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James Sugden Hanna SM, 1893 - 1960

By Geoff Adlam

James Sugden Hanna was Wellington’s senior stipendiary magistrate at his sudden death on 27 December 1960. He was aged 67 and had recently been discharged from Wellington Hospital where he had undergone an operation.

Born in Palmerston North, he attended Palmerston North Boys’ High School and played cricket and rugby, making the first XI and first XV in these. He passed his matriculation examination in 1909 and started work at a local law office while studying law through Victoria University College. He was admitted as a solicitor of Supreme Court on 5 March 1915 by Justice Chapman on the motion of HR Cooper, and shortly afterwards was employed by Bell Gully in Wellington. He joined the Army and after training at Trentham Camp served in Europe as a lieutenant in the Second Battalion, Wellington Regiment.

After the War he returned to Bell Gully, but on April 1921 he was admitted as a barrister of the Supreme Court by Justice Reed, and set up in practice in Lambton Quay, Wellington with AT Duncan as the firm of Duncan and Hanna.

He married Nena Craig and the couple had one son, Malcolm.

As was common at the time he had a wide-ranging practice, appearing often in criminal proceedings as well as commercial and defamation cases and he represented parties in many divorce petitions. He often appeared in court as junior to King’s Counsel, and appeared in many appeals before the Court of Appeal.

A keen cricketer he represented Manawatu and was later very active in the Wellington Cricket Association, with a term as chairman from 1958. For a time he managed the Wellington Plunket Shield team. He also regularly turned out for lawyer cricket teams. He was closely involved with the Returned Services Association, and was chairman of the Karori Auxiliary branch of the Wellington RSA during the 1930s.

During World War II, although too old for foreign service, he enlisted and served as a staff officer in the Adjutant-General’s branch in Wellington for five years, retiring with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel on 25 February 1945.

On 30 September 1947 he was appointed a Stipendiary Magistrate. He was quickly in action, with papers around New Zealand reporting a “sharp comment from the bench” on 17 October in a smuggling case which included two postal officers among the defendants. “’Fools must pay for their folly,’ said Mr JS Hanna SM. ‘There is no place in the Post Office for men with so little sense of responsibility. It is not a case for the minimum penalty of £25’.” And he proceeded to impose fines of £50 and £30.

He was also merciful. Sentencing Jozef Bieniowaki, 20, from Poland on a theft charge in the Wellington Police Court on 28 November 1947, he remarked “When Polish children were brought to New Zealand it was because New Zealand wanted to help them. New Zealand still wants to help the Polish children and for that reason you will not be sent to prison.” He placed the young Pole on probation for two years.

He was appointed a member of the Licensing Committee for the districts of Lower Hutt and Petone in 1948 and later chaired the Wellington Licensing Committee. In 1951 he was appointed chairman of the Public Service Appeal Board.

Mr Hanna’s whole legal career – “from office boy to Senior Stipendiary Magistrate” was spent in the Wellington region, Wellington District Law Society President Charles Hain told a special sitting of the Magistrates’ Court.

“He was forthright and straightforward. The courage that no doubt marked him as an infantry officer was also reflected in his work as counsel in Court, and one has memories of some of his appearances as a fine example of a barrister’s duty to stand up for his client. Later he valued the same quality in young men appearing before him, and in his judicial work, if he thought a certain course was justified, he was always prepared to follow it.

“Then there was his dignity and courtesy. The presence and bearing with which he was endowed by nature, enhanced perhaps by his military service, brought a distinctive atmosphere of dignity to his Court which, it always seemed to me, must have done much to promote confidence in the administration of justice in the minds of the public who came before him as parties, witnesses or spectators.

“And finally, with all his forthrightness and dignity, there was an acute and sympathetic understanding of human nature. He had a solid commonsense and insight that took him beyond humbug and mere show to the truth of a situation, and having got to the truth he was always ready to make allowances for human shortcomings. Indeed his good nature was well-known, and many here will recall cases in which he seems to struggle between his duty to the public and his sympathy for the individual.”

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Last updated on the 23rd August 2019