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Sir Charles Perrin Skerrett KC, KCMG, 1863 - 1929

By Sir David Smith

Sir Charles Perrin Skerrett was the fifth Chief Justice of New Zealand and the third President of the New Zealand Law Society. George Barton's biography in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography says Skerrett was born in India on 2 September 1863 and arrived in New Zealand in 1875. After initially working as a telegraph messenger he became a clerk in Wellington Resident Magistrate's Court and then an articled law clerk to Hugh Gully in 1881. He was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court on 5 September 1884.

Skerrett became a partner at Brown, Skerrett and Dean in 1887, and started practising in partnership with Andrew Wylie in 1892. A series of mergers saw him become the senior partner in Chapman, Skerrett, Wylie and Tripp. He was among the first group of New Zealand lawyers to be appointed King's Counsel in 1907 and became President of the New Zealand Law Society in 1918, serving in that role until 1926.

On 1 February 1926 Skerrett was appointed Chief Justice and made a KCMG. Illness meant he was unable to carry out judicial duties for much of 1928 and he died on 13 February 1929 of a cerebral haemorrhage while en route to England.

Supreme Court Judge Sir David Smith delivered the following speech at the Wellington District Law Society's Centennial Function at Old Saint Paul's in 1981. The speech was printed in the July 1983 issue of the Wellington District Law Society's monthly newsletter, Council Brief.

MY  knowledge  of  Charles  Perrin  Skerrett ... began in 1907. He was of medium height and build. Perhaps because his father had been a soldier, Charles had developed a decisive walk. He stretched each leg out in front of him a little more than is usual before planting his foot firmly on the ground. This element of decisiveness appeared also in his handwriting. Each stroke of the pen  was stark and clear and each word was clearly separated from the next by a quarter of an inch and often more. His head was round, his face slightly bronzed and his voice, I would say, a pleasant baritone. His eyes were blue and lighted up his face, except when they gave evidence of an occasional revel, when they could be bloodshot  or bleary.

He was, indeed, reputed to be a boon companion but of that side of him, apart from his subsequent facial appearance, I had  no personal knowledge.

His manners were usually very good, except when a social activity had strained him, when he could be less than pleasant. Like [Sir Francis Dillon] Bell he was not averse to that epithet "bloody".

I suffered once myself. In the early 1920s, a large number of farmers in the Waikato and the Bay of Plenty brought action to cancel their  contracts  to  take shares in a large bacon company. Skerrett  was for the defence and  I was  his junior. The evidence for most of the plaintiffs was taken on commission and I cross-examined them. Later I was asked to attend to Skerrett's office on a public holiday  and brief him on the extensive evidence. When I met him, I was alarmed to see the signs of previous revelry on his countenance. However, I thought ·the cross-exam­inations had been successful, as indeed they were, because they led to the discontinuance of the action before trial. So I proceeded with a fluent, earnest exposition of the evidence. Part of the way through there came across the table, sotto voce but easily apprehended by me, the remark,  "I never heard such a bloody lot of talk in my life". Well, it wasn't pleasant, but he had probably read the evidence and was, half-automatically, easing the strain of his hangover. We parted amicably.

On social occasions, such as dinner parties, weddings and the like, he could speak with charm and include some fresh, unusual and amusing comments.Befitting his land-owning ancestry, his recreations were the field-sports of polo, hunting, racing, fishing and shooting. They inspired the qualities of fairness and the "playing the game", of which he was such an admirable exponent. The first part of May was reserved for his shooting and even appearing in the Court of Appeal took second place to that commitment.

He was a very hard worker. After he went from Sydney Street West to reside at Lowry Bay, about 1910, I think, he used, at one time, to be driven to the Lower Hutt railway station and then take the railway to Wellington. I have known him to use  even  the train journey to help him to prepare an argument  of the Court of Appeal. Mentally, he had extremely quick comprehension. He put the facts of a case in strict chronological order and thereby perceived relationships that might otherwise have been hidden. He had superb judgment, saw the wood equally with the trees, and knew with surety when to move  to settle a case rather than fight it out. He was not a scholar. When on the bench, he wrote clear, orderly judgments, without ornament and without always taking  the trouble to avoid  the split  infinitive.

Morally, in  addition  to his  sportsmanship, he had a regard of his own for the public weal. Though he was closely associated professionally with the liquor trade. I am sure he deplored its mischiefs. His legal divising, in 1923, of New Zealand Breweries, merging 10 small breweries, was designed, inter alia, to avoid the excessive sums which the competing breweries paid for the goodwill of hotels as  trade outlets, thereby inducing pressure to sell liquor, legally and illegally, in order to recoup the expense. His scheme had success until Dominion Breweries arose seven years later and the competition of the giants wrecked his hopes. He also helped to found the New Zealand Welfare League and become its president with the object of improving the conduct of the trade. On the other hand, his love of liberty for the individual made him  a strong  opponent of Prohibition.

Perhaps because his own formal education was limited, he desired to help the education of the poor. He founded an educational charity,  the annual income of which is distributed to New Zealand educational charities with the proviso that two-thirds of it must go to those connected with the Roman Catholic Church.

He become Chief Justice in January 1927. After the Samoan Commission of that year, over which he presided with great despatch, he suffered from thromobsis leading to gangrene in the legs and it was extremely  painful. When I saw him in hospital, after both legs had been amputated, he told me he could never again go through the agony he had suffered.

What then did the future hold for him?  He had never married. His hostess had been his sister, Mary. His field-sport recreations were useless to him. He had no satisfying artistic or other cultural interests. He had only the intellectual interest of the law. So, with great courage, he resolved to continue to work as Chief Justice. A ramp was built for his wheelchair at the Judges' entrance to the Supreme Court. A lift was to be installed at the back  of  the main courtroom. Before he resumed his seat, however, he took a sea voyage for recuperation. He died at sea in February 1929, aged 65, and was buried in a far-off London cemetery.

Skerrett was a gallant man of strong personality, beloved by his friends, learned in the law,  most  skilful in any branch of advocacy and  invaluable to his clients. His time on the bench was too short to permit him to make his mark as a Judge and, in my view, he had no important influence on New Zealand's history. In the future, his name will recall, mainly for the New Zealand legal profession, not  only an advocate of the foremost rank but also, as emphasised so dramatically by his last plans for his life, a man  of  magnificent  courage.

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Last updated on the 22nd March 2016