Judge enjoyed life well lived
SSupreme Court judge b March 10, 1945 d October 19, 2018
ir John McGrath, who has died aged 73, was farewelled last month at Old St Paul’s in Wellington by many hundreds from New Zealand and overseas. He had a long career in the law, ultimately serving as a judge of the Supreme Court.
His eulogy was delivered by Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias, who described his life as well-lived and productive, full of love and excitement. He was a former solicitorgeneral, chancellor of Victoria University of Wellington, and a student leader at VUW in his youth.
Born in Wellington, he was influenced by his father, Denis, a lawyer in private practice who also served as a Wellington city councillor, including a stint as deputy mayor. His mother, Margaret, was an artist, and as the oldest of four children, John enjoyed a creative and stimulating childhood.
From primary school in Wellington, he went to Huntley School in Marton, and then to Wanganui Collegiate. At Victoria University, he threw himself into study but also found time to join the student association executive. He was elected student president in 1966 at a time of wide student concern about issues such as the Vietnam war and apartheid.
He had a wide-ranging interest in politics and international affairs, but was always a lawyer and not a politician. He graduated LLM in 1968. In 1969, after clerking at Bell Gully, he joined the family firm.
That year he married Christine Swallow of Palmerston North, who had been a childhood acquaintance until they reconnected at a series of 21st birthday parties.
With his father’s encouragement, McGrath moved to the firm Buddle Anderson Kent & Co (which later became Buddle Findlay). Meanwhile, his family grew with the arrival of children Lucy and Tom.
In 1984 he went to the independent bar as a barrister sole, which proved to be a successful move, and he became a Queen’s Counsel in 1987. He continued his involvement with the VUW Council, ultimately becoming prochancellor and then chancellor from 1986-89. Happily, this coincided with Chris’ graduation and he capped her with a degree in music. In 1992, the university awarded him an honorary doctorate in law.
In 1989, he was appointed solicitor-general and head of the Crown Law Office, a role he later described as ‘‘the best legal job in the country’’. After big changes in the public sector, and the global financial storms of the 1980s, the office was under great pressure in areas as diverse as competition law, taxation, Treaty of Waitangi claims and human rights.
McGrath’s personal organisational and legal skills transformed the office into its modern form. He had a reputation for supporting many women lawyers, who went on to make distinguished careers. He led many of the key cases himself, including Privy Council appearances (particularly in commercial and taxation cases).
As chief legal adviser to successive governments, he was respected for his integrity, independence, perception and industry.
Particular highlights from this period include advising on the Ma¯ ori Fisheries Settlement of 1992, representing New Zealand at the International Court of Justice in the French nuclear testing case in 1995, and reporting to the government on the desirability of removing the right of appeal to the Privy Council and replacing it with a New Zealand-based final court.
His appearances at the Privy Council had convinced him that, although the British judges were ‘‘clever and charming’’, they had inadequate knowledge of New Zealand conditions to be developing law fit for our needs.
In July 2000 he was appointed to the Court of Appeal, and in May 2005 to the Supreme Court, serving until his retirement in 2015.
At his final sitting on the occasion of his retirement, he expressed his concern at proposals to remove from legislation a reference affirming the rule of law. His comments were cited by Jacinda Ardern, then an opposition MP and justice spokesperson, who successfully introduced a Supplementary Order Paper to retain the reference.
Outside the law, McGrath had a variety of interests including music and travel, which he shared with Chris, and the study of international affairs and New Zealand public affairs. Over many years, he escaped to a family bach at Waikanae, where he swam, fished, walked the bush hills and enjoyed catching up with friends and his growing family, which by 2009 included four much-loved grandchildren.
McGrath was appointed a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2007, redesignated Knight Companion in 2009. While he valued this recognition, as the chief justice observed, he wore these honours lightly.
From the early 2000s he developed prostate cancer, which he faced and overcame privately. He is survived by his wife, his children and their families. – By Hugh Rennie, QC
Sources: McGrath family
Sir John McGrath was prominent in moves to remove the right of appeal to the Privy Council and replace it with a New Zealand-based final court.