Address by President of the New Zealand Bar Association, Re-opening of the Dunedin Court on 26 January 2018

Tēnā koutou,
May it please the Court:

I have the privilege and pleasure of appearing today on behalf of the New Zealand Bar Association at this special sitting to mark the reopening of this historic courthouse in Dunedin. It is a privilege because events like this are so important in terms of maintaining the fabric of the legal profession and upholding the rule of law. It is a pleasure, indeed a great pleasure, because these events play such an important role in the life of our profession. 

And what better place to do it than here today, in this beautiful restored Victorian Gothic building.

Courts like this are so much more than bricks and mortar. What comes to mind is the well-worn aphorism - “Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done”. Today, I mention it in a slightly different context. Underlying these words is the principle that - justice must be done - but importantly, openly seen to be done. It is this aspect of public recognition that is so important. It is closely allied to the cornerstone principle of open justice.

It is a fundamental rule of the common law that the administration of justice must take place in open court.  Likewise, it is necessary to our society and method of government that, except in extraordinary circumstances, the courts are open to the public. This allows the general public and the media to attend court during hearings and trials. It is hardly necessary to stress that this is fundamental right which guarantees liberty.

However, we do need to remind ourselves, particularly in these times, that death to the rule of law and open justice, may not come from one, but a thousand cuts. Courts, like this Court, are where the day-to-day business of justice is done. Courts provide the forum in which working counsel, many of them here today, practice their noble and learned art.  Foremost amongst their skills - oral advocacy and judgement, exercised under pressure, in open court before a judge or jury. This is where the true merits of their arguments are scrutinised before the world at large.

It goes without saying that not only must the courts be open to the public, but they themselves must remain open and be properly functioning. All too often today, we hear troubling reports of courthouses around the world being closed. For example, in England and Wales, in the last six years, no less than 250 courts have been closed. In this regard, it is appropriate, as Ms Beck has done, to recognise and applaud the government for funding the important remedial work on this priceless building.

The Courthouse

When this Court was built in 1902, Dunedin was still the pre-eminent city of New Zealand. Indeed, some would say that the wealth and prosperity that New Zealanders now enjoy is in substantial part due to the wealth generated by this thriving mercantile centre. However, Dunedin was far more than a mercantile centre.

This Court stands testament to the importance that its founders placed on the law and the administration of justice. Indeed, even today the courthouse stands proud as a beacon of solid but understated importance in the city.

This Court building hosted a good deal of important commercial litigation. As we have heard, New Zealand’s first woman practitioner, Ethel Benjamin attended the opening of the Court and was one of a number of famous lawyers to practice here.  Early examples include Alf Hanlon KC (who unsuccessfully defended Minnie Dean who was later hanged in Invercargill in 1895), and Saul Solomon KC.

In more modern times this Court building has hosted many accomplished advocates. Notable amongst them are:

  • Alf Jeavons
  • Ron Gilbert
  • Maurice Knuckey
  • Kelvin Marks 
  • Hugh Ross 
  • Denis Wood
  • Michael Haggit; and 
  • Maurice Mitchell 

This Court building has also housed noted resident Judges including Sir Joshua Strange Williams who was resident Judge for many years.   Sir Robert Stout, who was Chief Justice at the time the Court building was opened, also sat here.  Sir John White regularly sat in Dunedin in the 1970s. However, as Dunedin’s position in New Zealand waned it lost the resident High Court Judge with Sir Trevor Henry being the last resident High Court Judge, until his retirement in 1970. Since then the High Court has been served by Judges on circuit. It does now house four permanent District Court Judges.

Not surprisingly, there have been a number of significant hearings in Dunedin over the life of this building.  Contrary to popular understanding, the Minnie Dean trial was not one of them.  It was heard in Invercargill.  The then Magistrate Donald Rennie was tried in Dunedin in 1972 for perjury before Wilde CJ.  He was convicted and sentenced to six months imprisonment.  Deposition hearings were held in this building for the Bouwer and Weatherston murder cases. Perhaps the most famous recent case is the first Bain murder trial.  

Dunedin continues to be served by an active and accomplished Bar, upholding the very best traditions of the independent bar. Many are here today. They have the privilege of practicing in a court so steeped in rich history and tradition.

The Bar, both locally and throughout the country, is absolutely delighted that the Court has been refurbished and is to be reopened for day-to-day use. It has a sense of purpose and history that few other buildings in New Zealand have. It is a proud and prominent reminder of the gravity and importance of the work that we as a profession do.

Long may this Court, and courts like it, remain open as fully functioning working courts. Justice must continue to be done, in public and in open court.  It is hard to think of a better place for this to happen - than in this beautifully restored historic court.
The Bar Association applauds and thanks all who have made this possible.
Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.

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