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Hon Sir John Francis Jeffries QSO, 1929 - 2019

By Nick Butcher

The former High Court Judge Sir John Jeffries who died on 25 January 2019 lived a life less ordinary, and will be remembered as a law man driven and guided by his strong ethics.

It’s hard to believe that he was written off academically at a young age - He failed school certificate three times and was provided with a school reference that warned employers not to give him a job that required study.

However, he proved his critics wrong, training as a school teacher and then going on to study politics and law.

Born on 28 March 1929 in Wellington, Sir John was a child of the ‘Great Depression’ and a teenager when World War Two ended. He grew up in Lyall Bay and was number two of the five children. His father Frank was a joiner, who was out of work for three years because of the Depression’s economic crisis. His mother Mary was a school teacher and the main bread winner during that tough period.

Photo of Sir John Jeffries
Sir John Jeffries. 

The Hon Bill Jeffries remembers his brother as a determined man.

“After failing school certificate for the third time, the Rector of St Patrick's College Wellington wrote a leaving reference which John rejoiced in for the rest of his life. It read 'I do not recommend John Jeffries for any job that requires study',” he says.

But Sir John showed and proved that the Rector of St. Patrick's assessment was wrong.  

“Fifty years later in 2012, John still held a warrant from the Governor-General in his capacity as Statutory Adviser to the Prime Minister in respect of national security matters. He was 83. At this time though he was the oldest civil servant in New Zealand. He went a long way for a Lyall Bay boy apparently not suitable for any job requiring study,” Bill Jeffries says.

Sir John left school and started work as an insurance clerk for the Sun Insurance company. His health took a turn when he contracted tuberculosis in 1950 at the young age of just 21. Once he had recovered, he started at Teacher’s Training College in what was known as a special ‘Pressure Cooker’ course designed to quickly produce more teachers out of the post-war baby boomers.

It was while he was recovering from that serious illness at Wellington Hospital that he met nurse Pat Christensen. Paths were clearly crossing at the right time and stars were aligning as the pair fell in love and were married in November 1951, when Sir John was 22 years old.

The couple were married for over 50 years and had two children, Trevor and Julia. Julia has followed her father’s footsteps and is a lawyer in Melbourne. She remembers how she ended up choosing law:

“I came late to law. I was a mature age student. I originally studied English literature at Victoria University in Wellington in the late 1970s. It was quite hard getting work. I decided to retrain and get a graduate diploma in journalism but in the end I also applied for a place at law school in Melbourne. I had to make a choice between the two. My father loved print journalism and newspapers. But my father told me the longevity of a career in law would be a better choice,” she says.

Before Sir John became involved in law, he completed his teacher training, but his appetite to learn was not yet satisfied so it was further study at Victoria University in political science.

The mosaic of images during this period of what became a spectacular burst of creative intellectual development and great personal growth, was John racing around Wellington on a Bantam BSA green motor bike, attending early morning lectures in Kelburn, then heading to his  teaching job along the western Wellington hills at Northland  Primary School. There were evening lectures, study, attending noisy tutorials, at the Cambridge Hotel on Cambridge Terrace, drinking with James K Baxter who paid John back a loan of one pound with a poem. "During this period he also wrote articles for the Sports Digest and never missed a rugby game at Athletic Park or a cricket match at the Basin Reserve,” Bill Jeffries recalls.

In 1959 Sir John gained a law degree from Victoria University in Wellington and was admitted to the Bar as a barrister and solicitor. He immediately became a partner at a small law firm in Lower Hutt called Martin Murphy and Jeffries. He left that firm around 1964 but continued to practise law. By around 1968 he had joined what became Scott Hardy Boyes Morrison & Jeffries - now better known as Morrison Kent.

He was a senior partner at Scott Hardie Boys Morrison & Jeffries until 1976 when aged 47 he was appointed to what was called the Supreme Court as a Judge. That was before it was renamed the High Court in 1980.

Bill Jeffries could tell many stories about his brother’s case work. One that he recalls took place in the early 1970s and highlighted the strong ethics of Sir John and his ability to judge a character.

“John was acting for an insurer of a company and at the court of inquiry a question arose about the cause of a fatal fire for the meat company in Petone. The position of his client rested upon the evidence of a key witness – Kevin John Miles. John had a sleepless night before concluding that this witness was deceitful,” he says.

Sir John told his clients that they could not continue with their position as this witness could not be relied on to tell the truth.

“As it turned out about two decades later, Kevin John Miles went on to become involved with Mr Asia in an international drug running syndicate involving heroin. He was jailed for 14 years and upon release he spent his time in the USA, India and Nepal. The last we heard was that he died while on the run from Indonesian authorities in Bali in 2004,” Bill Jeffries says.

Looking back at the late 1980s, Bill Jeffries remembers what he describes as a combination of New Zealand institutions creating a new way forward whereby the nation came to terms with its colonial past. Parliament, the Waitangi Tribunal, the New Zealand Maori Council, the Government of the day and the courts led by John’s great life-time friend, the late Robin Cooke, forged new approaches of respect and recognition of the tangata whenua.

The resulting policy, he says was settlement of historical proven grievances airing out of colonisation with wealth resources.

“Another manifestation of all of this came before John in 1992 in an appeal by Electricorp against a decision of a Planning Tribunal in relation to the Whanganui River. The Tribunal’s decision was that there were legal limits dictated by the natural flow of the waters on the use of the river by Electricorp for power generation. The Electricity Department had for some 18 years diverted substantial amounts of the headwaters of the Whanganui River into its huge Tongariro power generation scheme and at times, its Waikato River power scheme was depriving the lower reaches of the River affecting fish and bird life."

The local Māori Trust explained to the court what water means to the people of the land: To take water is to take life. They said water provides food, recreation and navigation and had done so since as far back as possibly 1100 AD. The Acclimatisation Societies presented evidence about the impact on the introduced trout, the beautiful bluebirds and the occasional degradation of the waters.

While there were plain benefits in abstraction, the question for Sir John was - what are the legal limits?

He says Electicorp’s interpretation of the law did not recognise limits.

The court disagreed.

In dismissing the appeal, Sir John found that the law did not grant Electricorp a “Plenipotentiary power to take and use the water absolutely in Electricorp’s own discretion.”

The court dismissed the appeal, ruling in favour of the local Māori Trust and affirming the original decision of the Planning Tribunal.

And there were other memorable cases, Bill recalls, such as the time shortly after his brother was appointed as a Judge and before the creation of the separate Family Court jurisdiction. Sir John delivered a memorable judgement in a contested custody case.

“The Guardianship Act in such matters set out the legal test in resolving which parent would gain the full time care of the child. The legal test was the ‘welfare’ of the child. As observed by one of the leading law professors of the day, John’s decision was a masterpiece of legal prose investigating the full meaning of the vague statutory term ‘welfare.’ What does the concept of ‘welfare’ really mean for this child over whom the mother and father were fighting?"

As Bill recalls, his brother swiftly applied his practical experience as a trained primary school teacher and deploying his command of English literature, John tackled the concept of the welfare of the child, observing that in Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man, three of the ages fell under the jurisdiction of the Guardianship Act.

"Although the case was not in the New Zealand Law Reports, a Family Court judge told me many years later that the judgment remained a classic guide in custody cases,” he says.

There was another amusing case involving champagne, which Bill fondly recalls.

“In Australia, the producers of carbonated and therefore sparkling white wine called some of their product 'Champagne'. When Penfolds attempted to introduce these wines into New Zealand in the middle of the 1980s, the French proprietors of the brand challenged this use of their product name.

“The question before the Court was whether champagne was just a general term for sparkling white wine or a legally protected concept making it wrong for those wine producers outside the French region to exploit its great name. John examined the history and heritage of this famous French celebratory wine - the product of distinctive grapes from a defined region in France prepared and processed according to long French traditions with connotations of great quality.

"John gave judgment to the French defenders holding that it would be deceptive for others to use the name champagne for Australian bubbly in the New Zealand market. You can imagine the popping of the corks in Champagne on learning of the judgment,” he says.

Outside of law, Sir John was often in a different spotlight. As Bill recalls, his brother moonlighted as a television personality on panels chaired by the colourful political scientist Austin Mitchell, the author of Half-Gallon Quarter-Acre Pavlova Paradise who became a British MP.

“They debated huge questions of the day such as should rugby matches be televised. The dear old Rugby Union administrators were against televising because it would reduce the money take at the gate for games. John scoffed and quoted from British political history regarding the opposition to the nineteenth century Reform Acts.

As Bill recalls his brother saying, ‘You are trying to manage an ocean with a mop.’

Back in 1962 the Labour Party had their eye on Sir John Jeffries for politics. The party nominated him for the Wellington City Council.

At this time James K Baxter was his local postie.

During the 1962 Wellington City Mayoral - Council campaign, when Labour was pitted against the rival conservative ticket called Citizens and Ratepayers, John came home and found hundreds of political propaganda pamphlets from his opposition around his letter box.

James K Baxter, the postie poet later rang him and said “John I thought the Tory pamphlets would cause less damage in your letter box," Bill recalls.

At just 33 years old Sir John became at the time the youngest Wellington City Councillor.

During his long and well lived life, he was also Deputy Mayor of Wellington, Vice-President of the New Zealand Law Society, Chair of the Housing Commission, Chair of Air New Zealand, Police Complaints Authority, and Chair of the New Zealand Press Council. All of these roles required strong ethical judgement, something that Sir John Jeffries will be remembered as having no shortage of.

As his brother Bill says, the common theme throughout John's professional life was as an advocate (as illustrated in the Petone Gear Meat Company case). As a Judge his judgments on professional ethics are quoted in the profession’s ethical guidelines. As Police Complaints Authority in that he appreciated that the Police had state authority to exercise reasonable force. As Chair of the Press Council he understood the ethical conflicts between protection of journalistic sources and accountability where privacy issues arose and finally as Adviser to the Prime Minister on the issuance of Interception warrants on New Zealanders for national security purposes. All these tasks called for highly skilled judgment on the resolution of the conflicts of duties.

As Bill explains, Sir John’s approach to this large range of challenges was to follow the ‘Polar star of objective truth.’ As a result, his judgments were always clearly expressed with a rationale which could win agreement from those affected, in most instances.

Sir John Jeffries was 89 years old.

Last updated on the 5th March 2019