Queen's counsel Robert Fisher's tribute to Justice Sir Robert Chambers

This tribute from Queen's counsel and former High Court judge Robert Fisher is the last of four tributes to the late Justice Sir Robert Chambers, published exclusively by NBR ONLINE.

"When I think of Rob I think of intelligence, laughter and warmth.

(1) INTELLIGENCE

As to Rob’s intelligence, Sian, Willy and Simon have already spoken.

All I would add is that this great intellect expressed itself in a way that has special significance for us today.

It stems from the fact that Rob’s mind was organised, well-ordered, rational, and tidy. As far as possible he wanted the law to be the same. So he put huge time and thought into trying to make the law and its systems coherent and predictable.

He approached the law as someone setting out to organise his garage. There was no point in leaving everything in a huge pile of junk in the middle of the floor; no point in having to sift through the pile afresh every time you wanted something.

As far as was humanly practicable, Rob wanted a shelf and cupboard for everything.

Southern Cross Chambers

Hence a perceptive remark by David Baragwanath when Southern Cross Chambers  had four members – Rob, Sian, David and I.  David said that he and Sian were lateral thinkers, while Rob and I were linear.

Urge to codify

One of the ways Rob’s linear mind expressed itself was to codify. He abhorred an approach which sought to attain ad hoc justice in the particular case by maintaining infinite flexibility. For him that was nothing better than palm tree justice and its proponents anarchists.

Many was the debate I enjoyed on the Rules Committee in which Rob fought the forces of darkness over that fundamental difference of approach.

Application to projects

It was that urge to bring order and coherence to the law that flowed through into his work. It was the point bject of his text book writing. It was the reason his judgments strove for clarity, coherence and a guide for the future.

It was also behind the many guidelines and systems he either created or contributed to. Sian, Simon and Willy have already mentioned these.

They included many new systems in court rules, flow charts for juries, the current New Zealand system for assessing party and party costs (our joint creation), the Evidence Act (to which he contributed), and most recently the Style guide (for which he was the inspiration).

Endurance of guidelines

That urge to create something lasting stands us in good stead today. Though we no longer have Rob to talk to in person, he lives on through his work. His work was intended for people in the future.

A person who makes a just decision in a particular case will be rightly remembered for the wisdom they displayed in that case. But a person like Rob who not only decides the particular, but goes the extra mile to create a set of principles or guidelines for the future, leaves a lasting monument.

So whenever someone goes to use the Evidence Act, a jury flow chart, style guide or assessment of costs, Rob will live on through another enduring system that he helped to create.

(2) LAUGHTER

The second thing I associate with Rob is laughter. For all his towering intellect and judicial leadership, he retained the playfulness of someone who never fully grew up.

Youth

Rob always had a Peter Pan aspect. For an unreasonably long time he looked no older than about 25.

I’m reminded of a time when a school party was being shown through the Court building. When the escorting teacher was admonishing one of the group for straying out of line I had to intervene to point out that it was Justice Chambers.

Actually I made that up – but it was a standing reproach to the rest of us that Rob always looked so young. And it was a relief when in very recent years he started to look as if he were in his 40s rather than his 20s.

Unfortunately, with that preternaturally youthful appearance came an equivalent level of behaviour. For some reason I felt it to be my responsibility to try limit his more childish excesses, rather like an embarrassed parent struggling to control an over-exuberant child in a supermarket.

Bumping at legal functions

This was no easy task. In any kind of social setting a kind of bubbling excitement and enthusiasm came over him.

At a formal bar dinner a friend carrying food bumped into; or the chair in which they were still sitting would mysteriously turn to face the opposite direction.

At an otherwise dignified legal function at the Northern Club he managed to remove one of my shoes and start a game of soccer with it. A wholly disproportionate response, I felt, to nothing more than the placing of a kebab in his pocket.

Judiciary

After he became a judge I tried to keep most of this behaviour in-house. That is not to say that lapses did not continue in the corridors of the Auckland High Court and at judicial functions.

Judges’ Conference/Floaters

I remember one of the first judges conferences Rob attended. Many important people were there, including all the senior judges of New Zealand.

At the conference there was the usual discussion of internal judicial matters including the number of permanent and floating associates needed to support judges.

Later in the conference we had a talk from a nurse on how to maintain our health. It included helpful advice on a healthy diet and the need to eat plenty of roughage.

On the last of these responsibilities, the nurse gave us a helpful and graphic tip on how to monitor whether we were succeeding on a day to day basis.

At this point Rob found it necessary put his hand and say how much he agreed with the nurse. He added that for some time now the Auckland judges had been asking the CJ for more floaters.

Speeches

Unsurprisingly, Rob’s wit and irrepressible humour made him much in demand as a public speaker. As Sian has said, he became the most sought after lawyer in the country for public speaking. He was wanted for all kinds of functions. They included openings, book launches, conferences, parties, weddings – and funerals.

Funerals

Rob felt that at funerals eulogies should be a mixture of respect, appreciation and humour – especially humour. 

I remember him speaking at his own mother’s funeral. He told us that she insisted on making flummery cakes, notwithstanding his repeated advice that nobody liked them.

I suppose that indirectly Rob was telling us how we should approach today. That laughter should be an important part of his funeral.

We should be grateful for the sheer joy his humour brought to those around him. And the pleasure that will continue as we relive his many jokes and escapades.

(3) WARMTH

The third thing I think of when I think of Rob is his warmth and humanity.

He was intensely interested in people. He had to know all that was going on in people’s lives at a personal level.

This interest did not stop at idle curiosity. Whenever one of his friends faced a personal challenge Rob was always there for them.  So if you’d had a personal tragedy, or made a spectacular fool of yourself, Rob would always be there to offer his support.

I, and many of us here, have special reason to be grateful to him for that.

Family

It was this connectedness with people that enabled Rob to form such a close relationship with Deb, David, Chris, Kaitlin and Zelda. Our thoughts go out to them today. Although he’s not here in person, the bonds that he helped to form live on.

Relationship with Deb

Rob’s capacity for warmth and intimacy were what made a very special relationship with Deb possible. Rob simply adored Deb, just as she adored him.

When I was best man at their wedding I borrowed from Byron to say that in Rob’s eyes Deb

… walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meets in her aspect and her eyes;

For the rest of her life Deb will carry with her the knowledge that she has been part of something very special.

Perhaps there is consolation in the thought that it is the quality of that soaring love that matters more than its earthly duration. That to have been part of something precious transcends a mere counting of the years."