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Justice Sir Robert Stanley Chambers, KNZM, QC, 1953 – 2013

By Geoff Adlam

The sudden death of Justice Chambers in Wellington on 21 May 2013 at the age of 59 stunned members of the legal profession. His appointment to the Supreme Court in December 2011 had been the logical progression in the very successful career of a renowned jurist, barrister and author.

Robert Stanley Chambers was born in Auckland on 23 August 1953. After an education at King's College, he attended Auckland University from 1971 to 1974, graduating LLB(Hons) in 1975. He was an outstanding student, being awarded Junior and Senior Scholarships in Law, the AG Davis Scholarship and the Sir Alexander Johnston Scholarship.

photo of Sir Robert Chambers
Sir Robert Chambers.

After a year as clerk to Judges of the Supreme Court (now High Court), Justice Chambers proceeded to Oxford University, having been awarded Commonwealth and New Zealand Law Society Scholarships. At Oxford he was Salvesen Fellow at New College and he was awarded his DPhil in 1978.

Justice Chambers married Claire Taylor in 1977 and the couple had two children, David and Christopher. The marriage later ended in divorce.

On his return to New Zealand he lectured in law at Auckland University and worked as a lawyer for the law firm Wilson Henry Martin & Co from 1979 to 1980. In a step unusual at the time, he started practise as a barrister sole in 1981.

Throughout his career Justice Chambers made a valuable contribution to legal writing. He was an author of Salmond and Heuston's Law of Torts with Professor Heuston (Sweet & Maxwell, 1981) and contributed a chapter in the Legal Research Foundation's 1987 publication Professional Responsibility. He was also a contributing author to the first (1991) and second (1997) editions of the leading New Zealand text on the law of torts, The Law of Torts in New Zealand (also known as "Todd on Torts").

In 1992 Justice Chambers was appointed Queen's Counsel. Over the 1980s and 1990s he was a very active participant in legal profession matters. He was a founder member of the Arbitrators' Institute of New Zealand in 1987 and on taking silk he was a member of the Law Commission's Evidence Sub-Committee and a member of the Council of the Legal Research Foundation.

During the 1990s Justice Chambers was closely involved in New Zealand's law societies. He was a Council member of the Auckland District Law Society from 1992 to 1998, Vice-President from 1995 to 1997 and President from 1997 to 1998.

He was a Vice-President of the New Zealand Law Society from 1998 to 1999 and also served on a number of New Zealand Law Society committees: Library Committee (convenor from 1992 to 1994), Ethics Committee (1995 to 1999) and the Information Needs ProjectGroup (1994 to 1995), the Conveyancing Policy Working Group, the Professional Standards and Liability Committee and the Multi-Disciplinary Practices Committee (as convenor).

Justice Chambers was also a member of the Health Research Council from 1991 to 1997 (which he chaired from 1994 to 1997) and a member of the Rules Committee from 1996 to 1999.

In 1999 he was appointed a judge of the High Court, being sworn in on 28 May and sitting for the first time in Auckland on 31 May. This was followed by appointment to the Court of Appeal in January 2004 and to the Supreme Court in December 2011. 

After his appointment to the judiciary Justice Chambers continued to support legal education and continuing professional development. In February 2013 he chaired the NZLS CLE Ltd Criminal Law Symposium and his enthusiasm and well-humoured direction of proceedings was applauded by those who attended. He had also been appointed to the New Zealand Council of Legal Education as the Chief Justice's representative.

The Chief Justice, Dame Sian Elias, said Justice Chambers had had a career in the law of great distinction before he came to the bench, where he showed himself a jurist of great ability, diligence, and humanity.

"Robert Chambers was a dear friend and colleague, and a great judge who still had much to contribute," she said. "This is an enormous loss to the judiciary, and devastating blow to his family, especially his wife Deb."

Attorney-General Christopher Finlayson QC said Justice Chambers had an outstanding career as a servant of the law, ultimately appointed to the nation's highest court.

"I served with him for many years on the Rules Committee of the High Court, and he had recently been appointed to the Council of Legal Education as the Chief Justice's representative. He made a great contribution, and had only begun what was expected to be a long tenure on the Supreme Court," Mr Finlayson said.

"He was involved in so many other areas outside the judiciary, and lived life to the full. It is not often one comes across the likes of Justice Chambers in the profession."

"He was renowned across the profession as one of New Zealand's greatest legal brains," Justice Minister Judith Collins said. "His sudden death at such a young age is a significant loss to the legal community."

Ms Collins said she instructed Justice Chambers on many occasions when he was a barrister.

"I served with him on the Auckland District Law Society Council for a number of years and when he became President, I was Vice-President. I will always remember Justice Chambers for his humanity, terrific wit and way with words."

New Zealand Law Society President Chris Moore said Justice Chambers had a "magnificent and quick sense of humour" which was invariably accompanied by an engaging and infectious laugh.

"Justice Chambers was an outstanding judge. His appointment to the Supreme Court was a natural progression in a career of high achievement," he said.

"Right from his graduation from Auckland University with LLB(Hons) in 1975 it was clear that he was going to make a significant contribution to New Zealand's justice system. As a barrister and Queen's Counsel he was also active in advocating for and representing the interests of the legal profession.

Justice Chambers is survived by his wife Deborah Hollings QC and his two sons, David and Christopher. 

Following his death, the Governor-General, Sir Jerry Mateparae, announced that a knighthood would have been announced for Justice Chambers in the Queen's Birthday Honours List on 3 June 2013.

"Given the special and very sad circumstances, his appointment has taken effect from 20 May 2013," Sir Jerry said.

"As at that date, he is now entitled to be referred to as Sir Robert Chambers, KNZM, QC." 

Sir Jerry said he hoped it was of some comfort to Sir Robert's family, friends and colleagues to know that he had been advised before his death that he was to receive the honour "so that he had the pleasure of knowing that his distinguished service and achievements were to be publicly recognised in this way".

Last updated on the 11th July 2018