George Edwin Tanner CNZM QC, 1946 - 2012
George Tanner died in Lower Hutt on 17 January 2012 aged 65. As a serving Law Commissioner he was continuing a career focused on improving the clarity, structure and format of New Zealand’s laws. The plain language used in our legislation and the availability of a publicly available up-to-date online version owe much to him.
George Tanner studied law at Victoria University of Wellington. After graduating he was admitted to the bar on 28 February 1969 and worked in private practice before joining the Crown Law Office as a Crown Counsel. He joined the Parliamentary Counsel Office in 1981 and began the path which led him to becoming one of the key influencers of the shape of New Zealand legislation.
His time as a parliamentary counsel during the 1980s required him to work on legislation setting the framework for privatisation and restructuring of a number of long-established institutions. In this respect he drafted legislation for the New Zealand Railways Corporation, the State Insurance Office, the trustee banks, the Rural Bank and the Tourist Hotel Corporation. Another major area of work was in commercial and company law reform, and he was involved in drafting the Commerce Act 1986, the Fair Trading Act 1986, the Reserve Bank Act 1989, the Companies Act 1993 and the Financial Transactions Reporting Act 1993.
PCO Special Counsel Ian Jamieson says George Tanner was effectively the sole drafter of the major reform of companies law in the early 1990 and this meant he worked long hours.
In 1992 he was appointed Deputy Chief Parliamentary Counsel and became Chief Parliamentary Counsel in August 1996 following the retirement of Walter Iles. In the decade until his own retirement he led New Zealand’s law drafters and makers through a number of significant changes. These had the key theme of Accessibility. With George Tanner as its leader, the Office introduced some fundamental changes in the style and language used for legislation. The move to plain language drafting was followed around 2000 with major improvements in the way legislation was presented and laid out.
It is clear that George Tanner was in his element in a career built around drafting and improving understanding of the law. His concern for clarity was well summed-up when he once stated: “If an unpleasant message has to be communicated, and not all legislative messages are pleasant ones, the message ought not to be hidden in a mass of words.”
In 2010 his passion for the work done by the Parliamentary Counsel Office shone through a personal submission he made to Parliament’s Regulations Review Committee on the Legislation Bill:
“Drafting legislation is not a glamour job. It is regarded by many as dry and technical and best done by back room lawyers. It was, somewhat uncharitably, described in the Times by a former Chancellor of the Exchequer who was also a Queen’s Counsel, as work done by a group of lawyers who lived in ‘monkish seclusion’ far removed from the real world. The job is, however, professionally challenging, fascinating, and rewarding. Those who make it their career ought to have every incentive to get recognition and reward.”
As head of the Parliamentary Counsel Office he is remembered with affection by staff.
“He was a benevolent Chief, very personable and fond of his staff, and interested in everyone’s well-being,” Ian Jamieson said.
“He did a lot less drafting as Chief Parliamentary Counsel, and this was a disappointment to him. What he really loved doing was drafting law.”
Acting Deputy Chief Parliamentary Counsel Fiona Leonard says George Tanner was a wonderful mentor to parliamentary counsel, and his leadership was a major factor in her decision to return to work at the Office.
The introduction and development of a PCO Drafting Manual and a review of PCO drafting by an international expert in clear drafting were initiatives during his tenure. He was a valued member of the Rules Committee and the Legislation Advisory Committee.
The other main achievement from Mr Tanner’s time at the Parliamentary Counsel Office exists as the New Zealand Legislation website, which provides free public access to an up-to-date consolidated version of New Zealand’s statutes and regulations. The major Public Access to Legislation (PAL) project started New Zealand on a course which will end with an official version of our legislation available online. This has been a huge task and the project started in the last half of George Tanner’s watch as Chief Parliamentary Counsel, occupying a significant portion of his time.
His departure from the Parliamentary Counsel Office was acknowledged by then Attorney-General Michael Cullen. Dr Cullen said the Office had become more outward looking under George Tanner’s leadership and he had had a very influential role in New Zealand’s law making.
“Clear expression of our statutes is a basic democratic requirement. And drafters are therefore guardians of our democracy,” Dr Cullen said. “George has played his part as guardian of our democracy with changes made at the end of the nineties to layout, to drafting style and to PCO powers.”
Dr Cullen said the changes included the use of ordinary language, ordinary Arabic numbering, use of the active voice and use of English expressions instead of Latin.
“I welcome these changes and George Tanner’s midwifery of them into our statute books.”
Retirement from his role of Chief Parliamentary Counsel in June 2007 was followed by appointment as a Law Commissioner for a term of five years – which sadly he did not complete. His work there included leadership of the major review of trust law – a field which Mr Tanner must have seen as a fitting challenge. In August 2010 he told the Sunday Star-Times that the lack of clarity in trust law was worrying and some of the legislation relating to trusts was “quite old, impenetrable in a lot of respects, and not particularly effective.”
Sir Geoffrey Palmer, who was President of the Law Commission in 2007, says he was very grateful that George Tanner agreed to join the Commission.
“He was able to work with John Burrows and the two of them did terrific work on the statutes revision project,” Sir Geoffrey said.
“George also worked on the land transfer reform project and the Commission’s report on that included a very lucid draft bill which he prepared.”
Sir Geoffrey said George Tanner was a wonderful colleague with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the statute book. His wide background in the law – private practice, Crown Counsel, time lecturing at Victoria University and his tenure at the Parliamentary Counsel Office – was ideal for his work at the Law Commission. This also made him greatly suited to the role of Chief Parliamentary Counsel – perhaps the most important legal appointment in New Zealand.
Recognition of his great contribution to New Zealand law came with a number of honours. He was appointed Queen’s Counsel on 16 May 2002 and was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to the law, on 4 April 2008.
George Tanner is survived by his wife Alison and children Geoffrey, Rich and Helen.
By Geoff Adlam, New Zealand Law Society.
Last updated on the 24th January 2019