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James Daniel O’Donovan, 1937 - 2017

By Graham Cowley

28 July 1937 – 28 October 2017

Jim Donovan (as he was until he journeyed to Ireland to investigate and research his family ancestry which led him to adopt the original family name of O’Donovan) was born in Hastings as the only son of Gladys and Jim Donovan and educated in Hastings before embarking on a law degree at Victoria University in Wellington. His university studies were interrupted - partly for health reasons but also to enable him to earn and save enough money to support himself for the balance of his university studies - when he was obliged to work for a year in general labouring activities at the (then) Hawke’s Bay Harbour Board.

After graduation he worked as a lawyer for a period in Lower Hutt before he joined Langley Twigg Doole & Cowley in 1963 and became a partner in that firm on 1 January 1964. He remained a partner until his appointment as a District Court Judge (holding a Family Court warrant) in 1984.

Jim O'Donovan

Jim’s practice was almost exclusively as an advocate specialising in criminal law and what is now described as “family law”. He was a “people person” in the broadest sense of that expression. He had a huge empathy for people and the ability to understand their problems. He earned and retained the respect of his clients, other lawyers (and, in the criminal law field) the police and prosecutors for his integrity, work ethic and legal knowledge.

Jim acted for anybody that came in his door no matter how impecunious their circumstances or how hopeless their case. In the family law arena many clients of both parties benefitted greatly in a speedy and appropriate resolution of their case by the rapport and respect that developed between Jim Donovan and Gary Plowman (who between them seemed to be acting on the bulk of family law matters at that time). Their joint work ethic enabled total transparency and frankness to resolve issues in a cost effective and beneficial manner for their clients because of the respect and candour they each had for the other.  This relationship was acknowledged by the judges before whom their cases were heard thereby ensuring further benefits for their clients.

It would be fair to say that Jim had three great loves in his life – his family, the law and books. He was a prodigious reader and the number of books in his extensive library caused some angst on the occasions of the many changes of residence that he and Helen went through during their period in Napier. His love of books was further exemplified by his participation with others of a like mind in the Napier Repertory Society (including his legal colleague and friend Roy Peach) in operating the Colonial Book Shop in Hastings Street, Napier for a number of years that was seen, by him, as a means to foster the love of books in others.

His passion for books led to a role periodically of writing book reviews for The Listener and other publications.

Practical guides to surviving court

After his elevation to the Bench he added to the volume of books by producing a book of his own Courtroom Procedure in New Zealand: A Practitioner’s Survival Kit which aimed to be a practical guide for new practitioners in particular with useful suggestions on how to act in court along with wise advice on what to do if things didn’t go according to plan.

For those of us who recall his method of practice when the demands of his extensive workload were well in excess of the hours available to do it complete justice, there was a touch of irony in some of the comments in the book about the need for preparation, care and taking time which seemed to be in the nature advice to “do as I say rather than do as I do” but it was safe and valuable advice to those who were not blessed with his natural ability to “cope on the run”.

During his criminal law career Jim appeared in a number of memorable trials including high profile murder trials, such as the Epps murder trial with about 20 defendants arising from Wairoa but held in Wellington where he was one of the leading counsel along with his great friend from university days, Mike Bungay QC.

Jim’s passion for ensuring that the law and the justice system were used for the benefit and wellbeing of the community were in no way diminished after his appointment to the District Court bench. He applied himself with the same commitment and determination to ensure participants (counsel and litigants) in the Family Court received their just entitlements and left with respect and regard for the “system”. His retirement in 2009, in the opinion of many, left the system the poorer.

While practising in Hawke’s Bay, Jim was a member of the Council of the (then) Law Society of the District of Hawke’s Bay from 1972 continuing until he became its President in 1982 and 1983. His association with the profession in Hawke’s Bay continued after his appointment with his active enjoyment of his honorary membership of the District Society evidenced by his frequent attendance at Bar Dinners and similar occasions to acknowledge his former professional brethren - the most recent of which was a Bar Dinner at Church Road Winery last year.

Jim’s esteem for the profession in Hawke’s Bay is probably best summed up by a statement in his Presidential Report in 1982:

“In my view the best indicator for the future of the profession may be observed in the tradition of frankness and good fellowship which is so much a feature of legal practice in Hawke’s Bay”.

Jim will be sorely missed by those who worked with him, by those who socialised with him, by those whose lives he changed for the better using his legal and judicial skills and by those who carry on his passion for books and reading, but none of them to the extent he will be missed by his wife Helen, children Tony, Colleen, Dennis and Siobhan and his sister Rose Lavery to whom we all extend our condolences and sympathy in Jim’s relatively sudden passing but, like them, we honour the memory of a man whose commitment and services to his profession and to the community were at the highest level.

Last updated on the 30th November 2017