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James Hamilton Dunn, 1906 - 1978

The death, on 9 June 1978 at the age of 72, of Mr JH Dunn marked the end of over seventy years connection between his family and the law of defamation.

Mr Dunn, a member of the Wellington Society for over fifty years, was senior partner in the firm Alexander JH and Julia Dunn.

Alexander Dunn, his father, was retained as the New Zealand solicitor when NZ Truth was founded in 1905. The paper was then owned by an Australian publishing magnate, John Norton.

Norton founded the New Zealand paper to counter efforts to keep his Australian paper Truth out of this country. This stern defence of press independence was to become the foundation stone of Mr Dunn's own defence of newspaper rights.

He was educated at Scots College and at Victoria University, from where he graduated LLB. During his time at university he served on the executive of the Students Association.

In 1927 he joined his father's law firm, and was followed by his sister Julia, who was also a practising lawyer. Like many lawyers he was absent from the practice during World War II, when he served in the artillery and attained the rank of lieutenant colonel.

After the war the Norton family found it necessary to sell some assets following the death of John Norton, and Mr Dunn joined a consortium of New Zealanders who purchased the paper and floated a New Zealand company on the stock exchange. From 1950, when this company took over, until 1972, when he resigned from the Independent Newspapers board, he was as well known for his business interests in the newspaper industry as he was for his legal career.

During this period he was a notable opponent of the 1965 legislation to control newspaper ownership, and of trends towards newspaper monopoly. When trends in the industry made it necessary for Truth to join Independent Newspapers he protected his paper's editorial position by special contract; and he left INL over issues arising from the Evening Post takeover.

Well known in recent years as a formidable courtroom lawyer, his Supreme Court defamation career in fact began after some thirty years in the law. In 1959, following the appointment of Truth's regular barrister to the bench, Mr Dunn took the next case himself, and quickly showed his mastery of courtroom technique and his enormous knowledge of libel law.

In a tribute to him, a grateful Truth said after his death: "His ability to win cases was phenomenal. He was unrivalled in cross-examination and in his power to communicate with a jury."

His partner Miss Sandra Moran continues the practice.

This was first published on page 9 of the August 1978 issue of Council Brief, the monthly newsletter of the Wellington District Law Society.

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Last updated on the 15th July 2016