Judge Harry Bennett

Judge Harry Graham Bennett QC, who presided over a major inquiry into alleged police brutality in Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles, has died in Ilkley at the age of 89.

It was unusual for a Circuit Judge to be asked to undertake such an important task, but when he was approached by the then Northern Ireland Secretary, Roy Mason in 1978 to investigate torture allegations it showed the MP for Barnsley was well aware of the high regard in which the judge was held in legal circles.

Although several of the recommendations in the subsequent Bennett report were not implemented, others including the installation of closed circuit television cameras at police stations, led to a reduction in allegations of abuse against the police.

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Born in 1921 into a Methodist family in Cleckheaton, Harry Bennett had one brother and a sister. His father was a local coal merchant and general road haulier.

He won a West Riding County Scholarship to Whitecliffe Mount Grammar School in Cleckheaton before going on to read law at King’s College, London.

As a boy he had a beautiful treble voice and won many singing prizes, as well as achieving grade eight playing the piano.

Throughout his life music remained very important to him, initially as a supporter of the Spenborough Musical Society and later a keen supporter of the Friends of Opera North.

He married late in life in 1987 to Elizabeth Lonsdale, the widow of the late Judge Alastair Lonsdale, and told her a day without music was like a day without bread.

After graduation he was commissioned in the Royal Artillery and served between 1943-47 in India, Burma and at the end of the war as part of the Army of occupation in Japan.

Called to the Bar in 1948, he joined chambers at 39 Park Square, Leeds, and built up a thriving practice in both the criminal and civil courts.

In those days he continued to play an active role in the life of his home town, being a Conservative member of Spenborough Council for five years from 1957.

He sat as deputy chairman of East Riding Quarter Sessions from 1964 to 1971, during which time he also was Recorder of Doncaster from 1966-1968.

He became a Queen’s Counsel in 1968 and Recorder of York the same year.

A member of the Merchant Adventurer’s Company, he always enjoyed his time sitting at York Crown Court and when Recorder titles ceased to exist for a time in 1972 following legal changes he was proud to be named Honorary Recorder of York until his retirement.

He became a Circuit Judge in 1972 and it was after a trial at York in 1986, about a teenager who held up an off licence with an imitation “Dirty Harry” type Magnum revolver, that he criticised TV companies for creating a rise in street crime.

He said by featuring so much violence on the small screen they were giving young people the impression aggression was acceptable.

“This is a generation deluged with impressions of violence and guns,” he said. “I’m convinced it has had an effect. They see it on television and they think it is normal behaviour.”

He became the senior designated judge at Leeds Crown Court in 1988 until his retirement in 1991, although he continued to sit part time as a Deputy Judge until 1993.

Paying tribute to him at Leeds Crown Court yesterday, Stuart Brown QC, the barrister’s leader on the North Eastern Circuit, described Judge Bennett as the best of examples for judges to imitate.

“Harry was a proper judge in every respect. He was firm, he was fair, he could turn his hand to everything.” Many people forgot that included the family court.

The current Recorder of Leeds, Judge Peter Collier QC said Judge Bennett was a model judge who was not only a good lawyer but a fair man who also had a glint in his eye ready to pass some “waspish remark”,

Solicitor Tony Sugare, for Leeds Law Society, said the judge was a consummate professional both on and off the bench.

He chose not to become a High Court judge but to remain instead on the circuit bench in Yorkshire - “their loss was undoubtedly our gain,” said Judge Collier.

Judge Bennett is survived by his widow and stepfamily.