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Dr John Lochiel Robson CBE, 1909 – 1993

by Sir Kenneth Keith

Dr John Robson CBE, Secretary for Justice between 1960 and 1970 and Visiting Fellow and Director of Criminological Studies at Victoria University of Wellington from 1972 to 1980, died in Wellington on 17 September 1993, aged 84. He is survived by his wife Katherine and their four children.

As Henry Lang, a long term friend and colleague and one time Secretary to the Treasury, said at the funeral service, Dr Robson made a major contribution to New Zealand’s development in many fields. That contribution began 69 years ago in the Public Trust Office in Wairoa. Part time study for the LLB at Victoria and Canterbury Colleges (where he was awarded the Canterbury Law Society Gold Medal as the best student of his year) was followed in the late 1930s by PhD work under the supervision of Professor GW Keeton at the University of London. That contact later led to Robson editing the valuable 1954 and 1967 volumes in the Commonwealth series, on New Zealand, the Development of its Laws and Constitution.

That scholarly and educational contribution appeared throughout an increasingly busy and responsible period in the Department of Justice which Dr Robson joined in 1951, having spent the previous six years in the Public Service Commission mainly as superintendent of staff training. In additional to published writing, including the major departmental book Crime in New Zealand, he played a central part in the Institute of Public Administration and the Administrative Staff College, bodies which were critical in the strengthening of the standards of the New Zealand public service.

But that time in high office is of course best remembered for Dr Robson’s remarkable contributions to law reform and penal policy. He made those contributions as permanent head, with the Hon Ralph Hanan as the Minister of Justice, and excellent colleagues, particularly Mr BJ Cameron. He was fulfilling his ambition to play a major role in the higher civil service.

In his review, published just six years ago, of policy development in the Justice Department, Sacred Cows and Rogue Elephants, John Robson provides a fascinating account of significant aspects of that important activity. A simple list of some of the book’s contents should encourage a (re)reading of its account of:

  • the repeal of capital punishment – a decision taken by Parliament against public opinion and the votes of most Government members;
  • major changes in penal policy including the introduction of periodic detention and the placing of limits on short prison terms, with an important emphasis on building community involvement in policy implementation, and on public or at least editorial support for major changes;
  • the introduction of the criminal injuries compensation scheme;
  • the establishment of the Indecent Publications Tribunal;
  • the introduction of the Office of the Ombudsman, emphasising the critical importance for the success of the scheme of the work of the first holder of the office, Sir Guy Powles; and
  • the non-enactment of the Bill of Rights proposed in 1993.

Dr Robson also had a hand in the setting up of the part time law reform committees of the 1960s which, over a period of 20 years, made major contributions to the reform of New Zealand law. In addition he made a particular contribution as chairman for eight years of the Public and Administrative Law Reform Committee which among other things recommended the establishment of the Administrative Division of the Supreme Court and the new judicial review remedy.

A recurring theme in the discussions is the existence of a “departmental” policy. He is remarkably frank about it and about the related role of the Minister:

Where a permanent head is embarking upon a policy calling for changes in the law, then it needs no emphasis that he must win his Minister’s support. It is the Minister who will argue for the proposals in their several forms as they come forward in Cabinet, Caucus, and Parliament. The permanent head must ensure that his Minister is provided with carefully prepared measures and with advice as to appropriate courses of action and pitfalls that may exist. In the course of discussion the permanent servant will know the tactics that the Minister is proposing to adopt and he can be of help in matters relating to the media and also to interested groups and individuals within the community. It would be fatuous to agree that one is more important than the other. The simple truth today is that neither can exist without the other and this is especially so where legislation is involved.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer in his foreword to Sacred Cows refers to the Hanan-Robson team as setting a standard by which subsequent Ministers of Justice and permanent heads would be judged. But would senior officials now talk of their policy role and of the ways in which the Minister can help achieve it in the way that Dr Robson does? What would Sir Geoffrey have said of such an approach in his time as Minister of Justice?

The Robson contribution to the development of policy and particularly to the articulation of values ran far beyond the justice area. There was for instance his important work chairing National Development Conference committees from the late 1960s on social and cultural policy. The committee view that, without social and cultural development, economic development is not meaningful has become increasingly accepted, but at the time was novel.

The 1960s were given over to further struggle with the intractable problems of penal policy, as a visiting fellow and then founding Director of the Institute of Criminology at Victoria University where he had first studied over 40 years before. He helped establish in New Zealand the academic and practical study of criminology while continuing to make major contributions to the public life of his country, for instance as a member of the Press Council for the first 12 years of its life.

As a colleague in the faculty of Victoria and on a law reform committee, John Robson was scholarly, friendly, a fund of information, ideas and wisdom, attentive (with his head characteristically tilted as he gave close consideration), humorous and patient. As Henry Lang said, John Robson made a difference.

This obituary was first published in LawTalk 406, December 1993, page 3.

Last updated on the 11th May 2012