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Thursday January 31, 2013

James William Walter Neeb

Lawyer, optimist, grandfather, Supreme Court hero. Born Nov. 16, 1937, in Petersburg, Ont., died Dec. 14, 2012, in Waterloo, Ont., of probable stroke, aged 75.

'Isn't that wonderful!" Jim Neeb would often say. He possessed an optimism as powerful as his handshake. In his retirement years, that optimism let him look out at a rainy sky and have no doubt he'd get his golf game in. But long before then, it allowed him to imagine something far greater: that he, a small-city lawyer, could fight for a cause all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, and win.

He was a spirited man, loved family, and was given to attacking a ski hill, a Christmas carol, a bedtime story or a legal case with equal verve. He had a big voice, a Cary Grant cleft in his chin, and a wide smile that sprang to life instantly and displayed the family gap between his front teeth.

Jim was the youngest of four children, five if you count the daughter killed in a farming accident before he was born. He was raised by hard-working parents to expect a simple, unexceptional life. But Jim's optimism fuelled a different kind of vision. He became the first in his family to try for a degree, putting himself through Waterloo Lutheran University, then Osgoode Hall Law School.

In 1967, based in Kitchener, he began a legal career of vast reach. He was a passionate litigator who argued criminal cases including murder, and practised civil, commercial and family law.

In court, he commanded attention with a manner that was forceful but gentlemanly. "He was tough, not rough," Justice Stephen Glithero once said.

That toughness was never more vital to him than in 1985, when he took on the case known as "M(K) v. M(H)."

His client was Karen M., a 28-year-old suing her father for damages after years of sexual abuse as a child. At the time, Ontario law dictated that such actions be started no more than four years after the plaintiff reached the age of majority.

Jim had to find a way to overcome the time-limitation defence, and seized on the concept of "reasonable discoverability." He argued that for childhood sexual abuse, the legal clock should begin to run only once the plaintiff became fully aware of the harm done, and its cause.

A frustrating seven-year legal odyssey began. In one court, a jury awarded damages only to have them revoked by the judge. In another, the case was quickly dismissed. Jim's wife, Susan, remembers him weeping privately. But he carried on, doing most of the work pro bono. Finally, in 1991, he stood before seven justices of the Supreme Court of Canada, where his eloquent argument silenced the courtroom and, in 1992, formed the basis of the court's decision.

The guidebook he and co-counsel Shelly Harper subsequently wrote for lawyers has allowed untold numbers of adult victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue for damages against individuals and institutions, including the church. Perhaps most notably, it helped residential school victims win damages from the Government of Canada. Only an optimist like Jim Neeb could ever have imagined such a thing.

Trevor Cole is Jim's nephew.

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