Judge Jock: A Time Of Loss, Who Fills The Gap, A Chief Justice In Waiting

The Passing of Justice Chambers

Judge Jock recalls meeting Justice Robert Chambers only once, some years ago in the days when this scribbler used to be freely admitted to Auckland district law society Christmas functions.

If first impressions are anything to go by, His Honour was charming and friendly, with a sharp mind and good sense of humour.

Since then many Court of Appeal and Supreme Court judgments which the National Business Review ONLINE news service has written about have had Justice Chambers’ stamp on them.

They have generally been judgments well enunciated, clearly delivered and easy to follow – something for which court reporters and those who follow legal matters are always grateful.

To be taken at 59 – in his legal and judicial prime – is a devastating blow to his wife Deborah and creates a huge gap on New Zealand’s highest Court.

Leading trust and divorce Queen’s counsel Deborah Chambers only recently switched her professional name to Chambers, being better known previously as Deborah Hollings.

Jock Anderson offers his condolences to Deborah Chambers and the Chambers family.

Governor General Sir Jerry Mateparae confirmed on Friday Justiced Chambers was to be made a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the judiciary, to be announced on June 3.

Extending his sympathies to Lady Chambers and the judge's wider family, friends and colleagues, Sir Jerry says that given the special and very sad circumstances, his apointment as Sir Robert Chambers KNZM, QC, has taken effect from May 20.

A great judge

Among tributes which appear elsewhere in NBR ONLINE, Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias speaks of a great judge who still had much to contribute.

Chief Justice Elias’ view that Justice Chambers was a jurist of great ability, diligence and humanity will be shared by those who knew him.

There are some who saw Justice Chambers as the next Chief Justice to succeed Dame Sian (64), who has been in the top job for 14 years. Age and judicial experience were on his side.

Chief Justice Elias, who once indicated she would do the job for ten years, is expected to make it 15 years and retire in 2014.

Judges must retire at 70.

Who replaces the judge?

The extraordinary Supreme Court vacancy created by Justice Chambers’ death might be expected to be filled from within the ten judges who make up the appellate workroom of the heavy-lifting Court of Appeal.

But by whom?

It is unlikely Court President Justice Sir Mark O’Regan (60) will want to move.

As also president of the Law Commission, it is unlikely Justice Sir Grant Hammond would be in the running.

Justices Rhys Harrison (66), Lyn Stevens (66), John Wild (66), Terence Arnold (60) and Douglas White are not likely to be seriously considered.

Which leaves Justices Tony Randerson, Ellen France and Christine French.

From the High Court bench Justices Stephen Kos, Graham Panckhurst (68 – may be too old) and Paul Heath (57) cannot be ruled out.

Don't rule out another woman

It won’t be a surprise if the Supreme Court vacancy is filled by a woman – something Chief Justice Elias will be pushing for.

It is more than likely high-profile hard-working Chief High Court Judge Helen Winkelmann (54) is considered the best judge for the Supreme Court, but some observers say Justice Winkelmann is now a natural to succeed Chief Justice Elias in the top job.

As a young judge, Justice Winkelmann is best placed to continue the tradition of Chief Justices serving a minimum of 10 years.

Sir Harold Barroclough did 13 years from 1953-66; Sir Richard Wild served 12 years from1966-78; Sir Ronald Davison served 11 years from 1978-89; Sir Thomas Eichelbaum served ten years from 1989-99, when Chief Justice Elias took office.

As a senior frontline judge with administrative capabilities, Justice Winkelmann could easily leap-frog the Court of Appeal for Supreme Court experience in preparation for the top job.

A signal now would maintain the continiuity and stability the judiciary prefer when ringing the changes.

The remaining Supreme Court judges, former solicitor-general Justice Sir John McGrath (68) – who is too old for a short-term promotion – joined the Court in 2005, followed by Justice Sir William Young (61) in 2010 and Justice Susan Glazebrook (57) in 2012, who are not considered to be in the running for Chief Justice.

No doubt well deserved, but who are they???

Those 26 good folk annointed in the latest crop of Queen’s Counsel should not feel bad if Judge Jock admits to being familiar with only 10 of them.

The process can’t be right all the time.

In the Ladies & Escorts Lounge, Judge Jock and his cronies have been picking over the annointments like so many hoodie crows.

Folk such as Paul Dacre, Kate Davenport, Clive Elliott, Nathan Gedye, Graham Kohler, Daniel McLellan (nice one, Daniel) in Auckland; Jonathan Eaton and Pip Hall in Christchurch; Russell Fairbrother in Napier; and John Pike in Wellington, are well known to the Court.

Some will say most of them deserve their new ranking.

But why haven’t Neil Campbell, David Chisholm, Gillian Coumbe, Matthew Dunning, Simon Jefferson, Frances Joychild, Christine Meechan, Matthew Muir, Philip Skelton, Peter Watts, Trevor Shiels, Peter Churchman, Richard Fowler, Justine Smith, Terence Stapleton and Leslie Taylor been in the news more???

You have to wonder about some who were tapped.

Take ex-Labour MP Russell Fairbrother, for example.

As the only QC in Hawke's Bay, Mr Fairbrother appears more of a geographic balancing appointment.

It certainly couldn’t be for his futile “defence” of jailed Urewera firearms criminal Tame Iti… Could it???

Footnote One: Perhaps now the lavishly coiffured Mr Crown Solicitor Simon Moore QC will give up telling his joke about QCs being silks, but Labour’s down-market SC (senior counsel) alternative being merely rayons…

Footnote Two: And now the QC rank is once again soundly re-embedded there is no need for those seeking the title to fret over whether they should be August Counsel or Distinguished Counsel.

You work that one out…

janderson@nbr.co.nz