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Sir Clinton Roper, 1918 – 1994

Justice Neil Williamson of Christchurch delivered the following eulogy at the funeral of his “judicial father” Sir Clinton Roper who died in March 1994.

Who could capture in words the combination of personal characteristics which made Clin such a loved and respected man?

Yesterday, Nicola summed up her father as a kind man. She said she remembered his big hugs and his singing to her at nights. I would like to talk about that man. In three weeks’ time a special court sitting will provide an opportunity to concentrate on his life in the law but I have found it impossible to avoid some mention of the law because it was an integral part of him.

Perhaps more than most of us Clin was fashioned by the many pressures, strains and events in his life. His long was service/its aftermath/the financial struggles of gaining a qualification/the frustration of not being able to find a suitable job in law and competing with a younger group of graduates/the difficulty of struggling to find accommodation for a wife and two sons/the truly special needs of his family members/facing the loss of his son, John/and his illnesses.

At the time of his appointment as a judge, and when he retired, Clin was described variously as having a broad humanity, a penetrating understanding of people, a patience, a kindness, a careful approach. None of us would disagree with those descriptions – but there was more to Clin than that.

He had a special effect on people. Perhaps it was because he seemed to lack conceit while still maintaining his dignity. He was certainly unassuming and undemanding and he had an absorbing interest in everyone he came in contact with. He loved to catch up on all the gossip. Indeed, his working pattern was to arrive at the office or court early, partly for that purpose. He would chat with others as they arrived and sometimes, when he was desperate for news, would have morning tea with court staff at 9:30, another morning tea with the office staff at 10:30 and coffee with fellow barristers at 11:30. It enabled him to pick up all sorts of information. He referred to this as “going around the traps”.

It is possible that he had discovered these techniques before his legal career started at the age of 26. Clin’s early education was at Addington Primary and Christchurch West District High School (now Hagley Community College). I won’t detail all his early life but start when I first met him.

Clin was then 36. He had joined Raymond Donnelly & Co at the instigation of Peter Mahon with whom he had served during the war. I was 18, the junior law clerk. I remember those years very well. The room I occupied was a little room next to the tearoom. I overheard, and was included in, the discussions which went on. Episodes of The Goon Show were often relived.

Clin, with his background of light opera and drama in Greymouth, had a special knack with voices. Members of the judiciary were not immune from his talents. Indeed when I appeared a few years later as his junior in the Court of Appeal before Sir Alfred North, Sir Alexander Turner and Sir Thaddeus McCarthy I thought they were a parody on the characters I knew so well from the Mahon/Roper oral law reports.

Voice was one of Clin’s special features. It was strong and clear as he told juries of Crown cases. It was warm whenever he talked of Joan, it was light and rather chuckly when he talked of David’s experiments with creepy underwater life or of Nicky’s latest adventures.

Between 1964 and 1968 I was in partnership with him and Jack McKenzie and for part of the time with Brian Fay. My experience during my first year of partnership illustrates Clin’s attitude to money. Just before Christmas, at the end of that first year, the three of us met to discuss what was variously referred to as the “Christmas Dibble” or “Split-up”. The amounts needed for holiday wages and rent were deducted from the credit in the bank. From the balance, I thought I would receive an amount equivalent to my percentage of the partnership. But Clin said: “That’s not enough, you have two small children and a new house. You should have a bit more.” So the division was made on an even basis.

During those years Clin was receiving more and more work. He appeared in a number of leading trials of that time, most of which are stories in themselves. Cases such as the Owen and Mt Hutt killings, the Kernahan frauds, the Lorimer murder. He was able to deal with all the finer points of law that arose but generally he chose to express only the key principles as briefly and clearly as possible. “Just get the facts straight first,” he would say to me. It was one of his trade marks at the bar and on the bench that he resisted the urge to waffle or to pad.

Clin had the ability to grasp the essence of a case quickly and he would sometimes become fidgety while the rest of us trailed behind. It is claimed that he once said to counsel who were stringing out the weak evidence of adultery in an undefended divorce petition: “Move on, Mr So-and-so – the suspense is killing me.”

At about this time (1962-63) his work for the Hohepa Foundation commenced. Joan and he helped other parents to shoulder the tremendous burden of securing a suitable property, obtaining planning consent, and starting and supporting a caring home. At his death he was still Patron of the Hohepa Foundation and also of Crichton Cobbers.

In April 1968 he was appointed a High Court Judge. It was during the same month as the Wahine Disaster. In later years he often joked that many said that the Wahine wasn’t the only disaster that had happened that month. For the first 5 years he worked in Wellington and was one of a team of judges who included Sir Peter Quilliam. They were referred to as the “Boundary Riders” because they spent so much of their time away from their home base.

After returning to Christchurch in 1973, Clin was appointed Chairman of the Parole Board. Not many of you may know this but through his work on the Parole Board he met a “lifer” whom he befriended. This rather bizarre looking man, who had spent some 26 years in prison, was never going to have an application for parole granted. The “lifer” loved the idea of fishing, so Sir Clinton Roper, High Court Judge and Parole Board Chairman, arranged to take him fishing. They went to various fishing spots with Joan providing the refreshments.

Clin’s approach on the Parole Board let to an ongoing role in endeavouring to promote penal reform such as the Salisbury Foundation. Despite the fact that he had been a Crown prosecutor and was an acknowledged expert in criminal cases, Clin had a unique human understanding which enabled him, after his retirement as a High Court Judge, to chair successful and thought-provoking national Commissions of Inquiry into violence and prisons. Many of the recommendations of these Commissions have already been implemented and there is a growing support for their habilitation centre proposals.

Throughout his judicial career Clin was a model for his brother judges and a trend setter for counsel. He was fair, firm, courteous and helpful to young counsel. Litigants who passed through his court felt that justice had been done.

Clin acknowledged a judicial following or family. In 1985 he described David Tompkins and Michael Hardie Boys as his judicial nephews because he had previously called their fathers brother judges. He referred to me as his judicial son because I had followed in his footsteps as Crown Solicitor and High Court Judge.

Retirement was not really an appropriate word for him. Not only did he chair those commissions, he also served as a member of the Fiji Court of Appeal. He was Judge assisting the Privy Council in Tonga and became Chief Justice of the Cook Islands and Niue for 8 years until his resignation in January 1994. From time to time he also acted as a temporary High Court Judge and indeed presided over a 9-day criminal trial in Invercargill in June 1993.

Away from the office and courtroom, Clin had a passion for the outdoor life. I have mentioned his fishing activities. He also enjoyed bush walking and camping with Joan and David, and in later years Christmas tramping with some of his judicial colleagues and their wives. On occasions these tramps were enlivened by Clin’s unique talent for albatross impressions.

I must tell you of his addiction for chain sawing. Although I had had warnings about this, I once casually mentioned at a law society party that I had two troublesome trees on my property. The next Saturday morning at 8 o’clock Clin was on the doorstep, chainsaw in hand. “I might be able to help you with those trees,” he said. By 9 o’clock the trees were in pieces on the lawn and he was asking “Is there anything else?” I then mentioned what I thought was an unrelated problem of some fence posts that needed digging in further because I had miscalculated. “No trouble”, he said and a few minutes later the posts had all been trimmed to the same height.

Clin enjoyed his leisure activities, he pursued his career with dedication; but well above all those things he placed his family. His life, his knighthood and his honours were shared. They were shared for some 46 years with a shy, attractive nurse he met while visiting an aunt at the Christchurch Hospital. In June 1985, when he was interviewed by journalists following the announcement of his knighthood, Sir Clinton said: “I am proud of my wife, she is the one who should be getting the honour, not me.” He told them how hard the life of a judge’s wife was and pointed out that during his 17 years as a High Court Judge he had spent the equivalent of 4 years away on circuit. He said “It takes a good wife to cope with that sort of nonsense.”

As he would wish it, any tribute to him today must also be a tribute to Joan. Their life together has been a wonderful example of true partnership.

The last months have been difficult for him and for Joan but the twinkle in Clin’s eyes did not diminish. Indeed two weeks ago he joked to me about his illnesses and he told me just how expert and caring Joan was in looking after him. It is so hard to lose someone who has improved our world and our lives. His spirit will no doubt continue to be the wind beneath the wings of Joan, David and Juliet, Nicky, Katherine, James and Alexander. On your behalf I express our sympathy to each one of them.

This prayer seems an apt conclusion:

May the Lord support us all the day long,

till the shades lengthen and the evening comes,

and the busy world is hushed,

and the fever of life is over,

and our work is done.

Then in his mercy may he give us a safe lodging,

and a holy rest,

and peace at the last.

Social and Prison Reformer

by John Rowan

The inspired choice of Sir Clinton Roper as the Chairperson of two important National Committees of Inquiry has left the whole nation in his debt. It also led to him being greatly respected in the wider community for his ability, humanity and dignity; qualities which litigants and lawyers had long recognised in his court.

In a real sense his early life experiences, mentorship under Justice Peter Mahon, who curiously he preceded as a judge, and distinguished career as prosecutor, judge and for a long period as a member of the Parole Board, prepared him for the roles by which the public came to know him best.

He was Chairperson of the Ministerial Committee of Inquiry into Violence which sat in 1986 and 1987 before reporting and secondly of the Ministerial Committee into the Prison System, whose report Te Ara Hou: The New Way, was published in 1989. While there had been earlier inquiries into violence and violent offending in 1979 and 1981, there had not been a comprehensive report into the prison system for over 100 years.

Although he chaired both committees, they were constituted and operated in similar ways. They were bicultural. They moved around the country. They solicited opinions and suggestions not just from the supposedly knowledgeable but from users of and participants in the system. Be they professors or criminals, criminal lawyers or chaplains, the views of those who appeared, were interviewed, or made submissions were courteously received in an obviously genuine attempt to draw on the deep wells of knowledge and experience that existed.

Finally, the large volumes of information were sifted and analysed and afterwards formed the basis of clear, concise and practical recommendations for action.

As might be expected, the politicians seized on and implemented those recommendations the electorate was clamouring to hear in relation to violence, longer sentences and stricter criteria for bail and parole. It was the same with recommendations for prison reform and Sir Clinton was upset that the carefully thought-out proposals for habilitation centres – part of a strategy to break the cycle of re-offending – were put to one side. On the other hand, there were successes, reflected, for example, in the Government’s acceptance of the need for special secure units where sex offenders can be made to face the enormity of their crimes and learn to modify their behaviour to break the cycle of further offending.

The whole nation has cause to be grateful for the life and work of Sir Clinton Roper, not just as a fine lawyer and judge, but as a notable social and prison reformer.

These tributes were published in LawTalk 410, April 1994.

Last updated on the 11th May 2012