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Rt Hon Sir Owen Woodhouse ONZ, KBE, DSC, 1916 - 2014

Sir Owen Woodhouse died in Auckland on 15 April 2014 at the age of 97. 

Renowned as the architect of New Zealand’s world-leading no fault accident compensation system, Sir Owen was also a distinguished jurist who was known for his reforming and progressive approach to development of New Zealand jurisprudence.

Born Arthur Owen Woodhouse in Napier on 18 July 1916, Sir Owen was the son of Arthur, an accountant, and Wilhelmina Woodhouse. He attended Napier Boys’ High School (experiencing the 1931 Napier earthquake) before going to Auckland University College from 1935 to 1939. He studied part-time and worked as a law clerk for Alfred North (later President of the Court of Appeal) and then Kenneth Brookfield. He completed an LLB in 1940. He was also married in that year, to Margaret Thorp. The couple had four sons and two daughters.

Sir Owen’s legal career was put on hold by World War II. As a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal New Zealand Naval Volunteer Reserve, he was seconded to the Royal Navy and served in motor torpedo boats. He became a liaison officer with the Yugoslav partisans in 1943 and assistant to the Naval Attache at the British Embassy in Belgrade in 1945. In 1944 he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for naval operations in the Adriatic.

Returning to New Zealand, he began legal practice with the Napier firm Lusk Willis & Sproule (which merged with Robinson Toomey in 1983 to form Willis Toomey Robinson). He was a partner with the firm from 1946 until 1961. In 1953 Sir Owen was appointed Crown Solicitor for Napier. He was vice-president of the Hawke’s Bay District Law Society in 1961, and was also counsel for a Commission of Inquiry on the Fluoridation of Public Water Suppliers.

In 1961, at the age of 44, he was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court (now High Court), where he served until 1973 when he was appointed to the Court of Appeal. At the time of his first judicial appointment it was relatively rare for members of the judiciary to be appointed from outside the main centres. He attained New Zealand’s (then) highest judicial office in 1981 when he was appointed President of the Court of Appeal until his retirement from the bench in 1986.

Descriptions of his judicial approach usually contain words such as “progressive” and “innovative”. Retired District Court Judge John Cadenhead described him as a “generous and compassionate” judge.

“Sir Owen rapidly went to the essential issues and instinctively ascertained the justice of a case. He was a legal reformer and, with established precedent and lateral thinking, he constructed precepts that have set the course for New Zealand establishing its own jurisprudence.” (Law Stories, LexisNexis NZ Ltd, 2003, page 53).

Sir Owen’s progressive approach continued as President of the Court of Appeal. In 1986 the Court of Appeal announced that as an experiment, the Judges would cease to wear bench wigs. The “experiment” continued for a decade before it became permanent.

Legal historian and District Court Judge Peter Spiller says Sir Owen was an independent-minded man who adopted a no-nonsense approach to his work as a judge.

“Counsel generally found that it was a pleasure to appear before him. Court hearings were short and promptly disposed of, as Woodhouse J showed a flair for quickly isolating the central principle at work.” (New Zealand Court of Appeal 1958-1996, Brookers, 2002, page 105).

Dr Spiller says Sir Owen’s “clear and forthright views” could be highly persuasive, and he played a key role in landmark decisions of the court.

“Woodhouse J blended his considerable experience in the law with a social conscience and generosity of spirit. He was a judge who valued good instinctive judgment and regard for the human factor above narrow intellectual pursuits. He observed that judges spoke on behalf of the community and needed to act with human understanding and a fair and balanced application of the law to the facts as they really appeared to be.” (Ibid, page 106).

“Woodhouse P was the most liberal judge of the [Court of Appeal] to become President. This quality was reflected in his flexible approach to legal authority and his preparedness to extend the law to meet the demands of practical justice and societal needs.” (Ibid, page 110).

It was while he was a Judge of the Supreme Court that Sir Owen headed the major reform of New Zealand’s personal injury compensation. While his judicial and other law reform achievements are renowned, he is best known for chairing the Royal Commission for Personal Injury in New Zealand from 1966 to 1967. The outcome, known as the Woodhouse Report, recommended that New Zealand introduce a no fault accident compensation scheme. The scheme continues today and is still viewed internationally as a major innovation. In 1974 the Australian government commissioned Sir Owen to prepare a proposal for reform of Australia’s compensation law.

After a suitably lengthy period of discussion and debate New Zealand followed some of the recommendations in the Woodhouse Report and the Accident Compensation Act 1972 came into force on 1 April 1974.

Upon his retirement as a Judge in 1986 Sir Owen was appointed the first President of the New Zealand Law Commission, which had been set up by the Law Commission Act 1986. From the outset he was concerned to ensure that the role of the Commission followed the ascending order given by the legislative section outlining its purpose: “to promote the systematic review, reform and development of the law of New Zealand”.

As President of the Law Commission he oversaw another significant project, which reviewed New Zealand’s courts in light of the government announcement of the plan to abolish appeals to the Privy Council. This culminated in the paper The Structure of the Courts in 1989. The major change proposed was a significant expansion of the jurisdiction of the District Courts to make them the entry point for most cases. Sir Owen served on the Law Commission until 1991. While there he produced another report on accident compensation, recommending an end to the disparities between the treatment of accident victims and those incapacitated by sickness or disease.

Sir Owen was awarded many honours in his lifetime. His position as one of the greatest living New Zealanders was marked with his appointment to the Order of New Zealand on 6 February 2007. He became a member of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in 1974, when he was also made a Knight Bachelor. He was awarded KBE in 1981.

Academic institutions which recognised his achievements included Victoria University of Wellington (Honorary LLD in 1978) and the University of York, Toronto (Honorary LLD in 1981).

Sir Owen had a long and busy retirement. He was a keen observer of the evolution of the accident compensation scheme and did not hesitate to speak out when he felt its principles were being negated. In 2009 he criticised as “uncaring and predatory” proposals to radically increase levies on motorbikes and to return accident victims to work on much lower incomes than they earned before their accidents.

He told the New Zealand Herald on 19 October 2009 that the five principles of the scheme were community responsibility for accidents and supporting accident victims, comprehensive entitlement regardless of what caused the accident, complete rehabilitation, compensation for the whole period of incapacity at 80% of previous earnings, and administrative efficiency.

He said he saw the scheme as part of New Zealand’s social welfare system.

Chief Justice Sian Elias says judges in New Zealand are saddened to hear of the death of Sir Owen.

"He was an outstanding jurist with a passion for social justice. He was a reformer and a great New Zealander," Dame Sian says.

Prime Minister John Key says Sir Owen was a man whose life exemplified public service and duty to his country.

"He was best known for chairing the Royal Commission on Accident Compensation, authoring the Woodhouse Report which recommended a no fault accident compensation scheme for New Zealand," Mr Key says.

"He leaves a genuinely important legacy." 

New Zealand Law Society President Chris Moore says Sir Owen's compassion and generous approach to life was always present.

"Many law students will recall his amusing and succinct judgment where he allowed an appeal by a young man convicted of disorderly behaviour after wading in an ornamental duck pond at a Napier pop festival (Kinney v Police [1971] NZLR 924). 

"Sir Owen noted that the ducks seemed unperturbed and 'remained on the surface of the water with scarcely an increase in their rate of stroke'.

"Lawyers around New Zealand are saddened at the passing of a great New Zealander and a man who has helped improve the quality of life for all New Zealanders." 

 

By Geoff Adlam, New Zealand Law Society. 

Last updated on the 16th April 2014