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Justice Evan Prichard CBE, 1916 – 2001

by Colin Bright

Justice Evan Prichard CBE, who died recently, is remembered as a fine lawyer and as a courteous, considerate, patient and fair judge, with a keen intellect and sound judgement.

Born in Feilding in 1916, his secondary schooling was at Otago Boys’ High School and he graduated in law from Auckland University in 1936, aged 20. Immediately after graduation he joined the law firm he became associated with for much of his life. It was then called Johnston Coates & Fee.

After serving as a captain in the Second World War, he was appointed Crown Prosecutor for the Fijian Government. Returning to Auckland in 1947, he was offered a partnership in his old firm which became Johnston Prichard & Fee in 1948.

As a practitioner, Evan Prichard’s enthusiasm and preparedness to inquire into and provide suggested responses to any problem, no matter how small, was matched by an equal willingness to take the issue for further consideration to the “Mayfair Court of Appeal”. He was a founding member of this group of friends and lawyers who would meet at the Mayfair Tearooms in Vulcan Lane to act as sounding boards for each other’s case issues.

The feature of practice with Evan Prichard was always the problem and its solution, never the reward. Whether the issue was a traffic ticket or a major contract, he brought the same enthusiasm, concentration and careful analysis to bear.

In an era where precedent was paramount and the phrase had, probably, not yet been coined, Evan Prichard was a lateral thinker as typified by his successful challenge to the long-accepted precedents of Goodall’s Conveyancing in New Zealand in Sharp v Amen & Anor [1965] NZLR 761 (Court of Appeal). The clear, logical approach he adopted is demonstrated in the summary of his submissions (on pages 760 to 762 of that report) before the Court of Appeal.

At a time when progress to the bench was almost always through the path of a barrister sole and then the inner bar, Evan Prichard was appointed a High Court judge direct from general practice. For a time he was also an acting judge of the High Court of the Cook Islands. Prior to his eventual retirement from the bench (in 1987) his warrant as a judge was extended three times.

On Justice Prichard’s retirement, Justice Nicholson (then Colin Nicholson QC) spoke of the judge having brought to his office a blend of dignity and humility; of the many of his cases that had been reported in the law reports; of his ability to understand and apply the law correctly, and to make up his mind and come to decisions quickly. He said that all those who had appeared in the judge’s court would testify to his laconic humour and his ability to understand people.

Justice Prichard then spoke of his concern at what he saw as an increasing commercialisation of the practice of law:

“We belong to a great profession. We deal with and we defend the rights, liberties and property of our fellow citizens.

“We stand, when the occasion demands, between the citizen and any attempt at abuse of power by the executive arm of the state.

“That is who we are. That is our identity.

“When we do these things, we are asserting our identity. And when the chips are down, we will continue to do these things regardless of cost effectiveness, margins of profit and the like.”

Those words echoed the approach of Justice Prichard throughout his career.

His influence continues. In a recent decision of the Court of Appeal in England (Western Digital Corp & Ors v British Airways Plc [2001] 1 All ER 109), Mance LJ considered authorities and decisions from Europe, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Hong Kong before adopting and quoting with approval, Justice Prichard’s reasoning and approach in Tasman Pulp & Paper Co Ltd v Brambles JB O’Lochlen Ltd [1981] 2 NZLR 225.

This is the sort of recognition that Justice Prichard would have appreciated, but never courted.

Justice Prichard was a remarkable person.

He is survived by his wife for 61 years and five children.

This obituary was first published in LawTalk 563, 18 June 2001, page 20.

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Last updated on the 11th May 2012