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Noel Kelly QSO JP LLM, 1922 - 2012

By Chris Ryan

Noel KellyIn a flyer for the fifth edition of Garrow and Kelly’s Law of Trusts and Trustees, Noel Kelly was described (evidently on the authority of Sir Alexander Turner) as one of the greatest living authorities on the law of trusts in New Zealand. Noel made a significant contribution to the law – as a senior Public Trust lawyer, as Public Trustee, as author of Garrow & Kelly and as chair of several statutory boards including the Social Security Appeal Authority.

He appeared in a number of important reported and unreported cases in the area of wills, trust and estate administration. Many lawyers will be familiar with the Marshall clause which is still used today in many trust documents. The basis for this clause is the Court of Appeal decision in re Marshall [1965] NZLR 851 in which Noel appeared. Although successful in that case, in later years Noel expressed doubts about the correctness of the decision.

Noel Kelly was born on 23 December 1922. He grew up in the then working class area of Ponsonby/Grey Lynn before it became the desirable and gentrified inner city area of today. Following his education at Richmond Road Primary School and Auckland Grammar School, he applied to join the public service at the suggestion of an uncle who had a senior position at the Public Trust Office in Wellington. He started work as a cadet in the legal section in the Public Trust Office in Auckland in 1939 and began studying law part -time at Auckland University.

As with many of his generation, his studies were interrupted by the Second World War. After initial training in the army, he volunteered for the air force and was trained as a navigator in New Zealand and Canada. He was stationed in Britain, initially in North Wales, and saw service with Bomber Command. One of Noel’s favourite stories was the time he and the other members of his flight crew managed to create a diplomatic incident by “accidentally” flying over Dublin. After repeated nights of looking for submarines over the Irish Sea, the crew had decided to make a small detour over neutral Irish territory. They were soon noticed and the Irish defence forces made it clear their presence was not welcome. As the navigator on the flight it fell to Noel to talk his way out of the ensuing inquiry, which he successfully did – a good lawyer can always think on his feet.

Returning to New Zealand at the end of the war, he continued with his law studies and his work at the Public Trust Office, despite still recovering from serious illness he had contracted on the voyage home. After completing his LLB, Noel received a scholarship to complete an LLM. He was admitted to the bar on 7 May 1948.

Around this time he had met his future wife, Joan, and they were married in 1952. The couple initially lived in Tauranga before Noel’s Public Trust career took him back to Auckland. In the late 1950s he took up a short appointment as Attorney-General for Western Samoa. For six months he was the territory’s chief law officer and law draftsman, and held cabinet rank.

In 1962 he joined the group of legal specialists in the Public Trust’s head office in Wellington and the family settled in Upper Hutt.

His association with what was then called Garrow’s Law of Trusts and Trustees began with the third edition in 1966. Two other authors had started it but made little progress. Noel was sole author of the fourth and fifth editions, and the sixth edition was completed with his sons Chris and Greg in 2005.

At the Public Trust Office he progressed from a specialist legal role to senior management. He was appointed Assistant Public Trustee in 1966 and was Public Trustee from 1976 to 1981. He was awarded the Queen’s Service Order in 1982. For Noel, one of the best things about working at Public Trust was the wide circle of friends he made. Wherever he travelled in New Zealand, he had friends at the local Public Trust branch.

Having known several senior public servants who had died within a few years of retirement, Noel was determined to ensure he had a good long retirement, a goal that he achieved. As an active man, he searched for worthwhile things to do in many spheres of public service. His thirty years of retirement included a stint with a Lower Hutt law firm, appointments as chair of the Social Security Appeal Authority and of a number of public sector staff appeal boards, and finally as legal adviser to the Perpetual Trust Company.

In more recent years he was a member of the Board of MedicAlert Foundation in New Zealand from which he retired as chair in 2001. He also found time for the many other things that were important to him: his church, rugby – he remained a one-eyed Auckland supporter – service organisations such as Probus and above all, his family.

Noel is survived by his wife Joan – sadly his death on 7 February 2012 was just two weeks before their sixtieth wedding anniversary – five sons, one daughter, 15 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His two eldest sons and his daughter Helen have all followed him into the law.

This obituary was first published in Council Brief, February 2012.

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Last updated on the 26th July 2018