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Judge Robert (Bob) Wolff, 1952 - 2018

By Nick Butcher

Tauranga District Court Judge Robert Wolff who died on 30 April 2018 will be remembered for his many watertight judgments, a love of bikes and adventure along with his larger than life sense of humour.

Judge Wolff, who was 65 years old, was born in South Africa but his family moved out to New Zealand. He was educated at Francis Douglas Memorial College in New Plymouth. He gained his law degree at the University of Otago and was admitted to the bar in 1976.

A Judge with an endearing personality

Fellow Tauranga District Court Judge Thomas Ingram knew Judge Wolff - who was known as Bob to his friends. He says he had a great sense of humour that people would run into frequently inside the courtroom.

“He loved self-deprecating wit and would use it often,” he says.

One story reflecting Judge Wolff’s humour goes a bit like this:

“He was appearing in the Environment Court as a lawyer back in the day and the Judge was checking the spelling of Bob’s name. He said 'is that Wolff with one F or two Fs?' Bob replied, 'I’ve always spelt it not with the F-off Your Honour'. He was a very funny man. The Judge he was appearing before split his sides laughing,” says Judge Ingram.

There’s another story concerning a jury:

“As a Judge he was having to give a jury a direction as to the meaning of the word ‘possession’. It was during a drugs or firearms trial. In the course of summing up he tells the jury that the word possession is defined as…and gave a standard direction. One of the jurors to everybody’s surprise piped up and said ‘So, does that mean if I put something in the rubbish and I leave it in there for my wife to take out in the morning for the rubbish truck to collect, but if she doesn’t do that and the item remains in the bin at my house, then the Police come along and find it there… does that mean I’m not in possession and control of it because I intended to get rid of it? Well Bob said, ‘I hope the Court of Appeal understands it as well as you’."

As it turned out the related matter was appealed to the Court of Appeal.

“A judgment was issued and it had a line that read something like ‘his Honour would be well advised to confine his remarks to jurors which will actually help them in the course of their deliberations',” Judge Ingram says.

So the Court of Appeal didn’t implore the same sense of humour, but Judge Ingram says Judge Wolff wasn’t bothered by it.

Before Bob the Lawyer became Bob the Judge

After being admitted, Judge Wolff was a staff solicitor at three different firms between 1977 and 1979. They included Rowe McBride & Partners, Palmerston North, Ongley, Ongley and Dean, Palmerston North, and Robinson, Toomey and Partners in Napier.

In 1980 he moved to the independent bar and became a barrister in Napier. He was appointed a Judge in late 1994 in the civil and criminal (jury trials) jurisdiction to sit in Hamilton. Judge Robert Wolff was sworn in in February 1995.

Judge Wolff moved to Tauranga in 2011 and that same year he was also appointed an alternate Environment Judge in the Environment Court.  

Another amusing story concerning Judge Wolff involves skiing in the United States during a visit involving continuing legal education work he was doing with the New Zealand Law Society, as a lawyer.

He was developing practical education on courtroom skills for lawyers and had contact with the American Bar Association. Some of the ABA’s material was being utilised in a programme he was designing.

The relationship with the ABA eventually led to a visit to Chicago in the United States and some skiing at Jackson Hole in Wyoming for a day. By chance he ended up receiving one-on-one ski lessons with a former USA champion skier.

“When Bob got back to the ski lift with the instructor, and because he was with an instructor, they got priority in the line. Well, instead of people noticing the famous USA skier who was instructing Bob, someone from the group Bob was with yells out, ‘Who’s that skiing with Bob Wolff?’ instead of the other way round,” Judge Ingram says.

Judge Ingram says a t shirt was made with what turned into a new saying - ‘Who’s that skiing with Bob Wolff?' - emblazoned on the front.

Judge Wolff’s mentor

In many ways Judge Wolff was discovered by retired Judge Russell Callander during the early days of his career.

“When Bob was learning his trade, he was briefed on a case by Russell who was a successful courtroom lawyer. They won the case and the other side appealed. Russell couldn’t attend the date of the hearing but told Bob he could do it just as well as him if not better,” says Judge Ingram.

Judge Ingram says Russell Callander gave Bob, who was a young and shy lawyer, the confidence that goes with a respected lawyer.

“He pretty much said, you’ve got what it takes son. So Bob went down to Wellington and won the appeal hands down. In a legal career you have to have the confidence to take on the tough cases and  Bob was given that by Russell Callender, and he looked up to him,” he says.

During Judge Wolff’s career he presided over up to 700 jury trials.

“It’s a helluva lot, yet we have colleagues still sitting on the bench who have perhaps done 900 to 1000. Bob really enjoyed jury trials,” says Judge Ingram.

Perhaps a little known fact was that Judge Wolff was admired amongst his colleagues for his approach to the craft of instructing a jury, and some of the material that he prepared is still widely used in New Zealand courts to this day.

The watertight Rena decision

Most people remember the wreck of the Rena, the container ship that struck the Astrolabe Reef causing an environmental disaster as it spilled tonnes of oil into the sea off the coast of Tauranga in 2011.

Judge Ingram says Judge Wolff’s work on this case was outstanding.

“A lot of money at stake, millions of dollars and insurance companies from around the world involved. Bob managed to resolve the situation including prosecutions without anybody appealing any aspect of the case. It was quite remarkable. It means he managed to persuade everybody. Nobody thought anything needed a second look,” he says.

Judge Wolff was an inquisitive man and when he approached a case, he strived to find out and understand why an incident occurred.

“We’re all human and we all make mistakes. That was his position. A lot of people like to read about how a Judge excoriated a person for something he or she committed. But Bob’s approach was that he wanted to find out why something happened so to try and prevent it from happening again in the future,” he says.

Judge Ingram says Judge Wolff’s advice was to look past the immediately obvious and ask what has driven a crime to be committed.

Outside of the courtroom, Judge Wolff was a man who enjoyed an adventure. Trout fishing, mountain biking and skiing were some of his favourite pastimes.

Phillip Morgan QC remembers Judge Wolff

Philip Morgan QC is also a bike enthusiast and he knew Judge Wolff. He was admitted in 1977, so their careers crossed paths more than a few times, both in the courtroom and on the road.

Mr Morgan remembers Judge Wolff as a fit man, but says he had been hampered with a series of health issues over the last few years.

“I met him in 1977 when he was a barrister in Palmerston North. But it wasn’t until he was appointed a Judge in Hamilton that I saw him a lot. I appeared in front of him many times both as prosecuting counsel, defence counsel in criminal cases and in the occasional civil case. Judge Wolff was a keen cyclist and I was too so I occasionally met him on the road too,” he says.

Phillip Morgan describes Judge Wolff as a courteous judge.

“While you never agree with every decision a judge makes, I always had the feeling with him that he wanted to get it right and determined to get it right. He was a gentleman,” he says.

Like Judge Ingram, Mr Morgan also recalls Judge Wolff’s quirky sense of humour.

One story he recalls involves Judge Wolff’s great love of bikes.

“He had bikes made for him. He was particularly annoyed about one bike that he had spent a lot of money on where the paint was delaminating. The business responsible for the paint job investigated the problem and came to the conclusion that the medication he was taking for his heart was coming out of his sweat and delaminating the paint. It was a theory, but I remember him telling me that the paint people have either come up with an implausible story or it was absolutely true and that he had toxic sweat, causing his bike’s paint to peel. It was the way he told the story that was so amusing,” he says.

The farewell for Judge Robert (Bob) Wolff was held on 5 May. He is survived by his partner and soul mate Debbie and his children, Amy, Michael and Emma.

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Last updated on the 24th May 2018