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Hon Sir Thomas Murray Thorp KNZM, 1925 - 2018

By Simon Mount QC

Sir Thomas was one of our most distinguished judges and students of the criminal justice system.  He practised for many years as the Gisborne Crown Solicitor, spent 17 years on the High Court Bench, five years as a member of the Criminal Appeal Division of the Court of Appeal, and 11 years as the Chair of the Parole Board.

He was born in Napier and graduated LLB from the University of Auckland in 1947. He practised in Gisborne, becoming a partner in Nolan and Skeet in 1949. As an active member of the Gisborne legal profession he helped organise the rescue of the Law Society library books from the blazing Gisborne courthouse which had been set on fire by an arsonist on 15 August 1959.

He was appointed Crown Solicitor in Gisborne in 1963 and was president of the Gisborne District Law Society in 1977 and 1978. This was followed by his appointment as a judge of the High Court in 1979.

He was a careful, moderate, compassionate and scholarly man enormously respected within the criminal justice system.  As a Crown prosecutor, he made an art of understatement.  As he put it, “juries never liked it if I ever looked like I was trying too hard”.

He had an eye for the big picture and the future, and never stopped looking for ways the system could be improved.  As a Judge, he sat on the Computerised IT Promotion Committee, the Criminal Practice Committee and the Sentencing Information and Statistics Committee.  He had a vision for the use of IT in the criminal justice system long before others cottoned onto that.

Sir Thomas was a judge from 1979 to 1996. He was one of the group of experienced High Court Judges appointed to sit in the Criminal Appeal Division of the Court of Appeal when it was established in November 1991.  He was awarded the New Zealand 1990 Medal and in 1997 on his retirement from the bench he was knighted for his services as a member of the judiciary.

As Chair of the Parole Board, he worked hard to understand the insights that international academics could bring, as well as international practice. He began the Parole Board’s work to introduce a structured decision-making mechanism, the successor of which is still used today.  But it was his simple human touch that was at least as significant.  In one case, the Parole Board had granted parole to a high-profile inmate.  The offender breached conditions and had to be recalled to prison.  Sir Thomas travelled to Northland in his own time and visited the homes of several of the man’s relatives to express his regret and to thank them on behalf of the Parole Board for the efforts they had gone to in helping to supervise the man.

As well as his contributions to criminal justice, Sir Thomas was widely-respected in the commercial sphere.  Having seen his father rebuild a business destroyed by the Napier earthquake, he had a natural feel for commerce.  As a partner in Nolan and Skeet in Gisborne he built a successful practice ordering the tax and commercial affairs of hundreds of clients from around the country.  He loved the Gisborne region and worked hard on regional economic development as a Director of the East Coast Development Research Association and member of the East Coast Regional Development Council. Later as a High Court Judge, Sir Thomas dealt with a number of the complex commercial cases following the 1987 stock market crash.  Notably, the Privy Council upheld his judgment in the Goldcorp case, noting that the “proceedings of great complexity [had been] very skilfully marshalled by  Thorp J … to minimise the inevitable cost and delay involved in the investigation of so many and diverse claims.”  His prospective declaration in the Coburn case dealing with NZ Steel’s superannuation scheme was another example of his ability to balance principle and pragmatism.

After Sir Thomas retired from the High Court, it was no surprise the Government turned to him for help with some of the more difficult issues of the day.

In 1996, he was asked to conduct an inquiry into the regulation of firearms in New Zealand.  His approach involved not only careful empirical research and engagement with international scholars, but considerable time spent with firearm owners, shooters, and those directly affected by firearms.  His report was a work of real scholarship, expressed in his typically clear way.  

The Government also asked him to review several cases of alleged miscarriage of justice.  They included David Bain and Peter Ellis, plus several other equally important though less well-known cases.  He became convinced that New Zealand could do better, and he obtained the permission of the Ministry of Justice to investigate the operation of our system. In his own time, and at his own expense, he spent weeks in Wellington reviewing the ministry’s files.  He also travelled to Scotland and England and met with the Criminal Cases Review Commissions in both countries.  His empirical research convincingly demonstrated that New Zealand’s system was poorly serving Māori and Pacific Island people, and he argued that New Zealand should create a Criminal Cases Review Commission on the Scottish model.  

Sir Thomas’ proposals met with considerable support from the legal profession and criminal justice community.  Unfortunately, for many years it seemed the only people who did not agree with Sir Thomas’ proposal were successive Ministers of Justice, and key people within the ministry.  It was poignant that Sir Thomas passed away this year, the same day that the current Minister of Justice introduced the Criminal Cases Review Commission Bill into Parliament.  Sir Thomas had met with the Minister earlier this year, and I know how much it meant to Sir Thomas that his calls had finally been heeded.

Sir Thomas Thorp died in Auckland on 17 October 2018 aged 92. His wife Patricia predeceased him. He was the father and father-in-law of Fred and Anne, Geoff and Debbie, Peter and Francois, Patrick and Deborah, Alex and Susan, granddad of 10 and great-granddad of three.

Last updated on the 26th November 2018