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Hon Colin Maurice Nicholson CNZM, QC 1936 - 2015

By Vanessa Bruton

Colin Nicholson died in Auckland on 31 October 2015 aged 79. He was a prominent member of the bar in Auckland before becoming a District Court and then High Court Judge.

Colin was born in 1936 on the shortest day of the year in the village of Turua, which is on the Waihou River on the Hauraki Plains.

In his eulogy, fellow Justice, lawyer and friend, the Hon Robert Fisher QC summed up the attributes of Colin as having a twinkle in his eye; a sense of energy; independence and self-reliance; a lively intellect; an understanding of and fondness for people; and an enthusiasm and appetite for life – linking all those attributes back to Colin's early life catching flounder and running free along the banks of the Waihou River.

Colin's father was a general carrier who worked for farmers and dairy factories. Colin had the benefit of a very happy upbringing, tinged by sadness at his mother's death when he was nine. Colin's parents purchased a set of the Arthur Mee's children's encyclopaedias, some 20 volumes, which Colin devoured and thereby gave him a great fund of knowledge which perhaps assisted in him being a leading member of all the classes he was in at the local primary school, and then at St Stephen's School at Bombay and Thames High School, where he was dux.

Colin then moved to Auckland and studied law at Auckland University College. After a year of full time study, he joined the law firm which is now known as Meredith Connell & Co. He joined as a junior clerk and attended law school part time. 

Colin's first job was to take a roll of film down to Kodak for developing for the late Sir Graeme Speight, who featured largely later in Colin's life as his mentor when Colin was starting appearances in courts. Colin spent many weekends staying at the home of Sir Vincent Meredith, doing his gardening and other jobs, and revelling in Sir Vincent's tales of a life in the law. 

Before he graduated, Colin married Jeanette and a year after graduation, Colin and Jeanette went on their OE for two years, living primarily in London but travelling throughout Great Britain and Europe. 

On his return from the OE, Colin rejoined Meredith Connell and became a partner in 1965. He conducted many criminal prosecutions, some as junior to the late Sir Graeme Speight who was the then Crown Solicitor. A noteworthy prosecution in which Colin appeared as junior to Sir Graeme was the Bassett Road machine gun murder trials.

photo of Colin Nicholson 
Hon Colin Nicholson QC.

During his time practising at Merediths, Colin and Jeanette had four children – Ross, Ian, Ben and Kaya. 

Of his time working with Colin at Merediths in the 1970s Sir Anand Satyanand says:

"There was a phase notably as I started where we would prepare a case together, I would do the preliminary hearing in the Magistrates Court and then appear as Colin's junior in the Supreme Court trial. There are things about preparation of cases with 'Time Plans' and 'People Plans' that have never left me – and all the years since then I still use them. I also learned a great deal from his fine advocacy which was always thorough but equally understated.  The last aspect made him favoured with Judges and Juries."

Colin was appointed as counsel to assist the Parnell Fumes Commission of Inquiry (1973) and the Cancer Treatment (Milan Brych) Commission of Inquiry (1974).

In 1977 Colin retired from Meredith Connell and became a barrister sole. He was appointed a Queen's Counsel two years later. He had a varied practice at the bar, including criminal defence, defamation, copyright and judicial review – he regarded his area of expertise as advocacy.

Colin was instrumental in establishing the Grey Lynn Neighbourhood Law Office, the first of New Zealand's community law centres, in the late 1970s.

During the 1980s he cemented his reputation as one of New Zealand's pre-eminent advocates. He was one of the counsel representing the estates of the deceased passengers in the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Erebus Disaster (1980). He was appointed to report on the fatal shooting by police of Paul Chase (1983). 

Colin's most well‑known defence case was of David Tamihere for the murder of two Swedish tourists in 1989. 

In terms of bricks and mortar, Colin's lasting monument is the District Court building in Albert Street. In 1984 the Government wanted to transfer the District Court from its decrepit site in Courthouse Lane to Khyber Pass. The Auckland District Law Society Council went along with the proposal because they were told that if they did not, the Ministry of Justice would not proceed with planned extensions to the High Court.

Colin had other ideas, pointing out that Khyber Pass would be too far from the centre of the CBD, and the District Court needed to be accessible to all citizens, and central to public transport.

As Bob Fisher recalls, Colin had a leaflet printed on red card, because he wanted it to be read, called a meeting of all lawyers, got them on side, got the media on board, and caused the ADLS to rescind its decision.

This resulted in the Albert Street site which opened in 1987, and the High Court extensions also went ahead.

Colin was an author and co-editor of the New Zealand edition of Mauet's Fundamentals of Trial Techniques and won the Sir Ronald Davison Award for Excellence in Award Writing in 1988.  He is the author of the Laws of New Zealand title on Juries.

In 1986 Colin Nicholson was one of the 12 foundation members of Shortland Chambers, now one of New Zealand's largest barristers' chambers. He was the Chambers' first chairman, carrying out that role for a number of years.

Colin was a member of the New Zealand Law Society's Executive Committee from 1988 to 1990.  He was president of the Auckland District Law Society from 1989 to 1990 and was NZLS Vice-President for Auckland in 1990. He was also active in the Auckland Medico-Legal Society and was President in 1981.

Sharing his skills in advocacy, he was actively involved in establishing the New Zealand Law Society Litigation Skills programme, and was convenor for many years.

In 1995 Colin was appointed a District Court Judge, sitting in the Auckland District Court. He was appointed to the High Court in August 1998 and remained on the bench until his retirement in 2009.  Of Colin's attributes as a lawyer and a judge, Paul Davison QC says:

"Colin was a wonderful model and example of how to practice law, and I always looked up to him and admired his ability to conduct his cases with impeccable manners and politeness, while never compromising his legal position or client's interests.

"He was a delight to appear before, and his reassuring sense of fairness and unwavering keen sense of justice meant that he could always see an issue from the perspective of both prosecution and defence."

In 2001 Colin married lawyer Vanessa Bruton (who is of partial Cook Islands descent). Colin and Vanessa had many wonderful adventures, tramping throughout New Zealand and Europe, a camping safari from Zimbabwe to Kenya, travelling to South America and the walking the Inca Trail and spending the coldest night of their lives camping in a tent in Antarctica.

Colin always had a great interest in reading and music. His active sports after his rugby days at high school and university were flying, particularly gliding, and scuba diving. Catching crayfish was very high in his endeavours.

Colin retired as a Judge of the High Court when he reached the compulsory retirement age. He continued for some time as a temporary High Court judge. He became a judge of the High Court of the Cook Islands from 2005 until 2012, going to the Cook Islands about four times a year for periods of about a fortnight. 

During Colin's retirement, he and Vanessa were blessed by the arrival of their daughter, Pearl Aro'anui.  She joined them on many of their trips to the Cook Islands, and on his full retirement Colin became a full time house dad for Pearl and relished this.

Colin's career in the law was recognised with appointment as a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2006 Queen's Birthday Honours, for services as a Judge of the High Court of New Zealand.

Colin often said he was blessed to have had a rich and rewarding career, two wives, two lives and two families.

The Chief Justice, Dame Sian Elias, says:

"Colin was always a major presence in the profession since I entered it in 1972 (after being in the States). First, as a leader at Meredith Connell - a highly respected and fair prosecutor - and then at the bar. When I returned to full time practice after having the boys, at the end of the 1970s, he was a considerable figure in Law Society committees and in practice. I remember his call to the inner bar. It was a much smaller, very friendly profession in those days. There was always time to pop in and watch the seniors in court and to have a cup of coffee (instant of course) in the tea room in the District Court and High Court. We all counted ourselves friends. Colin was always supportive and welcoming of me.  Colin was always scrupulously fair and decent. One of the members of the profession it was a joy to have around because he was so reassuring and had such wide experience. 

"I had a lot to do with him over the Grey Lynn Neighbourhood Law Office, where I worked when at home with the children before returning to full time practice. He was fantastic in putting together the office and it would never have got off the ground without him. He was always available to help the solicitors at the office with legal problems, as well as with some of the challenging internal matters we had to deal with. It was a great time to be a young lawyer. 

"Colin and a few others set the standards inspired me to continue with law and to find it endlessly fascinating. He also was someone who enjoyed the people side of law, and helped very many practitioners and litigants.

"He was highly respected as a District Court Judge. It was a very great pleasure for me when Colin became a High Court Judge soon after my appointment to the High Court. I was so lucky when I became Chief Justice to have such a decent hard working member of the team to rely on."

Colin's last case was as a Judge of the Cook Islands High Court in 2011, hearing an election petition on the remote northern island of Pukapuka.  He flew the plane with all the lawyers aboard back from Pukapuka to Rarotonga. Lawyer Heinz Matysik recalls:

"I remember being on this flight and waking up to see that the Judge was not sitting at the front where he had been but instead seeing the pilot sitting in his place! My concern only increased on seeing the Judge behind the controls flying the plane!! That was until I found out about his extensive flying experience including as an air force pilot and flying gliders competitively. He was an incredible man and we miss him much."

Lawyer Paul Lynch, also present on the Pukapuka trip says:

"If I can recall that His Honour loved and was much appreciated in our Court here and in the Outer Islands. His amused engagement and patience with the excited public galley in the open hall in Pukapuka was part of his Honour's unique gentlemanly character. The whole island showed up at the Court sessions in Pukapuka to participate, be entertained and informed.

"Before our long hot Court days in Pukapuka, counsel were invited to share breakfast with him, which consisted of freshly fried fish and uto pancakes. It was a lasting memory. He put everyone at ease, even the 'colourful' local mamas bringing their food to our meal.

"Rest in peace Your Honour."

Last updated on the 25th February 2016