Judge en­joyed life well lived

The Dominion Post - - Obituaries -

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.

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