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Chief Judge Jack Raymond Poppleton Horn, 1917 - 1999

by Chief Judge TG Goddard

It is with great sadness that the judges of the Employment Court learned of the passing of their former leader in the Labour Court, the late Chief Judge Jack Horn.

He retired from the Labour Court as its Chief Judge on 31 August 1989, returning for a brief six months as a temporary judge in early 1991. Thus he enjoyed barely nine years of respite from his labours. He had deserved that respite because he had been in the service of the law for 55 years, starting as a law clerk in Napier and Wellington, obtaining his law degree and a Master’s degree from Victoria University, and practising as a barrister and solicitor in New Plymouth before becoming a magistrate in the sixties.

It was not as widely appreciated as it may have been that Chief Judge Horn possessed a greater breadth and depth of understanding of the law than he cared to display. In New Plymouth he had conducted a litigation and general practice over a wide area of the law and for a time was in partnership with the late Judge RD Jamieson who was his predecessor, both as magistrate and as chief judge of the court dealing with industrial issues. While still a magistrate, the late Chief Judge served for quite some time in the capacity of chair of the Licensing Control Commission.

He became a judge of the Arbitration Court in 1978 and its Chief Judge in 1979. Becoming the first Chief Judge of the Labour Court in 1987, he oversaw the changes consequent upon the initial migration of common law jurisdictions in tort and in equity from the High Court. He was well equipped by intellect and temperament to handle this transition with ease, and did so, despite a long absence from common law jurisdictions, displaying a youthful suppleness of mind that belied his 70 years of age.

While famous for his clarity of thought and economy of language, he was not afraid of complex fact situations or difficult legal issues.

His judgment writing style and ready turn of phrase has many instances by which it could be illustrated. As famous as any is the passage in a case turning on the employer’s right to dismiss an employee suffering from chronic illness.

“There can come a point at which an employer (particularly in a small shop) can fairly call halt.” (Hoskin v Coastal Fish Supplies [1985] ACJ 124, 127).

Typical of his approach to justice are these words:

“The overall requirement in [the section is] that the court’s emphasis should be on ultimate fairness rather than more technical restriction unless it is clearly otherwise or by necessary intendment spelt out in the statute.” (NZ Baking Trades IUOW v Findlay’s Gold Krust Bakeries Ltd [1989] 1 NZILR 661, 667).

He oversaw early development of the personal grievance jurisdiction, and had to consider the effect of this far-reaching piece of law reform with very little guidance from Parliament’s “open” drafting. He thought that the court’s approach should remain pragmatic, taking into account the realities and infinite variety of circumstances that arise in industrial relations. This approach was later to be described with approval in the Court of Appeal as a benevolent construction of the statute. As the late judge with foresight of future reproaches aptly observed:

“If this in broader terms has created an ill-defined measure of job security then that is the result of the legislation.” (Auckland Local Authority Officers Union v Waitemata City Council [1980] ACJ 35).

As he was appreciative of the appellate policy under which his court was “within reasonable limits” allowed to “develop its own methods and processes in order to find the just and fair solutions intended” by Parliament. The confidence wisely (as I venture to say) so reposed in the late Chief Judge was put into safe hands.

He was not afraid of difficult legal concepts, such as piercing the corporate veil, where necessary. Nor was he deterred by the fact that, in some cases, the action that was the subject of complaint took place in part outside New Zealand.

Those who knew him, however, will remember him most for his sense of humanity, for his love and respect for his fellow human beings, for his profound understanding of the strategic place of industrial relations in the life of this country, for his unfailing courtesy to all involved in the process – lay members of the court, advocates, parties, and witnesses – sometimes in the face of provocation, for his lively puckish sense of humour and for his self-effacing modesty. Entirely free of the fault of arrogance, he selflessly sought no credit or recognition for himself. He humanised the court, a forbidding place as courts tend to be even at the best of times, and all who went away after their day in court before him, whatever the outcome, felt that they had received a full and fair hearing. He was a model of what a good judge should be and how a good judge should behave. His passing may signal the end of an era, but he leaves behind him, by the vigorous example he set, a priceless legacy of judicial wisdom.

This obituary was first published in LawTalk 520, 31 May 1999, page 5.

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Last updated on the 11th May 2012