Chief Justice's eulogy to Sir Robert Chambers

Eulogy for Justice Sir Robert Chambers delivered by Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias.


“Sudden death always wrong-foots us.  And when it comes early to someone talented and widely loved, it is difficult to think beyond the loss - the waste – the contributions not to be made, the friendship and fun not to be shared, the living undone.  And then there are the conversations left in mid-air, the things unsaid, the fragments of Robert scattered around our homes, offices, and lives which we expected to pick up and return or speak to him about.

It is necessary to start by acknowledging the loss because it hangs over us all.  But this is not a time to dwell on loss.  Robert himself was the sunniest person imaginable.  And we are here to acknowledge a life well-lived and to express appreciation for all this remarkable man was to us personally and to the community he served so well.

All things came early to Robert because of his prodigious talents and energy.  And if death also has come early by ordinary standards, well, his standards were not ordinary.  He had amazing stamina.  He packed two lifetimes into his.  And he spread a lot of happiness and good.

The Chambers family
Robert Stanley Chambers was the last of five children born to Dudley Norton and Hilda Margaret Chambers.  Margaret Chambers was a Mears, from a Hamilton legal family.  Bob Chambers, as Robert’s father was always known, was the son of a prominent Auckland accountant, and himself practised in his father’s firm, established in 1903 in Shortland Street. 

The first four children born to Bob and Margaret were Ann, Bruce, Stuart and Barbara.  Ann died tragically in a biking accident on Seaview Road at the age of 17 in 1951.  Margaret’s doctor advised her that the best way to cope was to have another baby.  The older children were a little disconcerted to be told in 1953 that in August there would be another addition to the family.  They had assumed that their parents, at 42 and 49, were beyond the age of procreation.

When the baby arrived in August 1953 all doubts evaporated.  All the dolls in the house went out the window.  There was a living doll for all the family.  Barbara always said that she learned parenting through practice with Robert.  A photograph album of early photographs was simply labelled “The Baby Album”.  There was only one baby in it, Robert, a beautiful child who had inherited his mother’s dark good looks.

Naming the baby was a family responsibility.  The older siblings wanted to call him after his father who, although named Dudley Norton, not unreasonably preferred to be called “Bob”.  When it was decided that to call the baby “Bob” would cause confusion, the more formal “Robert” was settled on.  The “Stanley” was for his grandfather, Stanley George Chambers, who had lived a few doors up on Seaview Road.  Of course.

The solid and serviceable Chambers second names may have sparked Robert’s lifelong fascination with and playfulness about names.  It led him to persist in calling people by their middle names or inventing and foisting on them ridiculous ones.  So too, he became used to being the youngest. 

His youth was something he would exaggerate in later life by insisting in speeches that others were really a decade or so older than their real age, and should have retired or celebrated whatever occasion prompted the speech years earlier. He also found endless fun in pressing his own initials into unlikely service. 

He was lukewarm about the Supreme Court having its own reports until he reflected that they could be named the Reports of the Supreme Court, allowing them to be referred to by his initials of RSC.  He thought Republicanism could just about be justified if Queens Counsel were replaced by Republican Senior Counsel or RSCs.

Growing up as a Northern Slopes boy in Seaview Road in the 1950s seems to have been idyllic.  The sections were big.  The neighbours were close family friends and stayed put for decades. Families such as the Fraters, Halls, Agars, Hagens and Pollards. There were patches of bush in which huts could be built.  There were a few sheep.  There were tennis courts.  There was a bach at Manly at a time when the Whangaparoa remained in farms. And more close friends there, including the Baragwanaths.  Robert sailed a P-Class, No 149. 

The family were parishioners at St Marks and supporters of the National Party. There were tennis parties and dinner parties, although Robert was to remark at his mother’s funeral (by which time he was something of a food snob) that he thought she let herself down a little when she served flummery to her guests.

As a late child, Robert was close enough in age to his nephews and nieces to be a pied piper for them.  The photograph albums show him the bigger boy in a circle of little children, reading to them, tickling the babies, leading them in play.  He never lost his playfulness.  He never lost his way with children or young people.  It set himself up to be a wonderful father to his children.   And he always made time to play or to instruct and help schoolchildren, university students and young practitioners.

Although Robert came from an inventive and practical family, he didn’t develop handyman skills himself.  He had no need to.  He was able to rely on his family for practical help.  Although Robert played tennis, skied with his family from Rangatira Ski Club, and in later years jogged alongside Bob Fisher, Roger Fenton and others, sports were not really his thing.  When Bruce tried to get him into tramping and climbing, Robert very sensibly was firm that he would go only where four wheels would take him.  On the other hand, family values such as thrift, kindness and industry were absorbed with the air he breathed in Seaview Road.

Robert never moved away from Seaview Road.  The bush and sheep may have gone, but at his fortieth birthday Robert was still able to describe the neighbourhood as “that sort of lower middle class suburb where one is constantly being invaded, not by Mormons, but by High Court Judges”. 

Robert may not have been successful in keeping out the High Court Judges, but he worked away to preserve the community in other ways.  He is partly responsible for the speed bumps that keep those of us who are passing through to South Auckland out of the street.  And more recently his attempts to rid the street of arial wires meant that he was disqualified from sitting in a case in the Supreme Court in which the utility company with whom he was negotiating undergrounding was a party.  The distinct impression most of us gained was that Seaview Road was the more important priority.

In Robert’s early background is I think the key to the man he became.  He was secure and loved.  He was someone at ease in his own skin.  He had no need to impress. He knew he was good.  He had sound values.  He was a keen observer of people and liked what he saw.  He was kind and appreciative of all sorts.  Like Kipling’s  Elephants Child he was Full of ‘Satiable Curiosity.  And he never lost it.  He was imaginative and conservative, a combination that is not an oxymoron and is greatly underappreciated.

The scholar and his habits
Robert went to Parnell School.  He loved school.  And his older siblings who had preserved their own school reports to that point soon chucked them out when Robert’s started to arrive.  His father, who adored Robert, was confident he would be a high achieving scholar.  And so he was in his secondary schooling at Kings College. 

Although he was not dux in his last year, he came as close as a top scholar in Latin and English and History can run a science whiz.  He won a Junior Scholarship.  He also won prizes for Divinity, English Literature, Latin, French and History as well as debating and public speaking.   He was School Prefect, Head of House, and Sacristan.

I don’t know whether Parnell School or Kings College should be given the credit, but somewhere along the line, Robert acquired his incredibly neat and legible handwriting.  Somewhere in his development he put this talent to work in the habit of compulsively drawing up lists of things to be done.  As if such lists aren’t bad enough, Robert also became irritatingly successful in striking out completed tasks. 

There was something very smug and - to anyone less organised - provocative about Robert’s struck out lists left casually lying around.  The three or four lying round his Wellington apartment certainly drew the attention of the police last week.  Robert could be a little cryptic in identifying the subject of the “to do”. 

One of the pieces of paper was headed “for Discussion with Deb” one entry was noted as “77 problems”.  77 seemed oddly precise.  A check with Caitlin confirmed that “77” was a reference to a property and that the problems were with it rather than with Deb. 

Somewhere too Robert developed the habit of working on the blank sides of printed pages.  The police at the flat were struck by the number of faxes still in the machine until it was pointed out that they were looking at a printer loaded with paper used on one side.  Robert said once that using up paper was a practice encouraged at home, where thrift was valued. 

This was something I never understood in Robert.  I married into a family where consumption of paper is valued.  And in any event, writing on the wrong side of a printed page makes me giddy.  I don’t have the discipline not to turn over the page, and get horribly confused by entirely irrelevant but often quite interesting drafts or file copies dealing with entirely different matters, some quite confidential.

After Parnell and Kings, Robert came to Auckland University and law.  And found a lasting passion in the puzzles law throws up and in its practical impact on the lives of real men and women in our society.  He graduated with LLB Hons in 1974.  His dissertation “Whither Matrimonial Property in New Zealand?” was awarded an A+, cementing his first class honours degree.  I never have checked to see whether he was right in the destination he reached in the “whither”. 

He obtained an embarrassment of honours:  junior and senior scholarships in law, the AG Davies Scholarship, the Sir Alexander Johnstone Scholarship, the Commonwealth Scholarship, the New Zealand Law Society Scholarship.  Not having been in that sort of swim myself, I didn’t know there were so many scholarships one could aspire to.  I suppose one can’t really, unless one is a Robert Chambers.

In 1974-5 Robert was a clerk at the High Court in Auckland.  The position had only just been introduced.  That it was such a success was no doubt because of the calibre of the early clerks, such as Robert.  My own memory of Robert dates from that period.  It has him laughing at me down the stairwell outside the old library before the rebuilding of the High Court about a case I had argued on appeal on the elements of wilful trespass.  Small beer no doubt, but for young lawyers heady stuff indeed.  At that time there were 7 High Court judges and one clerk.  When Robert went to Oxford he was replaced by two clerks, and of the calibre of Bruce McLeod and Mike Taggart.

In the next few years, while I lapsed into maternity, Robert emerged on the world stage at oxford.  He achieved the signal distinction of being invited at an impossibly young age – still in his mid- twenties and still a doctoral candidate -to co-edit the 18th edition of Salmond on Torts. 

How he came to be invited to be the first co-editor with the formidable RFV Heuston is instructive because it shows that Robert, although he always wore his talents lightly and never put on airs, was quite conscious of his own quality.  Robert had mentioned to his tutor at Oxford that he thought it sad that John Salmond’s great work of legal scholarship had languished in recent editions and become “rather tired”.  The remarks got back to Heuston who, as editor of editions 11 to 17 might have taken umbrage but, instead, after checking out the abilities of the precocious young student, invited him to participate as Assistant Editor in a project that would modernise the text.

Robert gained High Honours at Oxford.  He became Savesen Fellow in 1978.  His DPhil, awarded in the same year, was on the subject of The Law of Nuisance and the Rule in Rylands v Fletcher.  Robert managed to write 270 pages on the subject.  I think he had hopes that one day he would be able in the Supreme Court to vindicate his view that all Rylands v Fletcher cases were nuisance cases, and all nuisance cases were negligence cases.  At least, I think that was the gist of it.

Robert married Claire Taylor in the New College Chapel in 1977.  Margaret and Bob had travelled to England for the wedding.  In the photographs, Robert, looking impossibly young and with long curling hair stands holding a top hat.  He always liked a little ceremony.

Legal practice in Auckland
Back in New Zealand after Oxford, Robert worked for a few months only at Wilson Henry before taking the then unheard of step for a practitioner in his 20s of going to the Bar in February 1981.  He joined David Baragwanath and Bob Fisher in small space adjacent to their suite.  And very much to my good fortune there was a tiny office in Robert’s space, which I took over in March 1981 when I decided there had to be life after maternity. 

And with small gaps, Robert and I have been together ever since.  It has been the greatest pleasure for me in the past year to have him in the next door office again.  He still dictated very loudly indeed.  In 1981 or 1982 I have a distinct recollection of hearing him dictate an affidavit in which it was necessary for him to refer – many times, too many times – to one “Sir Robert”.  I always thought then that the title seemed to Robert one that went very well indeed with his name.  It certainly rolled from his tongue with evident satisfaction.

Robert had a much better type of client than I had in those early years in practice.  And a much better class of work.  He was however fascinated with the people who came through my door, even when our joint air-conditioning didn’t really cope with several gang members at a time. 

That time in practice at Southern Cross was I think the happiest time in my professional life.  With colleagues of the calibre of David, Bob and Robert, the law was exciting and fun.  In David’s chambers all law derived from Magna Carta or Broome’s Legal Maxims.  In Bob’s it was a little more down to earth. 

Robert himself always also paid tribute to the lessons of analysis and conciseness he had learned in his early time in the profession from John Henry.  Robert’s contribution to our enjoyment in practice was immense.  Although deadly serious about his work, he was always playful at other times.

During this time, Robert and Claire had two wonderful sons, David and Christopher, of whom he was immensely proud.  Claire describes him as a wonderful father, always ready to play with the boys and show them deep and enduring love.  Nothing changed in that respect after Robert and Claire parted amicably in 2000.  The boys continued to move seamlessly between Seaview Road and Parnell Road.

Robert’s career at the bar was everything that could have been predicted.  He appeared in leading cases which became leading cases only because Robert had the perception to see that the law needed to move and the capacity to convince courts that they should.  In his work he gave the same attention to little cases and little people as he did to the bigger ones.  He had a great sense of fairness and a concern for those who are disadvantaged.  He was always a great supporter of women in the legal profession and did not minimise the challenges they faced, which he was never slow in describing as injustice.

Robert took silk while under forty.  John McGrath recalls that Robert was not shy about making the point in his letter of application that younger appointments were necessary.  Of course, he prevailed.  He never lost the capacity to be excited about law and always managed to bring imagination as well as deliberation to advocacy and later to judging.
Robert worked hard in the service of the Auckland District Law Society and the New Zealand Law Society.  He worked on many subcommittees of both and rose to be President of the Auckland District Law Society and Vice President of the New Zealand Law Society.

The Judge
Robert was appointed as a Judge in 1999.  As the then President of the Auckland District Law Society, now Minister of Justice Judith Collins, said at the swearing in, all of us had looked for Robert to become a Judge of the High Court since he was about 12 years old.  Robert was the first Judge I swore in as Chief Justice.  He seemed to have been a little embarrassed about the risk of suggestions of partiality.  And at his swearing in spent altogether too much time explaining that his appointment was really all the work of Sir Thomas Eichelbaum.

I think Robert really enjoyed his time on the High Court.  Unexpectedly, he developed a real interest in crime, perhaps because applying his powerful mind he could see how things could be improved, particularly in relation to jury communication.  Of the wider role he said early on “a judge quickly realizes that any legal theory must meet broad tests of justice and practicality”.

Robert’s idea of judging was not divorced from real life.  I never heard him mutter about the dialectic or the normative.  He wasn’t of the Wittgenstein school.  As Bernard Brown said to me, Robert wasn’t interested in balancing angels on ingrown toenails.  His was muscular jurisprudence, pressed in to serving the needs of modern New Zealand society but consciously grown from stock that was tried and true. 

Robert would have preferred to spend longer on the High Court, but with the setting up of the Supreme Court in 2003, he had to step up to the Court of Appeal.  I think of that intake in 2003 as providing a Court of Appeal of all the talents.

When a new High Court Judge, Robert had remarked that even the finest legal minds on the Court of Appeal were often unable because of pressure of work to apply themselves to hard thinking of the type looked to in top academic writing.  But it has to be said that in his own work as a Court of Appeal judge he never cut corners and always had time for proper analysis.  His contribution to the work of the Court over the next 10 years was substantial.

In 2010 Robert was appointed to the Supreme Court.  He was born for that position.  In the Supreme Court he had the opportunity to judge without the pressures of the Court of Appeal.  No one doubts that he would have developed there into the finest New Zealand appellate judge of his or perhaps any generation.
Appreciation of the lawyer

Robert was always deeply appreciative of what he called “top academic writing” and maintained close friendships with many top academics.  By “top academic writing”, he did not mean digests of cases.  Indeed, all his life he thought that lawyers spent far too much time citing recent cases.  Nor did he have an insular approach which looked to a New Zealand jurisprudence. 

His was I think a similar view to that expressed in an earlier generation by John Beaglehole in his essay “The New Zealand Scholar”  Beaglehole was impatient of what he described as the “parrot voice” of the refrain that “We are only a young country”.  He reminded his generation that we are “as old as western civilisation” and expressed the view that it would be disastrous if our thinkers are grouped too much round the parish pump. 

Robert’s legal scholarship, which continued all his life and included his co-authorship of the first two editions of Todd, was emphatically not of the parish pump variety.  It gained him an international reputation, as is demonstrated by the number of messages and tributes from overseas courts and academic institutions, and is shown by the presence here today of Australian judges, for whom he was a favourite presenter equally on academic and more light-hearted topics.

The top academic scholarship Robert looked to was work of analysis, “delving widely and comparatively” as he put it in an article in the early 1990s and then honed by hard thinking.  This was the approach he brought not only to his own scholarly writings but to legal practice and his work as a judge.

Robert had standards in his judicial work that he was not prepared to compromise.  His commitment to quality also galvanised his efforts to make law more intelligible and accessible.  The reforms he championed in Rules and in other law reform projects were always to achieve tangible improvements, to de-mystify, and to raise quality.  Robert was always open to new ideas and change and he had the capacity to sell change to those more conservative.  His aspirations to improve the delivery of law led to his pioneering work with jury question trails, to his support for reform of rules of evidence and practice, and to the setting up of the Style Guide for legal writing.

Robert had had a passion for the style guide and always teased me about my anarchistic tendencies in resisting it, as indeed all Rules.  (I only discovered in speaking to Bruce this week that Rule-making and rule-observance are shared family passions.)  Certainly no one less committed or less genetically primed could have pulled such efforts off. 

Geoff McLeay, who worked on the Style Guide with him remarked ruefully to one of our colleagues this week that there would be no more emails at 10.30 at night praising a piece of writing style.  It was Robert’s energy and enthusiasm, sheer hard work, and intellectual leadership that prevailed.  This sort of work – attending to the scaffolding of legal decisions – may seem unheroic.  It is often overlooked.  But there is no doubt that it is essential to law that is fit for today. 

For Robert, this work was part of his drive for quality in the work of the courts.

Robert’s tips for improvement to practitioners and students urged thinking always.  They were encapsulated in his exhortations to adopt Three Cs –Clarity, chunks, conciseness, and citation.  Clarity required taking the time to think before plunging into writing.  Chunks urged structure in argument and intelligent marshalling of points.  Conciseness avoided casting obscurity over good points.  And citation was necessary to provide authority.  Robert was not someone who thought that the law could be made up on the hop.  The citations he expected were those pared back to what Cardozo called “an informing principle”.  For Robert, citation wasn’t a numbers game, it was a thinking game.

Outside judging
Robert was the best and most sought-after after-dinner speaker.  He was very funny indeed – something that certainly puts those of us paying tribute to him at a disadvantage.  And he worked really hard at his speeches, finding out all sorts of useful bits of information. 

For example, he ferreted out some very bad school boy poetry written by the young Peter Blanchard, which he used to hilarious effect on a number of occasions.  I found in his papers a list of what he has labelled, quite politically incorrectly, “Irish Medical Terms”.  Things like “Fibula” – a “small lie”, and “pap smear” – a father-hood test.  It includes “enema” which Robert gives as “Not a Friend”.  Well, I am sure there are no Enemas of Robert’s here.

Robert was someone who lit up any room at a party.  He loved playing tricks and was very competitive in playing games.  He was always ready with word-plays and avid for gossip.  He loved Sudoku and cryptic crosswords.  Bernard Brown remembers a holiday at Club Med in Noumea when he played French scrabble incessantly by the pool, winning all honours and being dubbed the Club bore. 

He loved the occasional recreations of historical cases put on by the Legal Research Foundation of Donghue v Stevenson and R v Dudley v Stevens.

Robert was an acute observer of the idiocyncracies of others.  But his sense of fun was never cruel.  He was the kindest person imaginable.  And he loved people in all forms.  Robert was never one to look over the shoulder of others he was talking to, to see who was more important in the room.  He always engaged with the person he was with, with real delight, especially if they were a little different.  He was not someone who used other people.  He appreciated everyone.

In the days since Robert’s death, all of us have been inundated by messages from everyone who had contact with him – drivers, court staff, Ministry of Justice officials.  All spoke of his warmth and how funny he was – one told me how he had followed up a message to her with advice about managing her pregnancy with an email admitting he had not himself been a mother.  As she said, she hadn’t imagined he had been a mother, but the note made her laugh out loud in the middle of a meeting. 

A few months ago he hosted a dinner for all the clerks who had worked with him as a Judge.  He was someone who was loyal and stayed in touch.  He had a great sense of humour.  He loved his time at Oxford not only because of the ideas he embraced but also because of its studied oddities.  Like the May Ball always held in June.  And the fact that New College, which he attended and which he recommended simply on account of its beauty to my son – might have been new once, but that was 800 years ago.

Robert had the greatest capacity for friendship.  I doubt that he ever lost a friend.  In my time in law I do not think I have encountered a case that split legal friendships as much as the Erebus case.  But Robert, who was junior counsel for Peter Mahon, came through unscathed and remains close friends with those on the other side of that bruising litigation, including his school friend Richard McGrane who was in touch with me to express his sadness this week and who has always kept in touch with Robert. 

Robert was a great friend.  Perhaps because he appreciated people for what they are, and never judged them harshly or precipitately.  He always had time for other people and was uncannily perceptive about what mattered to each of them.  He wasn’t afraid to show emotion, being easily moved to tears by something sad or some unfairness.  And he wasn’t afraid to show warmth and affection.

Rob and Deb
When Robert and Deb came together, Robert’s happiness was apparent to all.  Their wedding a decade ago was a great joy for all privileged to be there.  And nothing changed in the precious years since.  Only a few months ago, Helen Winkelmann, who does not shrink from making personal remarks, demanded rather aggressively of Robert whether he thought it was normal for someone to be as happy.  I think Robert knew well that such happiness was rare. 

He and Deb had in common their shared love of law and their wide circle of friends.  But they also loved each other utterly.  And Deb brought into Robert’s life Caitlin and Zelda, whom he loved unreservedly and who enriched his life immeasurably.  He was a very lucky man.  And he knew it.  And although all our hearts go out to Deb, David, Christopher, Caitlin and Zelda, all those of us who loved Robert have our own spirits lifted even at this time in knowing how happy he was.

Living well
I want to end with a thought about Robert’s innate goodness and the values he lived by.  We know Robert may not have believed in a personal God (although I’d like to talk to him about that Divinity prize).  But he was someone who undoubtedly thought there was an obligation to live life well and not waste it. 

Ronald Dworkin, writing in the shadow of his own death this year, considered that it is not necessary to think that there must be something in the universe capable of throwing the last stone to have a sense of wonder about life and the universe. 

We don’t need to be coerced into living life well by anything other than the belief that we are each of us responsible for living our lives well.  

Robert lived his life well.  He always saluted what was good and kind, and true in life.  And he worked to achieve those things.  That was what made him a great Judge, an extraordinary friend, and a loving father and husband.”