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Judge John Cadenhead, 1937 - 2017

By Nick Butcher

Retired District Court Judge John Cadenhead of Auckland died suddenly on 25 August 2017 while on holiday in Hawaii. He was 80 years old.

Born in Christchurch on 1 February 1937, Judge Cadenhead was educated at Christchurch Boys' HIgh School and then Canterbury University, graduating with an LLB in 1958. He later completed a PhD at Auckland University.

He had an extensive trial practice in Dunedin and then on the West Coast and in Christchurch, before he was appointed to the District Court bench in 1984.

Judge Cadenhead had also been a part-time lecturer and tutor at Canterbury and Auckland Universities and was a visiting scholar at Wolfson College, Cambridge, and at Stanford University in California.

In 2003 the retired Judge reflected on his Life in the Courts in the LexisNexis book Law Stories.

He writes extensively about his observations of the law in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

Reflecting on the 70s, he says:

“The 1970s was a decade commanded by the jury advocate, gifted with an arresting personality and blessed with oratorical skills. Life was still relatively uncomplicated. Murder trials were comparatively rare, and when they took place they received widespread publicity. Television was in its infancy, and the daily newspapers were the prime source of news.” 

He also spoke about the colourful personalities he encountered such as former High Court Judge, the Honourable Peter Mahon QC:

“Peter Mahon reflected the colour of that decade. I well recall him when he was at the bar. He had a great gift of language as well as a formidable mind and strength of character. He spoke deliberately and with studied hesitancy. He was a deadly cross – examiner.”

Of the 1980s, Judge Cadenhead, describes it as a decade of transition from the robust and colourful 1970s to the more efficient approach to law of the 1990s:

“The structure of the Courts changed. The practice of law had become more diversified and legal issues were argued in a variety of forums. Most personal injury trials had been disposed of by the early 1980s, and increasingly, civil lawyers argued complex commercial cases in front of a Judge alone."

He also noted that diversity had also spread to the Courts:

“In the 1970s one woman stood out, Dame Augusta Wallace. She was a magistrate and gave outstanding service to that bench. Pragmatic and level headed, she gave firm, fair decisions and was admired by her colleagues.

Judge Cadenhead also reflected on the appointment to the District Court of more women Judges:

“Dame Silvia Cartwright became the Chief District Court Judge, and was appointed to the High Court bench, before being appointed Governor – General. Her contribution to the law over the 1980s and 1990s has been immense. In the 1980s Sian Elias (Dame and Chief Justice) and Lowell Goddard (Dame) were the first women appointed as Queen’s Counsel."

In 1989 Sir Thomas Eichelbaum became Chief Justice just as the decade drifted into the 90s:

“Sir Thomas was a barrister of the first rank before he was appointed to the High Court bench in 1982. He was industrious and astute. Extremely courteous, he had a great gift for marshalling detail. He was admirably fitted for the difficult task ahead and he responded magnificently to this challenge.”

Judge Cadenhead points to the 1990s as when the role of the media changed and grew:

“Trials were televised, counsel publicly discussed their cases, radio talkback callers aired opinions and misunderstandings, and politicians shed their constitutional inhibitions about commenting on Court cases.”

Retired District Court Judge John Bisphan, who is also 80 years old, had known John Cadenhead since they became friends at intermediate school before they studyied at Christchurch Boys' High School and then at the University of Canterbury.

He was shocked to hear his old friend had died.

“I nearly fell off my seat when his daughter told me by telephone, couldn’t believe it,” he says.

The two Judges had been friends for about 70 years.

“We were in the same class at both schools, but with law school, John left secondary school a year earlier than me, getting a job as a clerk at the then Supreme Court in Christchurch, so he was a year ahead of me at University. I think my interest in the law was probably sparked by John working as a clerk and visiting him at the office,” he says.

John Bisphan remembers John Cadenhead being awarded the Gold Medal in Law by the Canterbury District Law Society in 1958.

“He was a bright guy and that was for being the best graduating law student,” he says.

While both men ultimately became Judges, at one point they acted as counsel together during a couple of trials.

“I appeared as his junior counsel in two murder trials that he was leading counsel for on the West Coast. In one of the trials we obtained an insanity verdict and the other manslaughter, so he had quite a lot of success as a criminal defence lawyer,” he says.

John Bisphan says John Cadenhead was a very determined man, yet upon meeting him, it’s probably not a quality that would be easily picked up, as he was just an ordinary guy.

“While he was on the bench he was also studying to obtain a PhD in law. He was working on that for years. He became a visiting scholar at Wolfson College at the University of Cambridge in the UK and also at Stanford University in California.

"When he was capped, my wife and I attended the graduation ceremony which included dinner with Lord Cooke of Thorndon. He remarked that it was very unique for a sitting Judge to obtain this qualification while working; the thesis was over 500 pages and it was hard enough work just reading it,” he says.

John Cadenhead died in a part of the world he clearly loved.

“When we were younger we used to go away with our respective wives on holidays to Australia, Fiji and many times to Hawaii. His wife Diana had gone to Hawaii as a child with her parents and it was a place we all liked,” John Bisphan says.

Last updated on the 11th October 2017