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Rt Hon Sir Ronald Keith Davison GBE CMG QC, 1920 - 2015

By Geoff Adlam

Sir Ronald Davison died in Auckland on 2 July 2015 aged 94. As the last Chief Justice to be appointed directly from the Bar, Sir Ronald moved from being one of the country's best barristers to earn widespread respect as leader of the judiciary. He was known as an extremely capable judge and judicial administrator.

Ron, as he was known, was born at Kaponga on 16 November 1920. His father, Joseph James Davison, was a grocer and served in World War I.

He was educated at Te Kuiti District High School before attending Auckland University in 1937 where he studied law. World War II intervened in his education and from 1940 to 1945 he served in both the Army (where he achieved the rank of Lieutenant) and the Royal New Zealand Air Force as a Flying Officer.

Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias says Sir Ronald was one of the last remaining members of the New Zealand judiciary who had served in the Second World War.

"Perhaps this background influenced his strongly held belief in the importance of protecting the legal rights of individuals and minority groups, and that the judiciary must strive to remain in tune with responsible public opinion," she says.

Sir Ronald completed his LLB after the War and was admitted as a barrister and solicitor in 1948. He started work with the firm Milne, Meek and Davison, where he was a partner from 1948 to 1953. He started practising as a barrister in 1953. His skill and standing was recognised when he was appointed Queen's Counsel on 16 June 1963.

He married Jacqueline May Carr in 1948 and they had a daughter, Verity, and two sons, Paul and the late David.

Active in the legal profession, Sir Ronald was President of the Auckland District Law Society and a member of the New Zealand Law Society Council. He also chaired the Legal Aid Board and was a member of the Torts and General Law Reform Committee. His service to the law was recognised when he was appointed Companion to the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in the 1975 Queen's Birthday Honours.

In 1978 at the age of 57 he was appointed Chief Justice straight from the Bar, as was the practice at the time. He was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Civil Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire on 11 February and Sir Ronald Davison was sworn in on 17 February 1978 as New Zealand's 10th Chief Justice. He was also appointed to the Privy Council in that year.

At the time of his appointment he was second most senior QC in New Zealand. He was well known in the courts and for his work as an arbitrator in the commercial and environmental fields. As an advocate he was known for his heavy workload and the fluency of his oratory.

Sir Ronald was the last Chief Justice to be appointed directly from the Bar. Sir Thomas Eichelbaum, who succeeded him in 1989, was a sitting judge and this continued with the appointment of High Court Judge Dame Sian Elias as Chief Justice on Sir Thomas' retirement.

"Circumstances as they now exist make it extremely difficult for a person to be appointed directly from the Bar with no previous experience of judicial work or of judicial administration," he remarked at the swearing in of Sir Thomas. He also noted his delight to be the first retiring Chief Justice to administer the oath of allegiance to his successor. All previous appointees had been sworn in by a Judge of the High Court.

He did not take long to make his mark as leader of New Zealand's judiciary. In June 1978 he announced abandonment of the practice whereby the Chief Justice allocated judicial work. The new system established four districts, each controlled by an Executive Judge.

"One of my particular concerns at the moment is the number of commercial cases which are being delayed for lengthy periods of time to the detriment of the various commercial concerns involved," he said in a letter to the President of the New Zealand Law Society.

The changes were an outcome of a 1978 Royal Commission on the Courts, headed by Sir David Beattie. Many of the "Beattie Report" recommendations were implemented over the next year and some were significant. Magistrates' Courts were renamed as District Courts and Stipendiary Magistrates became District Court Judges with increased jurisdiction and empowered to conduct jury trials. The Supreme Court was renamed the High Court. In 1980 there was a further major change with the establishment of Family Courts. Sir Ronald showed his abilities as a judicial administrator by ensuring the changes were implemented seamlessly and with the judiciary's acceptance.

Other changes during Sir Ronald's time as Chief Justice included the introduction of Masters (now Associate Judges) in the High Court, establishment of the Commercial List, expansion of the number of High Court and Court of Appeal judges, a settled procedure for appointing Queen's Counsel, and the introduction of new High Court Rules in 1985.

Legal historian Peter Spiller says that during his time as Chief Justice Sir Ronald fostered a harmonious relationship between the High Court and the Court of Appeal. He promoted a number of measures to respond to the appellate court's growing workload.

"Davison CJ thought it would be wrong, when a permanent Court of Appeal with a President had been established, for the Chief Justice to sit in the court to create or influence the court's policy and principles. Throughout his term as Chief Justice, he did not try to impose his views on the Court of Appeal or to affect the way that the court applied or developed the law." (Peter Spiller, New Zealand Court of Appeal 1958-1996, Brookers Ltd, pages 26-27).

As a Judge he soon became known for his ability to write succinct and accessible judgments. An early example is in his comments in Re Porirua Rugby Football Club [1979] 2 NZLR 673 (at 684) when he distinguished the decision by FB Adams J in Police v Merivale Football Club [1958] NZLR 388:

"The learned Judge concluded his decision with a cri de coeur by saying: 'I may perhaps be permitted to add that the attention of the Legislature might well be drawn to the desirability of providing a clear definition of "social gatherings".'

"That cry will no doubt be echoed by those who have to interpret the present legislation."

His decisions have also stood through the decades. In Worsdale v Polglase [1981] NZLR 722 he delivered the first decision on the new Contractual Remedies Act 1979, holding that a deposit of 10% was not regarded as being penal in nature.

Judge John Cadenhead has observed that Sir Ronald was a very courteous man with a distinguished appearance. In Court Sir Ronald was noted for his attentiveness and patience.

"I had one long trial in front of him and he enabled all counsel and witnesses to get through a difficult and arduous experience with a minimum of stress. He had a fiercely independent spirit and was a very fair Judge," Judge Cadenhead says (Law Stories, LexisNexis NZ Ltd, 2003, page 65.

Former Court of Appeal President Sir Alexander Turner said Davison CJ brought to his chief justiceship the respect due as a former leader at the bar and the advantage of a relaxed, obliging, and collegial manner.

"I appeared before Sir Ronald many times and will always remember his thoughtfulness and courtesy," Attorney-General Christopher Finlayson says.

He could be stern when necessary. In 1985 Sir Ronald sentenced failed French spies Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur to 10 years in jail for their role in destroying the Rainbow Warrior. "People who come to this country and commit terrorist activities cannot expect to have a short holiday at the expense of our Government and return home as heroes," he said, memorably summing up the mood of the nation. 

Sir Ronald retired as Chief Justice on 5 February 1989. In a special Wellington High Court sitting on 3 February 1989, Attorney-General Sir Geoffrey Palmer said while Sir Ronald would not claim credit for the many changes that had occurred in the courts, he had been involved in all of them "either advocating the change or agreeing with it and supporting its introduction when an obscurantist approach could have slowed the pace of development."

Sir Geoffrey also paid tribute to Sir Ronald's "easy relaxed unruffled" manner: "Chief Justices have sometimes gruff and forbidding figures. It was a pleasure to deal with you."

After his retirement he came to public attention in 1994 when he was appointed to chair the "Winebox" inquiry into the Cook Islands tax haven and allegations of corruption in the Inland Revenue Department and the Serious Fraud Office. While he found there was no fraud or incompetence, the findings were challenged in several court actions. One, involving the conflict of laws between New Zealand and the Cook Islands, went all the way to the Privy Council (Brannigan v Sir Ronald Davison [1991] 1 NZLR 140).

Another, Peters v Davison [1999] 2 NZLR 164 (CA) sought to challenge parts of the inquiry report and resulted in some declarations (in Peters v Davison [1999] 3 NZLR 744) that four of the findings were invalid through error of law. The High Court pointed out (at 96) that the Winebox report remained otherwise unaffected.

Sir Ronald also chaired the inquiry in 1992 into the Electricorp power crisis and another inquiry in 1994 into the circumstances where a father had killed his children. His findings resulted in changes to child protection legislation.

New Zealand Law Society President Chris Moore says Sir Ronald was highly respected by all during his tenure as Chief Justice.

"New Zealand's court system changed noticeably during the 1980s when he led the judiciary. Sir Ronald oversaw major restructuring of the courts just after his appointment, and as he retired another lengthy review was nearing completion. Throughout, Sir Ronald ensured that the changes were understood and implemented with buy-in from the judiciary and the legal profession," Mr Moore says.

"As a Judge Sir Ronald was well-known for his fairness and ability to ensure all lawyers who appeared before him were given his full attention and their arguments were heard with respect. He went from a career as one of the leaders of the Bar to the leader of the judiciary and was highly successful in both fields."

Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias says Sir Ronald helped bring New Zealand's justice system into the modern era.

"Sir Ronald's contribution to the New Zealand legal landscape was immense, and his legacy continues to be experienced by anyone coming into contact with today's court processes."

Last updated on the 26th June 2017