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Charles Stewart Thomas OBE, 1889 – 1988

Charles Stewart Thomas OBE, a well-known Christchurch criminal lawyer and past President of the Canterbury District Law Society, died in April 1988 at the age of 99.

Brian McClelland QC, a former “pupil” of Mr Thomas, delivered the following address at a special sitting of the High Court in Christchurch on 13 May:

The sitting of the Court today is to honour Mr CS Thomas, Barrister – my remarks will accordingly be confined to that and I will not attempt to deal with the many other aspects of his long life.

I was fortunate enough to work for him for several years when he was at the peak of his career and later to be involved in cases against him.

He was without doubt a magnificent jury advocate at a time when juries decided the majority of civil trials and all Supreme Court criminal trials.

It was a time when persons suffering injuries from accidents could claim damages against their employer if he were negligent or against a negligent driver, and these were all decided by juries. Large amounts of money were often at issue.

CST acted for the vast majority of insurance companies in Christchurch at that time and so was constantly involved in appearances for defendants – a difficult task in front of juries.

He was a person with tremendous presence in court. A beautiful powerful speaking voice and a personality which dominated the scene whenever he was on his feet. He had the ability to command attention without histrionics.

He was a superb cross-examiner and certainly one of the best addressers of a jury I have ever heard. He was usually going up-stream appearing as he did for defendants and he had some remarkable successes. He was courageous, determined and extremely skilful.

He also had an outstanding record of defending persons accused of serious crime. He was proud of the fact that no client of his had ever hanged – a remarkable record of which he was extremely proud.

He was extremely hard-working and prepared his cases with tremendous thoroughness. He left nothing to chance and would take infinite pains to make sure that his witnesses were properly briefed and that his address was as good as he could make it.

He ran his office like a battleship. The staff had to be punctual, properly dressed at all times and know their jobs.

He had a wonderfully efficient secretary, Miss Duffield, and only CST or she could make appointments for him. Even members of the staff had to have an appointment to see him. It was of course very different if he wanted to see a member of staff.

He was a very good boss who expected a lot but knew that anyone from his office at least had the opportunity of seeing and learning how things should be done.

Some of the men who were employed in his office were Sir Alec Haslam, Edgar Bowie QC and his brother Neil, Peter Alpers, John Mills, later to become a judge, and Ewart Hay who sadly died at an early age. He was of course for many years a partner of Sir Ralph Thompson who carried on the firm when CST retired.

He never forgot his “old boys”. To his dying day I was McC and he was Sir. Quite frequently I would be rung by CST long after I’d left his office because he had read some case in the ‘paper that I had been involved in. He would be inquiring why I had done something or other which he thought I should have done differently. Occasionally he would ring to say it seemed as though I had not done so badly.

His death marks the end of an era for Christchurch. He practised at a time of juries – male juries at that. Cases were not so plentiful and the pressure on courts nothing like it is today.

There was only one Supreme Court Judge in Christchurch. The profession was small and the [practitioners] doing only court work were few.

There was no television and of course scientific and medical knowledge was much more limited. Newspapers printed columns on each day’s happenings in the High Court. There were no drugs; gangs and criminals never used guns or knives.

I am not taking anything away from CST’s ability when I say that it was a totally different scene.

[His] was a household name – everyone knew Charlie Thomas and knew of his tremendous ability.

He had some excellent barristers around to compete with – Sir Arthur Donnelly, Alan Brown, Ross Lascelles, Austen Young, Terence Gresson and Sir Alec Haslam to name just a few.

I was lucky enough as a young man to hear Sir Norman Birkett addressing a jury just before he went on the Bench. He was known as the “silver-voiced advocate”. In my humble opinion CST as an advocate was infinitely better.

Let me conclude by repeating a conversation between CST and myself when he must have been well into his eighties. He said: “How many murders have you done this year McC?” I said I’d never counted. “Well I have an it’s so many. Do you know I only did eight murder trials in the whole of my career – mind you they were proper ones.”

I thank you for allowing me to pay tribute to a brilliant barrister.

This obituary was first published in LawTalk 285, 22 June 1988, page 5.

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Last updated on the 11th May 2012