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Philip Brunskill Cooke KC MC, 1893 - 1956

By Sir David Smith

Philip Brunskill Cooke was the glamour boy of the post World War I legal world in Wellington. He was born in 1893 at Palmerston North where his father was Crown Prosecutor. He was educated at Wanganui Collegiate School and at Victoria University College. He inherited a legal mind and a love of the law.

When he qualified as a barrister and solicitor with very high marks he was too young to be admitted. Returning from World War I as a decorated soldier, his record and his style brought him eminence in the younger social world. But he also became Sir Charles Skerrett’s principal assistant on the common law side of a large firm. With his quick and analytical mind and an immense capacity for work he soon gained the reputation of being a “coming man”. He fulfilled his promise and at a youthful age became one of New Zealand’s foremost advocates in banco and in the Court of Appeal.

Jury work was not his forte. His quickness of mind enabled him to see all kinds of possibilities in a case, and on occasion a Judge would think that Philip’s argument was overladen. But his own attitude was, as he once told me, that he could not be sure what argument would or would not appeal to some Judge. Nevertheless, as the years passed he became more selective.

Philip Cooke could have been New Zealand’s youngest judge ever, at 36 years of age. I urged him to seek appointment but there were difficulties. He thought he was too young. He wanted to enjly the independence of practising in due course as a KC. He may possibly have had in mind (as who with his abilities would not?) the thought of the Chief Justiceship. There was also the difficulty that his father was Crown Prosecutor at Palmerston North, and Philip did not wish to create a situation which might have had any invidious consequences. So he declined appointment. He became a KC in 1936 at the age of 43, the youngest ever in New Zealand at the time of appointment until his son displaced his record in 1964.

During World War II Philip gave part-time service for over a year at Army Headquarters and then gave up his practice and served full time for two years as Director of Personal Services. By so doing he joined that select group of lawyers who in order to serve their country voluntarily made a substantial financial sacrifice in the present, and risked the recovery of their practice in the future. But it was characteristic of him to do what he thought he ought to do.

He had great integrity of character. To help a friend he would deny himself. His work for the legal profession reached its height when he became President of the New Zealand Law Society from 1946 to 1950. In the examination of proposed post-war legislation at that time, he rendered very valuable unpaid service which the Government warmly appreciated.

Philip Cooke was appointed to the Bench on 31 March 1950. He served devotedly until he was stricken with a fatal illness and he died on 11 November 1956 aged 63.

Philip’s physical bearing was always upright and purposeful. His speech was crisp and clear, never halting. In his younger days he did not suffer fools gladly and sometimes his manner conveyed a sense of conscious superiority. But with the years he mellowed and his friendliness, garnished with his distinctive gaiety and wit, made him warmly welcome wherever he went. He could be the life of a party.

Outside the law he gave good service, with his wife who was his unfailing helpmeet, to the Plunket Society. He was interested in art and in gardening. He was fond of animals. I once had to find for him in London a book on the Dalmatian because there was none available in New Zealand. He enjoyed golf and tennis. He and Wilfrid Leicester and I belonged with others to a small group organised by Siegfried Eichelbaum which, during the 1930s and 1940s, played tennis on Sunday mornings. We were a merry, friendly group.

All who knew Philp Cooke will retain a memory of him which is clear-cut and deeply and affectionately engraved. He exemplified the definition of the beauty of life which at the close of his autobiography The Summing Up Somerset Maugham adopted from the 16th century Spanish philosopher, Luis de Leon, in these words: “The beauty of life, he says, is nothing but this, just that each should act in conformity with his nature and his business.

This was originally published in Portrait of a Profession, edited RB Cooke QC (New Zealand Law Society, 1969), pages 130 to 132.

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Last updated on the 15th October 2018