would never write a decision immediately after hearing John Nelligan argue before him : he would always wait a few days to let the ‘awe factor’ appease so as to not be unduly influenced by the sheer strength of the man to convince another by his argument.

In a trial, he would exercise full control of the whole scene as if he were the director. I recall in a trial involving the safety of nuclear reactors, the nuclear physicist he was cross-examining turned to the judge and pleaded with grave concern : ‘Sir, this lawyer is trying to put words in my mouth!’ To which Justice McWilliams answered without missing a beat : ‘Let me assure you Doctor, that is exactly what he is trying to do.’

Though he may no longer be with us physically, John Nelligan’s needed impact will continue to be felt on the judicial system by those who were infected by the sense of greatness he instilled, but also by the following generations with whom this greatness was, is and will be shared.

Merci John Nelligan.

Ronald Caza

John Nelligan was simply the best courtroom lawyer I have ever seen — in real life, in movies or on television. With lightning speed he could suss out what was truly important in a case, often identifying issues that opposing lawyers had not appreciated.

In oral argument he was mesmerizing, making it almost impossible for the judge take any view of the case other than John’s own. And on cross-examination, he had no equal. He deftly led opposing witnesses to admit uncomfortable facts. It mattered little if the witness categorically denied John’s view of the facts; John would put those facts to the witness in such a compelling manner that John’s “story” was more believable than that of the witness. Our profession has lost a giant with John’s passing.

Steve Waller, retired partner

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