Auckland High Court 150th Anniversary Sitting Address by Clive Elliott QC

Tēnā koutou.

May it please the Court:

I have the privilege and pleasure of appearing today on behalf of the New Zealand Bar Association. 

We have heard today of the early travails of this grand old courthouse. The water tightness of the roof, infestations of fleas and unsavoury odours from earth closets may have been overcome but, for all who have appeared in this court and indeed those today, the bad acoustics have successfully resisted all remedial efforts.
Notwithstanding these shortcomings, Courtroom One has stood the test of time. Today it stands, with a sense of solid and dignified purpose, just as it did 150 years ago, albeit in a far more cluttered urban landscape. The building has been continuously used as a court since it was opened. Of course, it has undergone extensive modification and upgrades and now is one of the largest courthouses in New Zealand.

At the recent re-opening of the Dunedin courthouse, I commented on the well-worn aphorism - “Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done”. 
Courts are open to the public, with an accompanying right of attendance. This right is a corner stone of the rule of law.

This court is much greater than the sum of its parts. It forms an integral part of our lives as legal professionals. So many stories are indelibly scratched into its wooden benches and pews. This court also bears witness to the training, dedication and skills of all those practitioners who have appeared in it, in different roles, over so many years. Some may say that for us mere mortals, “life is but a walking shadow” and what outlives all of us are the traditions of the law and its tangible manifestations, this historic building included.

Not only do courts like this draw the community together for justice to be meted out and disputes determined, they provide a place where the legal community gathers to welcome or farewell members to its ranks, and of course to celebrate events like this. It serves the important function of celebrating new lawyers and judges, and to farewell judges who have so loyally served the law and the administration of justice. 

The turnout today is testament to the warm relationship that exists between all of those who have appeared and practised in this court.

The court has seen its fair share of significant cases over the last 150 years. I will mention just a few:

  • Securitybank - 1980’s - tracing, sham trusts and lifting the corporate veil. Arguably the first of the big commercial cases.
  • Equiticorp
  • Commercial List - set up to deal with the growth in commercial litigation
  • The Urewera Four/Tama Iti - possession of firearms/police raids
  • Taito Phillip Field - bribery and corruption/perverting the course of justice - sitting MP (significant political dimension)

One constant feature has been high-profile - celebrity case.  Two cases come to mind. Both drew large attendances from the public - whether for purposes of entertainment, morbid curiosity or otherwise. The first was the Mareo Murder Trial in the 1930s. Before reality TV and social media this was early example of the salacious “celebrity case”.
Freda Stark was a well-known local dancer and entertainer, best known for appearing dressed principally in gold paint, for what was described at the time as “an enthusiastic audience”.  Mareo was accused of poisoning his wife. Stark was an acquaintance of his wife. 
Large crowds gathered outside Courtroom 1 to watch the proceeding and, in particular, Stark giving her evidence.The trial ended in a guilty verdict, but fresh evidence led to a retrial.  Stark’s theatrical testimony and prosecutor, Vincent Meredith’s, memorable closing lead to a guilty verdict and the sentence of hanging. 
The trial judge, Mr Justice Callan, was so unimpressed with Stark and the Crown’s other evidence that, post-verdict, he sent a note to that then Attorney-General stating that it fell short of satisfying him as to Mareo’s guilt.  
The hanging did not proceed as a Labour government was in power and every death sentence imposed during its term was commuted to life imprisonment.  The defendant spent 13 years in prison, in spite of numerous efforts to clear his name. However, the trial was to have a great effect on the Attorney-General, who later used the case in a debate in Parliament on the ending of capital punishment.   

Another case which had the same impact on the public mind and attracted crowds eager to witness court proceedings was the 1985 Rainbow Warrior case. 
There were huge problems coping with the public and the press.  The first 33 members of the public in the queue outside were allowed into the court for the hearing each day. Only 36 reporters could be seated in the main court room at once, but approximately 150 journalists were accredited to cover the case.  Arrangements had to be made to telecast the trial from Courtroom 1 into the number two court, where metre wide television screens were erected. The high degree of security was  also unprecedented.

Looking back at the types of cases and the use of technology, so much has changed.  Another very welcome change has been the greater emphasis that our judicial system better reflect New Zealand’s two founding cultures and its modern multicultural society. While this affects all registries of the court, it is particularly important to note at events such as this the progress that has been made. An example is the inclusion of te reo Maori in the intituling of documents and judgments.

Another big change has been the significant advances for women in the legal profession.  While Otago can claim the first woman admitted to the bar, the second woman in New Zealand to be admitted was Eliza Melville.  She was a committed local body politician and lawyer who fought for women’s rights throughout her long professional career.

This court has also seen significant advances for women in the judiciary.  Dame Silvia Cartwright, the first woman appointed to the High Court Bench sat in Auckland. The Auckland Bar can now proudly claim the first woman Chief Justice (Dame Sian Elias), the first Māori woman to become a judge of the High Court (Justice Lowell Goddard;) and the first woman to hold the position of Chief High Court Judge (Justice Winkelmann). All have practised in this court.

Some of the best and at times, most colourful, barristers in New Zealand’s history have appeared in this courthouse.  The roll call is distinguished and long, and continues to be impressive.  Today, I look at my learned colleagues and acknowledge their hard work and dedication in assisting the Court to arrive at its decisions. 

Finally, I acknowledge the role of those who support the Court and the Registry. It is trite to say that without them, nothing would happen. Their commitment, professionalism and courtesy are greatly appreciated by the profession and I thank you on behalf of all of those at the Bar. Kia Ora.

Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.

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