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Rt Hon Sir Maurice Eugene Casey, 1923 – 2012

24 January 2012 - By Geoff Adlam

Former Court of Appeal judge Sir Maurice Casey died in Auckland on 19 January 2012 aged 88.

Sir Maurice was born in Christchurch on 28 August 1923, the eldest son of Eugene and Beatrice Casey. His father became general manager of the railways. He was educated at St Patrick’s College in Wellington (where he was dux and a prefect) before attending Victoria University College from 1940 to 1946, when he graduated LLM (Hons).

His attendance at university was interrupted by the Second World War, and he served overseas in the Royal New Zealand Naval Volunteer Reserve from 1943 to 1945. He ended his service with the rank of sub-lieutenant.

In 1948 Sir Maurice married Stella Wright (who became Dame Stella Casey in 1991 for services to women’s affairs) Sir Maurice and Dame Stella had nine children. Dame Stella died in 2000.

Admitted to the bar in 1946, Sir Maurice initially practised law in Lower Hutt and Blenheim, before moving to Auckland in 1950 as a partner in Buddle Weir and Co (later to become Bell Gully in 1984). He became senior litigation partner and served as vice-president of the Auckland District Law Society in 1974 and was a member of the New Zealand Law Society Council from 1971 to 1974.

Sir Maurice was appointed as a judge of the Supreme Court (later High Court) in 1974. He served for 12 years on the High Court bench. During this time he chaired the Penal Policy Review Committee, which prepared the report which formed the basis of the Criminal Justice Act 1985.

He was later described as a Judge who took a pragmatic view of each case: “Possessed of a delightful sense of humour and a penetrating mind, particularly in commercial cases, he could not easily be fooled by specious submissions.” (“Life in the Courts” by John Cadenhead, Law Stories, LexisNexis, 2003).

In 1985 Sir Maurice became a household name when he granted an interim injunction which effectively stopped a planned tour of South Africa by the All Blacks. One of the plaintiffs in Finnigan v New Zealand Rugby Football Union [1985] 2 NZLR 181 described the scene on a Saturday morning in a packed courtroom as Casey J delivered his decision:

“Justice Casey’s voice quivered a little bit as he began delivering his judgment. I thought of the title of that book by John Mulgan, Man Alone.” (LawNews 44, 14 November 2005).

Shortly afterwards, in March 1986, Sir Maurice was appointed to the Court of Appeal where he remained until August 1995. His appointment came during the time when the Court of Appeal bench was expanded to five members, and Sir Maurice was a member of the Court which delivered the landmark decision New Zealand Maori Council v Attorney-General [1987] 1 NZLR 641. He also delivered the Court of Appeal decision on the appeal in the Christchurch Civic Creche case.

While on the Court of Appeal bench, Sir Maurice was appointed a Privy Councillor in 1986, chaired the Crimes Consultative Committee in 1990 and he was created a Knight Bachelor in 1991.

Legal historian Peter Spiller describes him as a “courageous judge” with an eye to broader developments and the practical impact of judicial decisions.

“In the Court of Appeal, Casey J was a no-nonsense, feet-on-the-ground judge. Reflecting his own work ethic, he readily complimented counsel for well-researched and helpful submissions. However, he also openly condemned poor performance, as where he remarked that counsel originally acting for the appellant had apparently failed to understand the elementary requirements of an appeal to the court,” Dr Spiller wrote in New Zealand Court of Appeal 1958-1996: A History (Brookers, 2002, page 166).

Dr Spiller says Sir Maurice was influenced by basic moral values, shaped by his staunch Catholic beliefs. “Casey J’s brand of robust, commonsense justice placed him in the company of judges such as McCarthy and McMullin JJ, although his hesitancy about effecting legal change made him at times more conservative than both these judges. Casey J’s commitment to duty, wide legal experience, and moral sense of doing right according to the law were of considerable benefit to the court and its emergent jurisprudence.” (New Zealand Court of Appeal 1958-1996: A History, page 169).

On his retirement Sir Maurice served on appellate Courts of a number of Pacific Island nations. He presided over the five-member Fiji Court of Appeal in 2000 to hear an appeal from a High Court decision which found that the military’s abrogation of the 1997 constitution was illegal. The Court of Appeal unanimously upheld the High Court decision. Sir Maurice wrote a chapter for the book Law Stories entitled “New Zealand Judges in Overseas Courts”, and he described the pressured atmosphere as follows:

“The Court sat in conditions of high security, with the building cordoned off by armed soldiers including sentries on the roof. The case was argued on each side by Queen’s Counsel from England and the Court was faced with a vast array of material, both factual and legal, with unusual issues concerning the recognition of de fact governments which have purported to abrogate a constitution. Permission was given for the whole proceedings to be televised, and they were transmitted nightly in full on the local station, and reportedly drew a large audience.” (Law Stories, LexisNexis 2003, pages 95-96).

Sir Maurice also sat on the Cook Islands Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal of Samoa and the Solomon Islands Court of Appeal. He was an active legal writer and authored the original title on “Evidence” for the Laws of New Zealand.

Last updated on the 13th April 2018