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Anthony (Tony) David Ford QSO, 1942 - 2020

By Geoff Adlam

A former Chief Justice of the Kingdom of Tonga and Judge of the Employment Court of New Zealand, Tony Ford died in Wellington on 31 January 2020. He was aged 77. An influential  reformer in the Tongan courts, a kind and patient Employment Court judge, he was a man whose life revolved around a deep love of family, friends and community.

“Judge Ford had an intellect, capacity to connect with people on a very human level, and a commitment to justice that was evident to all who had the privilege of working with him. His retirement from the Employment Court was keenly felt, and his passing is a significant loss,” Chief Employment Court Judge Christina Inglis says.

Photo of Judge Ford.1

Born on the South Island’s West Coast on 8 May 1942, he grew up in Hari Hari and remained a very proud West Coaster (and supplier of whitebait fritters expertly cooked by his wife Valda) through his legal and judicial careers. From Hari Hari Primary School he went to St Bede’s College in Christchurch as a boarder. As was usual at the time, becoming a lawyer was a drawn-out affair and he moved north to Auckland in 1962 to work in the legal section at the Department of Māori Affairs for five years while studying at the university. By then he had met and married Valda and the first of their seven children, Carmen, was born in 1963. Just to make life busier, the couple ran a fish and chip shop in Karangahape Road. “He said he had two switches: asleep or on the go,” daughter Janine says.

The legal career begins

Tony Ford started working as a law clerk at Eide and Finnigan in 1967. His part-time law studies bore fruit in 1970 when he gained his LLB from Auckland University and was then admitted as a barrister and solicitor in May 1970. Not long afterwards the Fords moved south, when he took up a job in Wellington with Bell Gully & Co in July 1970. This began a 30-year association with the firm, with Judge Ford becoming a partner in 1974.

The shift to Wellington saw the growing family established in a house in the suburb of Brooklyn. Over the decades it grew from two-and-a-half bedrooms to six bedrooms. Judge Ford loved gardening and roses, his daughter Janine says, and he had “awesome” rose garden. “When we were kids, he had a little garden plot for each of us.”

Another passion which he shared with Valda was lawn bowls. The Vogelmorn Bowling Club in Brooklyn was their club and Tony inevitably became club President for a time. “The bowling club was the one venue he loved more than any,” said lifetime friend Chris Rabey. “He attended most social events, bar nights, bowls competitions, and generally socialising. He mediated in any disputes or troubles at the club, but this situation was very rare.” His West Coast connections meant he organised many club visits south to the annual West Coast Bowls Tournament, with Vogelmorn members travelling in rental vans to their adopted base at the Southland Hotel in Hokitika.

He was also closely involved in the Brooklyn and the wider community, belonging to the Brooklyn Lions Club from its formation. Along with others he worked weekends for a couple of years to convert a house in the suburb to the Brooklyn Resource Centre, which served he needs of the elderly from its opening in the mid-1970s until its closure in 2016. He was a Founder and then Life Member of the New Zealand Sporting Clubs' Association (SCANZ) and at times a trustee of the New Zealand Licensing Trusts Association and a trustee of the Halberg Trust. He was also honorary solicitor to Bowls New Zealand and a number of Wellington sports clubs.

Down the hill in the city at Bell Gully, he first specialised in personal injury work, but possibly the advent of ACC helped a move to employment law and commercial litigation. He acted for both employees and employers, with his clients including the ANZ Bank, the New Zealand Seamen's Union and all the Railway Unions. He also acted in several high profile defamation cases.

Tonga

Tony Ford was Bell Gully’s Litigation Department leader from 1990 to 1995 and a member of the firm’s Board and Deputy Chairman from 1997 to 2000. Life in the law took a major change in July 2000 with the news that Anthony David Ford was now a Judge of the Supreme Court of the Kingdom of Tonga.

Photo of Judge Ford Chief Justice.1
Chief Justice Ford and his wife Valda.

The move to another country and becoming a member of its judiciary must have been an interesting change in direction. It was clear, however, that he was very successful in the transition. He added another country from 2005 to 2007, when he also served as a Judge on the Fijian Court of Appeal. However, his affinity with the Tongan court system was recognised in September 2006 when he was appointed Chief Justice of the Kingdom of Tonga and President of the Tonga Court of Appeal.

His time as Chief Justice enabled him to carry out some significant reforms to Tonga’s judicial system. On his appointment, the Tongan Minister of Justice told him that the Government was not happy with Tonga’s low ranking in an international Ease of Doing Business measure. Tonga ranked 126 out of 175 countries in the efficiency of contract enforcement.

Chief Justice Ford got to work. His answer was to fast-track technology to Tonga’s litigation processes. Results were rapid: By October 2007, the measures he introduced had reduced the average time to enforce contracts from 510 days to 350. This made Tonga the world’s top reformer in contract enforcement that year.

“It helped me to have a good sense of humour, as Tongans have a great one themselves,” Ford CJ commented in a report he wrote for the International Finance Corporation on the changes. He was also proud of the changes he made to bring mediation into Tonga’s justice system.

“One of the things I introduced … that made a tremendous difference was mediation,” he told Radio New Zealand at the end of 2014. “One of the problems we had was a backlog of cases going back a number of years. So we introduced mediation and went through all the files that were currently before the court and made a conscious effort to bring those to trial or to strike them out.”

These and other reforms he instigated to Tonga’s judicial system were internationally recognised in June 2008 when he travelled to New York to be presented with the World Bank’s Reformer of the Year award on behalf of the Tongan judiciary. In August 2008 Chief Justice Ford was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Queen Salote by His Majesty, the late King George Tupou V.

He was Chief Justice in interesting times. On the more collegial side, in November 2007 he was Convenor of the 17th Biennial Pacific Judicial Conference in Nuku’alofa. This was attended by over 50 judges from around the Pacific, including 21 Chief Justices.

Not long after his appointment as Chief Justice came 16 November 2006 when the country was beset by rioting and more than half of Nuku’alofa’s business centre was destroyed, with devastating economic impact. The case management system he was introducing was tested and found successful as the country’s courts processed 374 cases which were linked to the riots.

While Tony and Valda Ford’s children resided in New Zealand during their time in Tonga, they were often visited by family and friends. Janine Ford recalls some big Christmases “especially when he became the Chief Justice, because then they were in a larger house”. Lawn bowls was a victim of the move to Tonga with a dearth of bowling clubs, but Chief Justice Ford was able to construct a mini golf course in the back yard.

Return to NZ

After a decade in Tonga, Tony and Valda Ford returned to New Zealand. It appears the ever-volatile world of Tongan politics intruded and the reforming judge had to leave. An article in The Economist on 1 October 2010 on an ongoing row between the Tongan government and the judiciary pointed to the resignation of Supreme Court judges, including New Zealander Anthony Ford who “left Tonga acrimoniously after the government chose not to renew his contract”. The Economist saw the roots of the dispute in the way the government failed to release a royal commission report into the sinking of the passenger ferry Princess Ashika in August 2009 with the deaths of 74 people.

Photo of Judge Ford.2
The Brooklyn garden.

Tonga’s loss was New Zealand’s gain. On 3 September 2010, Tongan Chief Justice Ford became Judge Ford of the Employment Court when he was sworn in in Wellington. He had been appointed in March, but waited until his Tongan contract expired. While relatively uncommon for a judge in one jurisdiction to be appointed to the bench here, Attorney-General Christopher Finlayson QC later told LawTalk that when he heard Tony Ford was going to return to New Zealand he was very keen to get him on the bench. “I think if a New Zealander has been serving overseas on the bench, there is no reason why that person couldn’t do the same in our country,” he said.

Judge of the Employment Court

His second judicial career ran until his retirement in 2016. Chief Employment Court Judge Christina Inglis notes that in his time with the Court he presided over a number of difficult cases, many of which attracted considerable media interest.

“He was unfailingly patient, including with litigants in person, and genuinely interested in what had brought parties to Court. When one witness revealed that he was able to create an origami swan in less than 30 seconds, Judge Ford is said to have leaned forward on the bench and asked for a demonstration.  The Registrar duly provided the paper, and a perfectly-edged swan, which was later to sit on Judge Ford’s desk in chambers, was created in record time,” she says.

“Judge Ford was hugely respected by Court staff and those who worked with him.  He was a proud West Coaster.  He was compassionate and kind, and a wonderful judicial colleague, not only because his beloved wife Valda would bring whitebait fritters in for every judicial meeting (although that certainly helped) but because he was always willing to share his knowledge, experience and wise counsel.”

Chief Judge Inglis says it was a pleasure sitting with Judge Ford on full Court hearings: “He had something of a lynx-like presence in the courtroom – often silently digesting the proceedings with his eyelids set at an unnerving half-mast.  This tended to lull some unsuspecting counsel and witnesses into a false sense of security, which was short-lived.  He would invariably serve up a series of short, perceptive and often devastating questions when least expected.”

She says Judge Ford had “an enviable ability” to sift through a large volume of complex material and reduce it to its fundamentals.

“In one memorable case he took 12 years of litigation, a roomful of documents, a very lengthy trial and turned them into a succinct and articulate judgment, delivered within two months of the last day of hearing.”

This case, Snowden v Radio New Zealand Ltd [2014] NZEmpC 45, was finally settled with Judge Ford’s 57-page judgment after 47 sitting days and with most of the evidence relating to the period between 1998 and 2003.

From the long to the brief. Chief Judge Inglis says it is rumoured that Judge Ford holds the record for the most succinct judgment issued by the Employment Court. His judgment in Kohere v Carstens [2013] NZEmpC 239 comprises one sentence: “[1] This proceeding is hereby struck out.”

“He was an enthusiastic supporter of procedural initiatives within the Employment Court to streamline processes, and to ensure that cases were dealt with in a cost-effective, timely manner,” Chief Judge Inglis says.

As well as his honours from the World Bank and the Kingdom of Tonga, Judge Ford was recognized in New Zealand’s New Year’s Honours at the start of 2015. He was awarded the Queen’s Service Order for services to Tonga and the judiciary.

Judge Tony Ford leaves his wife Valda and children Carmen, Janine, David, Kristine, Angela, Sonya and Anthony and their children. A memorial service was held at the Church of St Mary of the Angels in Wellington on 10 February.

Last updated on the 13th February 2020