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Sir Desmond Sullivan, 1920 – 1996

by Judge Fergus Paterson

Sir Desmond Sullivan died unexpectedly but peacefully at his home in Whites Line East, Lower Hutt, on 7 September 1996 aged 76 years. He and Lady (Phyl) Sullivan had moved there from their family home in Seatoun Heights when he retired in 1985. Their lovely bush style garden into which they invested so many daily hours had been part of the Hayward Estate.

Des, as we all knew him, was from South Canterbury, brought up by a widowed mother. Educated by Marist Brothers and at Timaru Boys’ High School. He worked first at the Public Trust Office, Christchurch, and studied law pre- and post-War at Canterbury University. He was a dedicated student as I can verify having purchased many of his texts and notes secondhand.

A short period of army service in New Zealand was followed by navy service overseas 1940-45 including secondment to American Forces in the Pacific (radar) and Royal Navy in Europe (HMS Belfast).

Upon his return as a petty officer he completed his degree and importantly married Phyllis Mahon whom he had met in Auckland at a Services Club. Phyl was a legal secretary. They moved to Westport in 1949 and he purchased the practice of MB Scully who had been appointed a magistrate.

Ben Scully was an influence in many lives, a larger than life character, loved and respected as a Wellington magistrate for many years. He became Des’s mentor and “father figure”, so it was not surprising that after some subsequent years of sole practice at Palmerston North, Des joined Ben in Wellington as a magistrate and linked up again with Jim (Sir James) Wicks of Public Trust association.

Close (and useful) friendships formed at Palmerston North (and Foxton Beach for relaxation) included Joe Walding, Trevor de Cleene, Brian (Sir Brian) Elwood and Joe (Sir Joseph) Ongley.

As a magistrate Des was noted for his quiet manner with a strong sense of fairness and as his children have said, a believer in giving a second chance. He would have supported the police diversion scheme which has operated so well in our criminal courts since his time. He had an active mind and it is interesting to note that in the twilight of his bench career he studied criminology at Victoria University.

He and his wife were always devout members of their Church and dedicated parents to a large and successful family (including three lawyers – Anne McMurtrie, Christchurch; Gerard, Napier; and Phillipa, Auckland) and the grandchildren – Des told me they had set up a trust fund from his pension capitalisation to help with costs of their education.

By the time of the Beattie Commission on the Courts Des was number 2 magistrate in Wellington (and Jim Wicks was about to retire). He was also an acknowledged supporter of the Labour Party but he was quick to claim that his many appointments came during the government of both National and Labour.

With the establishment of the District Courts it was no surprise that he was appointed the first Chief Judge. This was the first time there had been an appointed leader of a large number of fiercely independent magistrates, now Judges, who had been appointed as individuals (“I am not a member of a team!). It is to the credit of Des as he felt his way that he gradually gained respect and loyalty (even north of the Bombay Hills) and emerged as a successful Chief Judge after a lengthy term, for that pressured office, of six years, and set a patter for others to follow.

It is interesting to look back after three more incumbents to note the differing styles and contributions. Des valued his friendships and despite his rather rapid progressions never forgot or ignored them. His next closest liaison was with PJ Trapski and there Des became the mentor, as with his support, Judge Trapski was successively first Principal Family Court Judge, Chief Judge, member of the Waitangi Tribunal, etc.

Both before and after retirement Des worked on a large number of boards, tribunals and commissions or committees of inquiry, many at the Government’s request, acknowledging the confidence shown in his administrative and investigative skills. I mention some of them here: Film Trade and Film Industry board, State Services Tribunal, Waitangi Tribunal, Committee to Investigate and Report on Casinos for New Zealand, and then on a committee to report on gambling (covering both sides as it were) and Council for Recreation and Sport. He also served as executive director for the first Rugby World Cup.

It is here that I should pay particular tribute to Lady Sullivan. Her supportive role while being responsible for a large family and the family home has been immense.

All his life Des was a keen and active sportsman. He played rugby and cricket for his University and held a Blue in athletics, and was a regular golfer to the time of his death. A very full life now deservedly at rest.

How will we remember him? He was a modest man, although quietly ambitious. He had an active mind and spoke well. He was a listener. He did not favour confrontations but preferred to resolve conflict diplomatically and smoothly. I believe his assumption of so many public duties was out of a sense of service. The country has reason to be grateful to Sir Desmond Sullivan for a virtual lifetime of public dedication of selfless service, and to Lady Sullivan for her support of an outstanding member of the legal profession.

This obituary was first published in LawTalk 465, October 1996, page 7.

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Last updated on the 11th May 2012