Sir John Joseph McGrath KNZM QC (10 March 1945 – 19 October 2018) Obituary

Former Supreme Court judge, Sir John McGrath, died on 19 October 2018, aged 73.

Sir John graduated with an LLM from Victoria University of Wellington in 1970. While at the university, he served as President of the Student Association and later sat on the University Council for 20 years before going on to be Pro-Chancellor and Chancellor.

Sir John became a litigation partner at Buddle Findlay before moving to the independent bar in 1984. He was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1987. He was described as unfailingly courteous and personally encouraging and fair in his dealings with others. His generosity with his time and advice was also noted by those who had worked with him.

Sir John was also noted for the contribution he made towards advancing women in the legal profession. He was described in 2015 by the then President of the Law Society, Chris Moore, as being a real pioneer in this area and that he appeared to have almost single-handedly been responsible for the career progression of many senior women practitioners, by offering talented women staff members opportunities for leadership and career progression. Mr Moore said that Sir John was more than a mentor – he empowered his employees and gave them support, backing their skills and abilities and opening doors for them.

Karen Clarke QC (as she was then, and later, Justice Clark) said that she herself had benefited from his Honour’s guidance. However, she noted that it was not just women who were the sole beneficiaries. There were many lawyers in government, private practice and academia who had had that privilege.

Sir John remarked that he had been fortunate to work in both the private and public sector. He learnt the importance of public service and service to the profession from his father, Dennis McGrath. He served as Solicitor-General from 1989 to 2000, a role that he greatly enjoyed and described as “the most interesting and exciting legal job in the country”. At his valedictory sitting on his retirement from the Supreme Court, Sir John said that it was the defining moment in his career and practice when the then Attorney-General, the Hon. Geoffrey Palmer, offered him the position as Solicitor-General.

The Chief Justice said that he had been “quite simply, a star” during the time that he held the office of Solicitor-General. Former Attorney-General Margaret Wilson noted that he had worked with five Attorneys and that she knew she spoke for them all when she said that Sir John’s “understanding of constitutional principles, legal expertise and analytical skills were greatly appreciated.”

He was made a judge of the Court of Appeal and High Court in July 2000. In 2005 he became a judge in the recently established Supreme Court. The Chief Justice said that the expectations of Sir John were high when he was appointed to the bench and that he did not disappoint. She considered his judgements to be “thoughtful, brave and careful.” Sir John was also a representative on the group that piloted the construction of the Supreme Court building which was she said a testament to his perseverance and care.

The former judge was also described as having a distinctive approach to statutory interpretation, interpreting statutes in a contextual and not technical way and “thus enlivening their purpose” by Karen Clark QC, when she spoke on behalf of the New Zealand Bar Association at His Honour’s retirement sitting in 2015.

When he retired from the Supreme Court bench, His Honour bravely stood firm on the need to for a commitment to the rule of law and parliamentary sovereignty, which had previously been found in the Supreme Court Act 2003 but had been dropped from the Judicature Modernisation Bill. He remarked:

“The inclusion of this statement in the Act did, however, make a very appropriate legislative recognition that under our constitutional arrangements there is some system. Parliament legislates and the Courts administer the law.”

Sir John pointed out that while the Constitution Act 1986 provided for Parliament to be the supreme law-making power of the nation, there was no equivalent provision stating the role of the judicial branch “or indeed the underlying concept of the judicial function which is to uphold the rule of law.”

Sir John became a Knight Commander of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2009. Outside of his remarkable career in the law, Sir John had a love of music and fishing.

The Council of the New Zealand Bar Association extends its condolences to Sir John’s family.

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