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New Chief Justice for Cook Islands

01 December 2016

Sir Hugh Williams QC is the new Chief Justice of the Cook Islands. He succeeds Tom Weston QC, who was Chief Justice for about 6¼ years and a Judge of the Cook Islands High Court for close to 11 years.

A former New Zealand High Court Judge, Sir Hugh is also chair of the Electoral Commission, a role he has held since 2009.

He was made a Master of the High Court in 1989, serving in that role until 1993, when he left to work as a silk for about 2½ years. He was then appointed a Judge of the High Court in 1995, where he served until retiring in 2009.

He was appointed to the Cook Islands High Court bench in 2009. In 2010, Sir Hugh was made a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services as a judge.

Sir Hugh took silk in 1988, is a former President of the Manawatu District Law Society and was Chair of the Law Society’s Courts and Tribunals Committee from 1986 to 1989.

Being Chief Justice of the Cook Islands has been an “amazing experience”, Mr Weston says.

“It teaches you to be a better lawyer, having acted as a judge as well. And you learn a lot about your own culture through operating in a dominant Māori culture.

“You have to sit on some complex constitutional cases. The Cooks Islands, unlike New Zealand, has a written constitution.

“And then there are some specific jurisdictions that only the Chief Justice has, dealing with discipline of the profession and other such things. Also as Chief Justice, you are number two in the constitutional hierarchy, so if the Queen’s Representative – the equivalent of the Governor-General – was absent I was the head of state.

“On several occasions, I had to perform all the roles of head of state, including chairing the Executive Council, signing legislation and I opened their annual festival one year. That is one of the interesting dimensions of the role.

“It was a great privilege to work with the New Zealand Māori Land Court Judges as well, because they make a huge contribution in the Cooks. Judge Pat Savage was telling me that at one recent hearing out on Aitutaki there was so much business that he was dealing with a new land application every 2½ minutes.

“That’s an extraordinary volume of work. There is a notion that you go over there and sit under palm trees and have a relaxing time. That’s far from the reality,” Mr Weston says.

“My last act as Chief Justice was to appoint two new judges. One was Patrick Keane, a retired High Court Judge from Auckland [and a former Law Commissioner]. The other was Jane Lovell-Smith, who is the Executive Judge at the Manukau District Court.

“The result of me leaving is that there are now six High Court Judges, rather than five as it was, three of whom are women and three of whom are men.

“So it is one of the few superior courts with a 50-50 gender balance.

“Christine Grice [the New Zealand Law Society’s Executive Director] was the first woman judge of the Cooks Islands and then Dame Judith Potter was the second.

“Sir Hugh has taken over from me as Chief Justice, and then there is Colin Doherty and Patrick Keane.

“The High Court of the Cook Islands also comprises the lay magistrates, local Justices of the Peace, who are selected to sit as judicial officers. In Rarotonga there’s about 12 and there’s others on the outer islands as well. In Rarotonga it’s mainly women. I instituted a programme of getting a lot more women appointed to the extent that’s there’s now a majority.

“As the name suggests, they are not lawyers. They are people who, as Chief Justice, I considered would have the brain power, the dignity of the office, and the cultural dimension. Those were the three things I was looking for. I also set up a mentoring programme with the District Court at Manukau.”

In addition to the High Court judges, there are three judges from the New Zealand Māori Land Court. They deal with land cases as well as with chiefly titles.

New Zealanders also sit on the Court of Appeal. The President is David Williams QC. Sir Ian Barker QC is still sitting. He has been a Judge in the Cook Islands for some 30 years. Justice Douglas White QC was appointed on 1 February this year. Justices Barry Paterson QC and Bob Fisher QC complete the bench.

“I have been practising as a QC throughout, in Christchurch and Auckland, and the job was just taking up more and more time and impacting on my ability to be present in New Zealand to work as a barrister.

“I got to a point where I thought that I’d done enough and would go back to just being a barrister.

“I think what finally told me that I really needed to sort out whether I was going to be a barrister or Chief Justice, I was cross-examining a witness in New Zealand and at the same time on my cell phone on the lectern, I was trying to deal with an urgent application from the Cook Islands.

“I thought, this really is trying to tell me something.”

Last updated on the 1st December 2016