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Rt Hon Sir Thomas Gault KNZM, 1938 - 2015

By Geoff Adlam

Sir Thomas Gault died in Auckland on 19 May 2015 aged 76. His contribution to New Zealand’s legal system was significant. A successful career as a prominent legal practitioner with expertise in commercial and competition law and intellectual property was followed by nearly two decades as a highly respected member of the judiciary. This culminated in his appointment as one of the establishment members of the Supreme Court.

Sir Thomas was born in Wellington on 31 October 1938. His parents were Thomas Gordon and Evelyn Jane (nee Paulmeir) Gault. His father was a mechanical engineer and Tom, as he was known, had three older siblings. His father died when Tom was aged two.

He attended Paraparaumu Primary School and Wellington College before going to Victoria University College in 1956 to study law. While at university he worked as a clerk at the Land Transfer Office. Sir Thomas was active in student affairs and sports, particularly golf.

Graduating LLB in 1961, Sir Thomas was admitted to the bar in 1962. He continued to study, and completed an LLM in 1963. That year he also sat and passed his exams to become a registered Patent Attorney. He joined the intellectual property firm AJ Park & Son in 1961, becoming a partner shortly after. His work at the firm gave him a strong background in competition and commercial law as well as intellectual property.

He married Barbara Pauline Stewart in 1963 and the couple had one son.

Sir Thomas went into practice as a barrister sole in 1981 and he was appointed Queen’s Counsel on 14 June 1984.

His judicial career began in December 1987 when he was appointed a Judge of the High Court. In February 1991 he was appointed to the Court of Appeal and he became President on 24 May 2002, succeeding Sir Ivor Richardson. He was appointed a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2001 New Year’s Honours, for services as a judge of the Court of Appeal.

Legal historian Peter Spiller says Sir Thomas was respected as a scrupulous and independent-minded judge.

“Gault J showed a fine analytical mind keen to discern the logic of the submissions presented to him. His logical insight enabled him to see artificialities and contradictions in argument and to cut through at times extensive argument to the precise issues at stake,” he writes in New Zealand Court of Appeal 1958 to 1996: A History (Brookers Ltd, Wellington, 2002, page 189).

Dr Spiller says that in the hearing of cases Sir Thomas was a courteous judge, open to persuasion.

“However, he was not averse to speaking his mind on matters of which he disapproved in the conduct of litigants and counsel.”

Sir Thomas believed that a judge was expected to bring to any decision a full understanding of the relevant law and its practical application distilled from adversarial presentation, a degree of detachment, a logical approach, and reasoning with intellectual honesty, Dr Spiller says (at page 190).

In 2003 Sir Thomas was one of the judges appointed to the newly-established Supreme Court. The court began sitting in 2004 and he was a member of the court until his retirement in 2006, although he continued to sit occasionally as a temporary Judge.

His expertise and standing in the field of commercial law was recognised with his role as Consulting Editor of the legal text Gault on Commercial Law (published by Thomson Reuters). 

Sir Thomas was appointed a Non-Permanent Judge of the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal in 2006. A statement by the Hong Kong Judiciary says he made important contributions to case law as a member of the Court.

"Each of the members in the Court of Final Appeal, past and present, fondly remembers him as a convivial colleague and holds him in the highest regard as a jurist," the statement says. 

Outside the law Sir Thomas was known for his love of golf. He won the New Zealand Universities Championship in 1958 and was awarded golf Blues by Victoria University of Wellington and the University of New Zealand. From 1987 to 1996 he was President of the New Zealand Golf Association.

Sir Thomas joined The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews in 1994. In September 2005 he became the first New Zealander to be club captain, for the 2005-2006 year. A member of the Royal Auckland Golf Club he was made a Life Member of New Zealand Golf.

Attorney-General Christopher Finlayson says he is saddened by the death of Sir Thomas.

“Sir Thomas was one of the great leaders of the New Zealand legal profession. He was a distinguished member of the judiciary and a highly respected practitioner, particularly in the areas of intellectual property and competition law,” Mr Finlayson says.

“One can look back at the life and career of Sir Thomas and see that his contribution to this country in a number of fields was outstanding. On behalf of the Government, I extend my deepest sympathies to his wife Barbara, his son Ian and other members of his family.”

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Last updated on the 3rd August 2017