Rt. Hon. Sir Johann Thomas Eichelbaum GBE PC QC

The New Zealand Bar Association offers its condolences to the family of Former Chief Justice Sir Thomas Eichelbaum, who died on 1 November 2018, aged 87. Sir Thomas was Chief Justice of New Zealand from February 1989 to May 1999.

At an event in Auckland on 1 November which was attended by Sir John Key, NZBA president Kate Davenport QC asked attendees to observe a moment of silence, in recognition of Sir Thomas’s life and career.

Born Johann Thomas Eichelbaum in Koeningsberg, Germany in 1931, Sir Thomas came with his Jewish family to New Zealand in 1938 to escape Nazism. He became a naturalised New Zealand in 1946 and proceeded to serve his country with distinction.

The NZBA notes Sir Thomas’s significant contribution to the legal profession and subsequently to the judiciary: “Aside from his legal acumen, Sir Thomas was known for his excellence in administration," Ms Davenport comments. "He introduced several reforms and changes to our court system, particularly the establishment of the Criminal Appeal Division of the Court of Appeal.”

“Sir Thomas was also a champion of diversity. During his term, the first Māori High Court judge was appointed. Sir Thomas also called for the removal of informal barriers to women in the law and the judiciary. As Chief Justice he saw the appointment of the first women to the High Court and was succeeded by the first woman Chief Justice, Dame Sian Elias,” said Ms Davenport. In a move welcomed by many barristers, Sir Thomas also updated the legal profession and courts with the abolition of the wearing of wigs in the High Court, and the introduction of computers into court proceedings.

After graduating from Victoria University, Sir Thomas was admitted as a barrister and solicitor in 1953. He became a partner in Chapman Tripp in 1958. He left that firm in 1978 and was appointed Queen's Counsel that same year. He also served a two-year term as President of the New Zealand Law Society.

In 1982 Sir Thomas was appointed to the High Court Bench.  In a move that broke with tradition, he was appointed as the 11th Chief Justice of New Zealand in 1989. This was the first time that a Chief Justice had been appointed from within the serving judiciary. That same year, in recognition of this appointment, Sir Thomas was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (GBE) and a Privy Councillor. He was also made an Honorary Bencher of Lincoln’s Inn.

Following his retirement from the Bench in 1999, Sir Thomas continued to be heavily involved in the law by leading several investigations. He chaired the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification from 2000 to 2001 and conducted an independent inquiry into New Zealand’s loss of co-hosting rights for the 2003 Rugby World Cup. In 2001 he led a ministerial inquiry which reviewed the evidence that children had given in the controversial Peter Ellis case. His report supported the guilty verdicts but was widely criticised.

The Chief Justice, Dame Sian Elias, said that as Chief Justice, Sir Thomas was “… a reforming leader of the judiciary who modernised courts administration during his time in office. He was held in the highest affection by the judges who served under him both for his leadership and for his personal warmth and kindness.” Her Honour said that Sir Thomas was greatly admired as a very fine judge.

Former Court of Appeal Judge and former NZBA President, Rt. Hon. Sir Edmund Thomas, also paid tribute to Sir Thomas Eichelbaum, saying that he liked him immensely. He added that the former Chief Justice was extremely approachable, and diligent in supporting his fellow judges. In court he was firm but courteous. Sir Edmund said that Sir Thomas was a fine Judge, who had done much to advance criminal justice at the appellate level.

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