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Hon Richard Christopher Savage CBE, QC, 1926 - 2014

by Sir Ivor Richardson

I have known Richard Savage well as a colleague and friend for over 50 years. Over the years we shared highs and lows. In Richard’s case they included the joys of family life with Nora and the children and the sadness of the grievous loss of their son Paul and later of Nora, too. Many here today will have their own memories of them and of those times. But, I will be speaking primarily about Richard’s professional and public career.

Born in India on 5 December 1926, Richard came to New Zealand for his schooling at Kings School and Kings College and on to the University of Auckland graduating LL.B in 1950. He worked in law offices throughout his university years and particularly relished the experience of working for A K North, later to be the dominant figure in the Court of Appeal for over a decade.

After he qualified he and Nora moved to Wellington where he soon became a partner in Robieson, Olphert and Savage and quickly made his mark. So much so that Richard Wild, who as Solicitor- General was busily re-energising Crown Law Office, attracted Richard to the challenge of senior Crown legal work in 1960. Gordon Orr was already there and I joined them in 1963.

Richard Wild was an outstanding leader, hugely respected in the profession and by Ministers and senior officials. Crown Law was an exciting working environment. There was a buzz about the place. We relished the opportunities and challenges of the work.

Our Richard shared the Solicitor-General’s drive and enthusiasm and thrived on responsibility. He focused particularly on court work, both criminal and civil, including the developing field of administrative law.

He argued hundreds of cases before courts and tribunals all round the country and appeals before the Court of Appeal in Wellington. He quickly gained and held the confidence of the Crown Solicitors and lawyers in the various centres, the Police, Ministers and officials, and the wider bar.

Speaking of the Police, I pause to mention that the Police named the 1977 Cadet Wing of the New Zealand Police College after him and, typically Richard, he responded by immersing himself in the activities of the cadets over their training period.

Coming back to Crown Law days, legal history fascinated Richard and I recall how over several weeks he read all the opinions from Crown Law records of that outstanding early Solicitor-General, Sir John Salmond. I remember, too, how he enjoyed poetry and would happily recite at length from Kipling and other favourites.

By 1970, 10 years after joining Crown Law, Richard was the obvious choice to succeed John White as Solicitor-General, breaking the pattern of outside appointments to that office. For the next 10 years he consolidated his reputation and was generally regarded as one of the half-dozen leading Queen’s Counsel in the country. He also chaired the Criminal Law Reform Committee from 1972 to 1980. As Solicitor-General, too, he led from the front arguing major cases for the Crown, including 9 appeals to the Privy Council in London.

But, it was not all work. We had great times together over those years. I especially remember that, after arguing some appeals in the Privy Council, we came back from London together - through Tunis to explore the ruins of Carthage so prominent in history from the Punic Wars with the Roman Empire; then on to Istanbul, where we each bought a Turkish carpet at the Grand Bazaar as a memento of our two or three days exploring that wonderful city.

The next career step was his appointment to the bench in Wellington in 1980. After only six years he retired in 1986 to spend more time with Nora, whose health was suffering, and with their family.

As a trial judge, Richard had an enviable record of having few appeals against his decisions and any appeals rarely succeeded. He understood juries and the functioning of Government. Although privately holding strong opinions, he never confused his personal views with his judicial responsibilities.

After his retirement from the Supreme Court Richard continued as a part-time Acting Judge in New Zealand from 1987-1992 and then from 1994-1999. He also served on the Courts of Appeal of the Solomon Islands 1987-1998 and Fiji 1994-2000. And he was Commissioner of Security Appeals, 1993-1997.

He was a great servant of the State and was awarded the C.B.E. in 1988. On that point, I pause to add that the Attorney-General, the Hon Chris Finlayson Q.C., very much regrets he is unable to attend this afternoon due to his parliamentary duties, but, speaking of Richard as Solicitor-General and Judge, he has asked me to say the following:

“Richard Savage provided outstanding service to his country as the junior law officer and a judge of the High Court. The junior law officer’s role is an exacting one. He is required to be the nation’s top advocate and principal legal adviser and legal adviser to government, as well as head of a large office. The late judge assumed this position after Sir John White was appointed to the High Court and carried out his duties with great distinction, serving a number of Attorneys- General including Sir John Marshall, Dan Riddiford, Dr Martyn Finlay, Peter Wilkinson and Jim McLay. I am sure Mr McLay, now serving New Zealand at the United Nations, would want to join me in paying tribute to a great New Zealander. On behalf of the Government, I acknowledge the outstanding service provide by Mr Savage and offer his family and friends my sympathy.”

Alongside his immediate career appointments, Richard had two other major driving and demanding professional interests: the Army, for 30 years, and the Law Society for 15 years. He served in the Territorials from 1949-1963 reaching the rank of Major. From 1963 he was Colonel and Director of the Army Legal Service and from 1968-1980 he was Deputy-Judge then Judge Advocate-General of the Armed Forces. During that time, too, for some years he also chaired the Otaki and Porirua Maori Trust Board which awarded scholarships for educating Maori youth.

Richard was elected to the Council of the Wellington District Law Society in 1966, becoming President in 1973. I remember well the strength of his leadership there and in the New Zealand Law Society where he was Treasurer from 1974-1980. But for being Solicitor-General he would undoubtedly have become its President. During those years the New Zealand Law Society was largely run from Wellington and by Wellington lawyers. Those close to the functioning of the Society over that period saw Richard as a key figure there.

Could I end on a more personal note? The close friendship developed in those Crown Law days has meant a great deal over the years. One advantage of living in Wellington is its compactness. It is easy to maintain friendships despite career changes.

Particularly special for me has been our Thursday lunch group, still as energising as it was over 40 years ago, despite changes in the composition of the group over the years. It has been a weekly opportunity to canvas and debate what we saw as current legal and public questions – and, in Richard’s words, putting the world to rights – sometimes unanimously, often with polite but firmly expressed dissents.

We also cherished Penny both for her own qualities and for the happiness she brought to Richard over the last 20 years. In recent years, when they were living at Waikanae, Richard would bustle in to the Wellington Club where we met, armed with a list of matters which had struck him as calling for discussion leading to a conclusion. He was concerned with all the issues facing society and there was nothing he liked more than relaxed but vigorous discussion.

He had an extraordinary blend of qualities – intellectual curiosity and rigour; industry; loyalty and commitment to people; devotion to his family, to his Christian faith, to ideals and to the public good.

But, for all those serious sides to his character and his professional dedication, Richard was the most friendly and likeable of men and a great companion. We shall miss him dearly.

Richard Savage died in Wellington on 10 May 2014. This eulogy by Sir Ivor Richardson was delivered at his funeral on 15 May 2014. 

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Last updated on the 21st May 2014