Luckhoo’s grandfather, Moses Luckhoo, was one of many Indians brought to Guyana as indentured labourers in the sugar cane industry in the mid-19th century. In 1899 Sir Lionel’s father, Edward Alfred Luckhoo, became the first Indian solicitor of Guyana.
Luckhoo was born in New Amsterdam, British Guiana, and was one of three sons and two daughters born into a prominent family of lawyers. His mother was Evelyn Maude Mungal-Singh, and his sisters were Ena Luckhoo and Renee Luckhoo. His two brothers, Edward Victor Luckhoo and Claude Lloyd Luckhoo, became Queen’s Counsels.
He was educated at Queen’s College, Georgetown, Guyana. Then he began studying medicine at St. Thomas’ Hospital in England but quickly felt squeamish about surgical procedures. He shifted over to legal studies and was called to the English bar in the Middle Temple in 1940. At the same time that Allied troops were evacuating from Dunkirk in World War II, Luckhoo left England for his homeland. He entered into a solicitor’s practice with one of his brothers in the firm Luckhoo and Luckhoo.
He maintained his private legal practice spanning most of the years from 1940 to 1985, and became a Queen’s Counsel in 1954. His reputation earned him an entry in the Guinness Book of Records (1990) where he is dubbed the world’s “most successful lawyer”. The record is for obtaining as a defence trial lawyer 245 successive murder acquittals. In a few instances his clients were found guilty in jury trials, but were acquitted in appeal cases. He also practised as a barrister in England, later served as a judge of the Supreme Court of Guyana.
Part of his courtroom technique is reported in Fred Archer’s biography of Sir Lionel Luckhoo:”Pick out two individuals. Look for one who is nodding his head and seems to be agreeing with you; then seek out another who is turning his head away because you do not convince him. Speak first to the one who is nodding. When you think you have won him over completely, move on to the one who appears dubious. Concentrate on him, look him in the eye make him feel that you are eschewing everything else to hold his attention because the life of your client is in his hands and that he must be convinced, as he ought to be convinced, that your man is innocent and deserves an acquittal.” (Sir Lionel, p. 33)
He also came to notoriety as the legal personal representative of the Reverend Jim Jones. Jones was the founder and leader of the People’s Temple Church, and had left California in the 1970s to establish a commune in Guyana known as Jonestown. A dispute arose between Jones and two former members, Timothy Stoen and Grace Stoen. The Stoens alleged that Jones was holding their child, John Victor Stoen, in the commune. Jones maintained he was the biological father and acknowledged Grace Stoen was the child’s mother. The Stoens had obtained an order for custody of the child in the California Superior Court in August 1977. As the Stoens commenced legal proceedings in Georgetown to have the court order enforced in January 1978, Jones made contact by short-wave radio with Sir Lionel Luckhoo. Jones threatened that he, John Victor, and the whole commune would commit suicide rather than have the boy released. Luckhoo managed to talk Jones out of taking this course of action at that time. In November 1978 a large number of members of the commune died in a mass suicide, and John Victor Stoen was among the dead.