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Sir Alexander Turner, 1901 - 1993

Sir Alexander Turner, a former President of the Court of Appeal, died in Auckland earlier this month, aged 91.

After his retirement as Court President in 1973, Sir Alexander, KBE, kept a critical eye on government legislation.

Born in Auckland in 1901, he attended Auckland Grammar School and Auckland University before graduating MA in 1922 and LLB in 1923 when he was admitted as a barrister and solicitor to the Supreme Court.

After serving with the Northern Mounted Rifles in New Zealand during World War II, he went on to be appointed a judge of the Supreme Court in 1953, then of the Court of Appeal in 1962, before becoming President of the Court in 1972.

This obituary was first published in LawTalk 397, 26 July 1993, page 2.

Sir Alexander Turner: a truly extraordinary New Zealander

The following eulogy was delivered by Mr Justice Barker at the funeral of Sir Alexander Turner KBE in July

“We gather today to pay tribute to the life of a truly extraordinary New Zealander, Sir Alexander Turner; blessed with a superb intellect, he was a man of great humanity, simple lifestyle, read wit and unfailing courtesy.

His early life has already been mentioned. Like Mr Dugdale, I cannot speak at first hand of Sir Alexander’s career at the bar. Many of his contemporaries in the profession regarded him as a lawyer’s lawyer, who was, nevertheless a fluent and courageous advocate who understood human nature.

He was an intellectual leader in the powerful Auckland bar of the 1940s and 50s. Some of the members of that close-knit bar were to become his judicial colleagues. One of his favourite photographs (which he donated to the Auckland judges’ commonroom) shows him and AK North in barrister’s garb: “That’s the only photograph of Alfred North and me together and in the only case on which we were ever on the same side,” quoth Sir Alexander. The case was one of the many arising out of the waterfront troubles of the post-war period.

Earlier this year, when being driven along the waterfront, he remarked on how the beauty of the Waitemata Harbour had been preserved by the exertions of the late DM Robinson. Sir Alexander’s gift of instant recall was triggered. With economy of language, enhanced by humorous aside, he described a cause celebre of its time – a defamation action involving Mr Robinson and the drainage issue. Sir Alexander recalled verbatim his detailed and technical cross-examination of an expert witness some 45 years before. That tour de force demonstrated with a formidable and brilliant advocate he must have been – one able to master abstruse technical subjects and make them comprehensible to a jury.

Sir Alexander took silk in 1952 along with HP Richmond and LP Leary; the three were said to have been one of the first creations of silk in the reign of the present Monarch.

His appointment to the bench in 1953 was inevitable. After some 2 years’ exile, he became a resident judge in Auckland until his appointment to the Court of Appeal in 1962. As a first instance judge, he expected high standards from counsel. Whilst always kindly, he cold be impatient with the woolly thinker and the unprepared. But for counsel who had made an effort to master the brief, a more helpful judge could not be found. He was equally at ease in criminal or civil cases, with or without a jury.

He amazed the bar by his ability during legal argument to state in a succinct and articulate manner the proposition counsel was endeavouring clumsily to make. One would be momentarily grateful that the judge had absorbed the argument so comprehensively, until Sir Alexander would immediately state the opposing argument with equal clarity. His inauguration of the system of conducting chambers matters in open court was an early and devastatingly effective form of continuing legal education.

On the Court of Appeal, his amazing capacity for critical analysis accompanied by lucid exposition was seen at its best. His written judgments in that forum still enlighten and delight. His presidency of that court whilst relatively brief, underpinned his contribution to the institution.

Mr Dugdale has spoken of Sir Alexander’s so-called retirement. Few would have thought that his career in legal publishing would have lasted almost 20 years. He used personally to visit those whom he deemed worthy of candidate status as Halsbury contributors or text writers. Many of those will now treasure his letters which courteously pointed out blemishes, corrected style and made constructive suggestions. His literary skill enhanced the manuscripts of many authors, at the cost of hours of his time, willingly given in his quest for excellence.

He was one of the most distinguished jurists in New Zealand’s history; “jurist” is a word of highest praise that should be reserved for the few. He combined greatness as a judge with greatness as a legal scholar. He told me recently how he would have liked to have produced another edition of Spencer Bower & Turner on Estoppel. Although further legal writing had not been dismissed from his agenda, he felt that the time had come for a younger author.

Sir Alexander was an Aucklander at heart. He lived here for almost all the first 60 years of his life. He happily spent his last year in Auckland in the loving care of his daughter and grandson. Despite failing mobility, he remained alert, interested, informed and wise to the end.

He loved the old Auckland High Court building which had witnesses so many of his forensic triumphs and disappointments; he was eager to view the restored No 1 Court. On the occasion of his close inspection of that courtroom – no other words are appropriate – the memories came flooding back. He stopped at one point between the dock counsel’s door and announced: “this is the point at which I was thrown out of this courtroom by a policeman who refused to acknowledge that I had a right to be present as a member of the bar during a court sitting.” This incident had occurred during some high profile case in the 1930s. Later, the trial judge had acknowledged his right as a barrister to have been present.

Sir Alexander approved of the new court building and enjoyed meeting what for him was a new team of judges, now increased to 13 from the time when four were responsible for all Supreme Court business north of Taupo. How they coped is hard to imagine.

Sir Alexander’s love of Auckland found a practical outlet in his years of service to the Council of Auckland University College (as it then was). I speak as Chancellor on behalf of the University of Auckland to pay tribute to his contribution to university education over a period of some 16 years. He was at the time of his death the university’s oldest living honorary graduate. He was a president of the Student Association in the 1920s at a time of a golden group of students who later were to make substantial marks worldwide. He retained his interest in the affairs of his university – as he saw it – until his death.

It is almost 50 years since he was largely responsible for purchasing the land on which the university’s sports complex and its Tamaki campus now stand. He was thrilled to see the developing Tamaki campus and to know that his purchase would cater for new generations of students. As a former sportsman, he could not credit that superb playing fields at University Park had been created out of the raw land he had been instrumental in acquiring.

He had also been a member of the council of Massey Agricultural College (as it used to be) and was interested to view Massey University’s new campus at Albany.

We shall miss Sir Alexander’s informed, considered and incisive comment on a range of topics – legal, international and social. No longer shall we be able to wonder at a mind honed by literature, the classics and general learning.

All, in this church, are grateful to have had some part in the life of this truly great New Zealander. We thank God for his long and fruitful life which had enriched our nation and ourselves.

This eulogy was first published in LawTalk 398, 9 August 1993, page 5.

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Last updated on the 11th May 2012