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Martyn Finlay QC, 1912 - 1999

The man who created what is now known as the Disputes Tribunal and instigated the duty solicitor scheme, fomer Attorney-General and Minister of Justice Dr Martyn Finlay QC, died in January 1999 aged 87.

Allan Martyn Finlay was born in Dunedin on 1 January 1912. He attended Otago Boys' High School and then Otago university, where he graduated LLB in 1934 and then LLM with first class honours in 1936. Dr Michael Bassett, in a later tribute, said Martyn (as he was known) chose law because he could clerk for a Dunedin law firm while studying. During his time at Otago University he worked as a law clerk for Adams Brothers. He was admitted to the bar in 1935.

After completing his LLM he was awarded a New Zealand Travelling Scholarship in Law, which he used to attend London School of Economics where he was awarded a PhD in 1938. He also attended Harvard Law School, where he was a Resident Fellow from 1938 to 1939.

Dr Bassett says Martn Finlay met student leaders from around the Commonwealth while in London.

"Here he got his first taste for politics, working on Edith Summerskill's celebrated by-election campaign in 1937, then travelling to Prague in the summer of 1937 as well as working for a month or two with the League of Nations secretariat." (Michael Bassett, Hon Dr Allen Martyn Finlay, 1969, www.michaelbassett.co.nz).

Martyn Finlay returned to New Zealand in 1939 and worked as private secretary to Cabinet Ministers Rex Mason and Arnold Nordmeyer over the next few years. In 1943 he moved to Auckland to stand for Parliament for the Labour Party in the Remeura electorate. He did not win and moved back into legal practice,setting up a firm in central Auckland. That firm was initially AM Finlay, then Finlay and Shieff and finally Shieff, Angland and Dew. Martyn Finlay's areas of practice were in company law, industrial law and criminal law, but his legal career ultimately took second place to his career as a politician.

He was 33 when he first entered Parliament in 1946 representing the North Shore electorate, but he lost the seat in the 1949 election. Returning to law, Dr Bassett says "he became embroiled in several high profile criminal cases and a murder case which he lost, resulting in a hanging. To his dying day Finlay was an opponent of capital punishment, a cause to which he added divorce law reform (his own divorce in the 1950s was particularly fraught), homosexual, and abortion law reform."

After becoming president of the Labour Party in 1960 (until 1964), Martyn Finlay returned to Parliament as the member for Waitakere in 1963. He was to hold the seat (which later became known as Henderson) until his retirement in 1978.

He was Attorney-General and Minister of Justice in the third Labour Government from 1972 to 1975. He represented New Zealand in the World Court in The Hague in 1973 to present the case against French nuclear testing in the Pacific (being appointed Queen's Counsel) and was responsible for much of the work behind the Matrimonial Property Act 1976.

While he was Minister of Justice changes included a review of the Police Offences Act 1927 (finally replaced by the Summary Offences Act 1981), enactment of the Matrimonial Property Act 1976 and reform of the used motor vehicle sales industry.

On his retirement from Parliament in 1978 Martyn Finlay returned to the law, and practised as a barrister until 1988. In 1984 he investigated the Picton railway workers’ dispute and from 1984 to 1985 the Whangarei Refinery expansion industrial relations dispute.

A shorter version of this obituary was first published in LawTalk 513, 15 February 1999, page 4.

Last updated on the 14th January 2013