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Lord Cooke of Thorndon, 1926 - 2006

Robin Brunskill Cooke, Lord Cooke of Thorndon, the only New Zealand judge to have sat in the House of Lords, died in Wellington on the night of 30-31 August 2006.

Considered by many to be New Zealand's greatest jurist, Lord Cooke was made a life peer in 1996 and a Privy Councillor in 1997. He was the first Commonwealth judge to sit in the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords.

"Lord Cooke was a great New Zealander," the Chief Justice, Dame Sian Elias, said at his funeral service in the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul on 4 September.

photo of Lord Cooke
Lord Robin Cooke.

"No judge in my lifetime performed a greater role for the New Zealand judicial profession," she said. "His impact on New Zealand law has been immense. There is no area of law that his judgments did not touch."

At the time Lord Cooke came to the bench in 1972, judgments in New Zealand were almost slavishly reliant on the precedents set in England – but that was something Justice Cooke had a major hand in changing.

He was, in fact, a key to the development of a unique New Zealand jurisprudence, the Chief Justice said, describing Lord Cooke as the finest judge New Zealand had produced.

The son of Supreme Court judge Justice Philip Cooke and his wife, Valmai, Lord Cooke was born in Wellington on 9 May 1926. He attended Wellesley College and Wanganui Collegiate School and graduated from Victoria University with an LLM in 1949. He also studied at Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge, gaining an MA in 1954 and a PhD a year later.

Robin Cooke was admitted in 1950 and practised as a barrister for almost 20 years.

His father had been the youngest barrister in New Zealand to take silk, a record that was slashed by Robin when he was appointed a QC at the age of 38 in 1964.

In 1972 he was appointed a judge of the former Supreme Court (now the High Court) and moved to the Court of Appeal bench in 1976, serving as president from 1986 until he was granted a British life peerage 10 years later.

He also sat (from time to time) as president in the Courts of Appeal of Samoa, the Cook Islands and Kiribati, as well as being a non-permanent judge on the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal and a judge of the Fijian Supreme Court, where he served from 1997 until this year.

In 2002, Lord Cooke was made a member of the Order of New Zealand, an honour open to only 20 living New Zealanders at any time. He was made a Knight Bachelor in 1977 and a Knight Commander of the British Empire (KBE) in 1986.

He was awarded three honorary law doctorates – an LLD from Victoria University in 1989, an LLD from Cambridge University in 1990 and a DCL (Doctor of Civil Law) from Oxford University in 1991.

In 1952 he married Annette Miller and the couple had three sons – Philip, Christopher and Francis Cooke QC.

A prolific writer, especially well known for his written (as well as oral) judgments and his contributions to law journals, Robin Cooke edited Portrait of a Profession – the centennial book of the New Zealand Law Society, published by AH & AW Reed in 1969.

Tribute at final sitting on Privy Council

Lord Cooke's last appearance on the Board of the Privy Council in London was in the New Zealand case McGuire v Hastings District Council [2002] 2 NZLR 577. This considered the powers of the Māori Land Court under the Resource Management Act 1991. Lord Cooke delivered the decision on 1 November 2001. This upheld the Court of Appeal's decision that the Māori Land Court did not have jurisdiction to injunct a local authority from embarking upon the exercise or intended exercise of statutory powers conferred by the RMA. The Privy Council said it was satisfied that Māori land rights were adequately protected by the RMA.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Mark von Dadelszen appeared for the Hastings District Council, and Paul Majurey and (later Justice) Christian Whata for the appellants. Mr von Dadelszen obtained a transcript of the remarks made during the proceedings on 10 May 2001 to mark Lord Cooke's last appearance. Some excerpts follow:

Sir Geoffrey Palmer

"We New Zealand lawyers feel grateful and humble that we can be here on this occasion. New Zealand is a small country, My Lords, but there are those who love her, and His Lordship is one of them. He has served the bulk of his career in New Zealand when a man of his talents could easily have served it elsewhere in larger places, but he elected to serve for many years as a New Zealand judge and his contribution to New Zealand has been of inestimable value.

"My Lords, at this point it must be recognised that Lord Cooke is the greatest judge that New Zealand has produced and his qualities have been recognised far beyond New Zealand's shores.

"My Lords, it has been a glittering legal career. Lord Cooke has always been able to see the human and social consequences of legal rules and not to be afraid to be robust and bold on occasion. Lord Cooke's contribution to the law and to life will live in the pages of the Law Reports forever and there are some jurisdictions who are fortunate enough to be able to continue receiving his judicial services because they don't have these retirement laws that infect some countries including New Zealand and (it seems), the United Kingdom, though the age here is a little higher.

"I have been asked by the New Zealand Law Society on this occasion to say on their behalf the following: 'Christine Grice, the President of the Law Society, wishes to say that the Society itself and the legal profession as a whole join with these remarks that I have made. Lord Cooke's long and distinguished career as a lawyer, judge and jurist is recognised justifiably and warmly by us all as extraordinary and unsurpassed'.

"I have also been asked to convey the following message to Your Lordships by the Attorney-General of New Zealand, The Honourable Margaret Wilson. She says, and I quote: 'Lord Cooke has made a seminal contribution to the development of New Zealand jurisprudence at a critical time in the development of New Zealand's nationhood'."

Paul Majurey

"He is a mountain of a man in our country ... It's somewhat of a humbling experience to convey the appreciation and the love of the Māori people to Lord Cooke. His is a lofty position in the world of Māoridom. One needs only think of the famous cases of the New Zealand Māori Council, the Māori Trust Board and his judgment in the broadcasting case; and on a personal note as a very young junior counsel - Lord Cooke wouldn't probably remember - of the famous Kerekere case, a case of some moment to Māori in the Court of Appeal. Those cases are a testament to the shining light that this individual has been in our country. There was many a tear that fell when Lord Cooke left our shores and brought his skills to this country."

Lord Bingham of Cornhill

"He is very easily the longest serving member of this Board, having sat on the Judicial Committee since 1978 shortly after his appointment to the Court of Appeal of New Zealand. Happily we have been privileged to welcome him on very many occasions since then and we have valued more than I can say his erudition which has marked him out as one of the outstanding jurists of the common law world; and we valued also his long and broad experience, his humane and radical visition, his commitment and his youthful zest for the case in hand. I think it is true of Lord Cooke as it is of every legal addict that his pulse still quickens as he opens a new bundle of papers.

"We've enormously valued him as a colleague, never backward in forming or expressing opinions but never seeking to overbear or dominate as a man of lesser quality with his record of achievement might have been tempted to do so."

Part of this obituary was first published in LawTalk 674, 18 September 2010.

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Last updated on the 17th June 2020