Leonard Poulter Leary was born at Palmerston North on 24 March 1891 into a comfortable, middle-class, Methodist family. He was the second of four sons of Florence Lucy Giesen and her husband, Richard Leary, a chemist with a shop on The Square. The family lived behind and above the shop. From an early age his parents were ambitious for Leonard; his mother saw that he was taught to play the piano and his father encouraged a love of books. His happy childhood was suddenly interrupted by Richard Leary’s death when he was 10, and the death of his youngest brother two months later.
Leonard attended College Street and Terrace End schools in Palmerston North, Prince Albert College as a boarder in Auckland, and Palmerston North High School. When his mother was advised that her sons should go to Wellington College, where they ‘would meet many of the boys who would be prominent later on’, they were dispatched to Wellington. Leary later studied law and discovered drama at Victoria College. He had a vigorous, outgoing personality and an ‘irrepressible wit’, and he formed enduring friendships during his university years.
His legal studies were cut short by the First World War, which he thoroughly enjoyed. He led a procession of Victoria students to the recruiting office as soon as war was declared. He served from August 1914 in the 5th (Wellington) Regiment in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (Samoa), and from 1915 with the Royal Field Artillery, British Army, in England, Egypt and France. He was awarded the Military Cross, wrote a ‘Boys’ Own’-style memoir of the Samoa campaign called New Zealanders in Samoa (1918), and returned to New Zealand in 1919.
Leary resumed his legal studies at Auckland University College, where he was admitted to the Bar in 1920 (he graduated LLB in 1939). A wartime marriage on 2 April 1918 at Exeter to an English nurse, Margaret Mason Robertson, ended when she returned to England. They were divorced in August 1933; there was one daughter of the marriage. On 25 January 1934, at Auckland, Leonard Leary married Dorothy Lovelace Milne, with whom he had three sons and a daughter.
Between the wars Leary was a member of the National Defence League of New Zealand. Although he volunteered to fight in the Second World War, his age disqualified him for overseas service. Nevertheless, he gave up his practice and served full time in the Territorial Force (1940–45), from October 1943 as officer commanding the 1st Field Regiment, New Zealand Artillery. He was also a formidable force at recruiting rallies.
After the war Leary delighted in the family life his increasing success at the Bar allowed him to enjoy. In 1948 he purchased a farm in Don Buck Road, Massey, and aimed at spending three days a week there. A second home at Otaramarae on Lake Rotoiti, Rotorua, brought new experiences when he became a friend and valued adviser to his Ngati Pikiao neighbours. He served on several trust committees for them.
Leary is best remembered for his advocacy and his passion for the law. He was an Auckland barrister for over 50 years, and became a Queen’s counsel in 1952. A member of the council and the disciplinary committee of the Auckland District Law Society for many years and its president (1946–48), he was the mover of the resolution at the New Zealand Law Society’s conference in Napier in 1954 to set up a separate and permanent Court of Appeal of New Zealand. Leary acted as counsel in many cases, but two that he himself singled out were the case of William Bayly, who was convicted of murdering his neighbours at Ruawaro, in which Leary acted as junior to E. H. Northcroft; and Thomas Hayr’s case in 1952, where Leary mounted a successful defence of automatism for the first time in New Zealand, or in any common law jurisdiction. Bayly and Edward Te Whiu, who brutally murdered an elderly woman in her home, were the only two people defended by Leary who were hanged.
Leary’s autobiography, published in 1977, does scant justice to his reputation as a great raconteur, but some of the advice it contains is still fresh. The secret of advocacy, he wrote, lies in carrying an audience ‘from the known to the unknown, from the acceptable to the less acceptable’. The jury must be converted in small, simple steps to the point of view a lawyer desires them to adopt.
Leary was socially and politically conservative and active in politics throughout his life. He was chairman of the Parnell electorate committee of the New Zealand National Party and later chairman of the Massey branch of the Party. The Auckland profession assembled to honour him after his 80th birthday, when he told them that he believed that the secret of happiness in a career at the Bar was hard work and preparation, and ‘showing no elation at success or feeling no rancour at failure’. In 1973 Leary was made a CMG for services to law. In 1989 he published a New Zealand historical novel, Where rivers meet. He died at Lake Rotoiti on 11 April 1990. His funeral service was conducted in St Faith’s Church at Ohinemutu, after which he was carried to the Houmaitawhiti marae for his tangihanga, and he was the first Pakeha buried in the Rawahirua cemetery. Leary was survived by his wife, Lovelace, and his five children.