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Judge Bruce Palmer, 1935 - 2017

By Nick Butcher

In Court he was affectionately known as Judge “Paragraph” Palmer. Behind the bench where he resided for some 27 years, he will be remembered as a thorough man, a stickler for details who always read all of the evidence word for word that was being presented before his court room.

Retired Employment Court and former Family Court Judge, Bruce Alan Palmer died on 3 April, aged 81 years old.

His life from behind the bench and in front of it was well lived.

He may have retired from working in the judiciary in 2003 but his style and personality in court continued to resonate and inspire the sector.

Judge Bruce Palmer
A photo of Judge Bruce Palmer in the 1980s
which hangs at the Christchurch District Court.

Employment and District Court Judge, Tony Couch appeared before Judge Palmer many times as a practising lawyer and his current role is similar to that of Judge Palmer.

“When he first came to Christchurch in 1975, he was seen as very much a breath of fresh air, the new magistrate who brought a fresh and youthful approach,” he says.

Judge Palmer had been a litigation lawyer and partner of the law firm Bell Gully in Wellington before his move south.

He was born in Napier but moved to the capital aged 6 years old and his connection to the law was loosely through a great uncle and an uncle who practised law in both Gore and Auckland respectively.

At school Judge Palmer excelled on the sports field as captain of the XV rugby team and he was also an athletics champion. He attended Victoria University and graduated with a Bachelor of Laws in 1959.

Upon graduation he became a law clerk for sole practitioner Stan Stevenson in Wellington.

In court he had his own unique flare and style, as Judge Tony Couch remembers.

“When I first started practising I would appear before him routinely in the District Court. When he would give an oral decision, he would dictate it as if he was dictating a letter and he would dictate the punctuation too. So he would say for example ‘on this occasion, comma, the defendant was inside the house, full stop’. ‘Fresh paragraph’.

“So he became known affectionately as ‘Paragraph Palmer’. He was always very deliberate and precise in delivering any oral decision whether it was short or long,” he says.

Looking back at Judge Palmer’s career, his rise was rapid as shown by his appointment as a prosecutor in Fiji when he was just 25-years old.

Those were the days when Fiji was a British colony and his work included presiding over murder trials, and during this period the death penalty was mandatory for the heinous crime of murder.

There are always cases that won’t easily be forgotten and it’s not often a Judge has a case involving witchcraft to deal with. In Fiji it was against the law to practise witchcraft and when death resulted from a so-called cure that went wrong, the case turned into a murder trial, which Judge Palmer presided over.

Judge Palmer finished his time in Fiji as acting Solicitor-General at the tender age of 30 before returning to Wellington where he joined Bell Gully.

In the courtroom Judge Palmer will be remembered as unfailingly courteous and pleasant, which is not always the case in all courtrooms.

“I on occasions in court think back and ask myself how Bruce Palmer would have reacted to this situation in court. When I’m in court and I’m faced with a vexing situation, something frustrating or annoying, I wonder how he (Judge Palmer) would have dealt with this. He would have listened patiently and then said something that was firm but measured,” says Judge Tony Couch.

The Employment Court Chief Judge Graeme Colgan describes Judge Palmer as modest and unassuming, caring less where his Court sat, than it did so for the convenience of litigants.

“Yacht clubs, ambulance halls, council board rooms and the like were as often as not the locations in which Bruce brought the ‘People’s Court’ to the provinces. Undeterred by the absence of a courtroom, I once heard him threaten to hear a case in a telephone box,” he says.

He says Judge Palmer was exceptionally patient and tolerant in hearings.

“His strongest comment about something with which he disagreed being, ‘hmm interesting’ and if the argument persisted, ‘I understand’,” he says.

Judge Tony Couch remembers being involved in a case as a practising lawyer that was heard in a yacht club.

“Probably the most celebrated case many years ago involved Timaru Girls High School and the dismissal of the principal who challenged the dismissal. I was counsel for the board of trustees in that case which ran for about two months. It had to be in Timaru and the only venue available was the Timaru Yacht Club. We still talk about the time we spent our summer at the Timaru Yacht Club,” he says.

Judge Couch says there was rarely ever any ‘barbs’ in what Judge Palmer would say in Court.

“He could be firm and would make his decision clear but I very rarely ever knew him to be personally critical of counsel, although I do remember there was one case involving an Indian restaurant in Lyttelton which did try his patience to the limit. If I recall rightly, he recorded in his judgment, ‘Without doubt every witness lied to me’, “he says.

Bruce Palmer was appointed as one of the founding judges of the Labour Court in 1988. In 1991 it was renamed the Employment Court. He was the Court’s sole Christchurch based and South Island Judge until his retirement.

Judge Palmer never ruled by half measures and litigants knew that their cases had received close scrutiny and detailed analysis. He was also known to sit into the night and sometimes even on Saturdays to conclude a case.

Many years ago Judge Couch was involved in a hearing as counsel before Judge Palmer that he still remembers well. He (Judge Couch) was young and outside of court he spent a lot of time performing in amateur theatre.

“I was in the lead role for a production of Paddington Bear in the children’s theatre. It was at the repertory theatre in Christchurch which was only about 200 metres from the employment court. So there I was conducting this case and five o’clock turned into six o’clock and still we carried on,” he says.

He could see 400 Mums, Dads and kids filing into the theatre waiting to see the bear.

“Eventually I passed a note to the Registrar who passed it to Judge Palmer who then looked at me over the top of his reading glasses, smiled and then shortly afterwards said, ‘I think we’ve had enough for today, we’ll resume tomorrow’,” Judge Couch recalls.

Retired Employment Court, Judge Tony Ford also knew Bruce Palmer well. He had joined law firm Bell Gully in Wellington in 1970 as an assistant to the late powerhouse civil litigator Des Dalgety and had met Bruce there.

He says Bruce Palmer’s introduction to Bell Gully was somewhat controversial because he had joined as a litigator specialising in criminal and matrimonial work.

“That was a first. In the long history of the firm, Bell Gully had never taken on a senior lawyer who specialised only in those two areas of law. It is fair to say that not everyone in the firm was enamoured with its move into criminal and matrimonial work,” he says.

Back in those days Bell Gully was a three storey colonial period building in the city. The foyer featured an open fireplace and a magnificent marble tiled stairway.

A balcony ran around the offices on the first floor enabling people to see clients waiting in the foyer.

“Bruce’s office was two doors away from mine to my left and on my right was the office of Basil Godfrey, an elderly World War Two veteran who had joined the firm in the 1920s as a property conveyancer.

“I recall how often during the winter months in particular, Basil Godfrey would look down into the foyer and mutter his disapproval over ‘Palmer’s clients’ who were taking up all the prime seating around the open fire while the firm’s other more up-market commercial clientele were left to find chair space in other parts of the foyer,” Tony Ford says.

But as the retired Judge also remembers, Bruce Palmer was aware of the uneasy undercurrent and took it all on the chin.

“He had such an engaging personality and sense of humour that it was impossible to offend him,” he says.

Mr Palmer was made a partner of Bell Gully in 1971.

The Judge was a character with swagger and a taste for classic automobiles.

He owned a 1958 black Zephyr Zodiac and it was his pride and joy.

“While other law firm partners possessed late model vehicles, Bruce simply had no interest in upgrading his black Zephyr and it was virtually always stationed in our car park,” he says.

The late Judge Bruce Palmer was a family man, devoted to his wife Gillian who survives him, their eight children and many grandchildren.

“He will be missed greatly by us, the current Judges of the Court, and his now mostly retired colleagues, and fondly remembered by Court staff, practitioners and many litigants,” says Employment Court Chief Judge, Graeme Colgan.

Last updated on the 18th April 2017