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Dr George Barton QC, 1925 - 2011

By Geoff Adlam

Dr George Paterson Barton QC died on 17 May 2011 aged 86.

During more than 60 years as a lawyer, Dr Barton's illustrious career included 11 appearances at the Privy Council – among them some ground-breaking cases.

Born in Ponsonby, Auckland on 13 May 1925, George was the fourth of nine children born to Frazer and Jeanie Barton. His father was the minister of the Ponsonby Presbyterian church. The Bartons moved to Gore in1935 when George was 10. After completing a final year at Otago Boys' High School, George attended Otago University with the intention of a career in the church. He studied the classics and mathematics, graduating with a BA.

George's move to the law began in his final year at Otago when he began taking law units. At the end of 1943 he decided to concentrate on law, studying further at Victoria University and graduating an LLB in 1948, the year he was admitted to the bar (on 23 March 1948). In that year he also married Ailsa Begg, with whom he had three sons.

photo of George Barton QC
Dr George Barton QC.

His first job in legal practice was with JJ and Denis McGrath in Wellington. However, he did not stay there long after the award of a scholarship to Cambridge University in England. His study at Cambridge culminated in the award of a PhD for his thesis "Jurisdiction Over Visiting Forces" which considered the law relating to NATO.

A job with the United Nation's Human Rights Division in New York from 1950 to 1950 was followed by his return to Wellington, to take up a lecturer's post at Victoria University.

From Victoria he returned to private practice, becoming a partner in Spratt Morison Taylor, before moving back into the academic side when he became Reader at Victoria University, and then Professor of Jurisprudence and Constitutional Law in 1968. During his time at Victoria he also became Dean of Law.

Dr Barton returned to private practice in 1977, although during his time at Victoria it had been agreed that he had the right to take on private work. The fruits of this were seen in several important cases.

He had made his first appearance in the Privy Council in Attorney-General v Lower Hutt City Corporation in 1965, a case concerning the then-controversial issue of the fluoridation of water supplies.

In 1971, in Parsons v Burk, he affirmed the continuing availability in New Zealand of the prerogative writ ne exeat regno in the plaintiff's (Parsons) attempt to prevent the 1971 All Blacks tour of South Africa, in order to avoid prejudice to New Zealand interests.

In 1976, Dr Barton argued and won two major cases – the Europa Oil taxation case in the Privy Council and the famed Fitzgerald v Muldoon.

Three days after Robert Muldoon had uplifted his warrant of Prime Ministerial office, on 12 December 1975, he issued a press statement purporting to suspend employer statutory obligations to make credit payments to a statutory fund – pending Parliament's presumed repeal of the New Zealand Superannuation Act 1974 some time in the middle of the following year.

In what is widely regarded as a masterpiece of pleadings and submissions Dr Barton secured a Supreme Court – as the High Court was then – declaration that the Prime Ministerial press statement was unlawful because only Parliament can (suspend the operation of) its own statutes. The judgment of Chief Justice Wild on this matter is still quoted throughout the common law world.

Dr Barton's contribution to the New Zealand bar was recognised on 30 January 1990 when he was made a Queen's Counsel.

Dr Barton was "the leader of the New Zealand bar", former Justice Minister Bill Jeffries said in 2008 at a Government House dinner in to mark George Baron's 60 years as a lawyer. (The emphasis was Mr Jeffries').

Another tribute has come from Attorney-General Chris Finlayson. "Dr Barton was accepted by many as the father of the profession in New Zealand," Mr Finlayson said. "His career was one characterised by excellence and dedication."

During his 60-plus years in practice, Dr Barton made a "huge contribution" to the law in New Zealand and the Pacific.

Dr Barton was "quite simply one of the finest legal practitioners New Zealand has produced. His example was an inspiration for generations of New Zealand lawyers," the Attorney-General said.

Another historic case came in 1982. In Lesa v Attorney-General, Dr Barton won a declaration from the Privy Council that Lesa and many thousands of other Samoans born during the relevant time period were British nationals (and hence, citizens of New Zealand).

Following that decision, Samoa honoured Dr Barton with the title "matai".

But perhaps as important in the development of the profession was the assistance, counsel and inspiration Dr Barton gave to many lawyers. Whether in his chambers or over a cup of coffee, Dr Barton generously gave his fellow practitioners tips about pleadings, wisdom as to practice, references to particular legal authorities and encouragement.

Among the many honours Dr Barton has received, one of significance was membership of the American Law Institute. At the time he was made a member, he was the only New Zealand lawyer who was not a judge to be granted the honour at that time. He was later joined by Campbell McLachlan QC.

As well as being admitted in New Zealand, Dr Barton was also admitted in Sarawak, Sabah, the Cook Islands, Niue and Samoa.

An active Christian, Dr Barton served the Presbyterian Church and was the first New Zealander to be elected President of the United Bible Societies, the world's largest bible society, when he won the vote in 2004.

In recognising the huge contribution made by Dr George Barton QC to New Zealand law and the legal profession, a comment by Bill Jeffries at the special 60th anniversary dinner in 2008 holds true: That is the old Scottish saying: "He's a good man to run the river with," Mr Jeffries said.

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Last updated on the 26th July 2018