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Sir Rodney Gerald Gallen, 1933 – 2012

By Geoff Adlam

Sir Rodney Gallen died in Havelock North on 3 March 2012. A much loved and respected member of the Hawke’s Bay community, Sir Rodney was a judge of the High Court for 16 years until his retirement. His ability to chair and mediate was recognised in his appointment to head several commissions of inquiry, including an important review of the Police Complaints Authority in 2000.

Born in Wellington on 12 August 1933, he was the son of Gerald and Eva Gallen. Sir Rodney was educated at Waipawa District High School from 1947 to 1949 and Napier Boys’ High School from 1950 to 1951.

Sir Rodney’s father was postmaster in a number of small towns on the East Coast of the North Island. One outcome was that he became fluent in Māori, and began a lifetime of professional and personal involvement with Māori organisations and institutions.

From his schooling in the Hawkes’ Bay he went to Wellington to Victoria University College, where he studied from 1952 to 1956 and graduated LLB in 1957.

After his graduation he returned to Hawke’s Bay, where he worked for the firm Lusk Wills, and Co (which merged with Robinson Toomey & Partners in 1983 to become Willis Toomey Robinson). The firm had an extensive local body practice and Sir Rodney acted for a number of local authorities, including the Napier City Council, Hawkes Bay County Council and Hawkes Bay Catchment Board.

He later recalled some of the great changes in this area of practice, which moved from one where New Zealand local authorities “did not take planning seriously”, to the very important field of law it is today under the Resource Management Act 1991:

“In the early years the appeal boards were not always seen by the profession as having very much status and had to struggle in a situation where work was not always well prepared, and it was assumed that problems would be solved pragmatically rather than in accordance with principle.

“[Chairman of the No 1 Division of the Town and Country Planning Appeal Board] Arnold Turner was determined to make the boards respected and insisted on procedures being properly observed both in preparation and presentation. It was not always comfortable appearing in front of Arnold, who sometimes felt it necessary to assert the authority of the board at an early stage. But he certainly ensured that the profession took the jurisdiction and the Court seriously.” (Law Stories, LexisNexis, 2003, page 203).

Sir Rodney’s prominence in the profession was recognised in 1971 when he was appointed to chair a committee of inquiry into services at Oakley Hospital. He left (the then) Lusk Willis Stroud and Gallen in 1973 to practise as a barrister. He was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1975.

In 1980 Sir Rodney was appointed chair of a commission of inquiry into the Abbotsford landslide, and this was followed in 1983 with his appointment as a Judge of the High Court of New Zealand.

By the time of his retirement from the High Court in 1999, Sir Rodney was senior puisne judge. His was knighted (KNZM) in 2000 for services as a Judge of the High Court from 1983 to 1999.

Shortly after his retirement, in May 2000, Sir Rodney was appointed by the Minister of Justice to conduct a review of the Police Complaints Authority. This followed adverse public comment about the independent of the Authority. Sir Rodney reported to the Minister in October 2000 and made a number of findings and recommendations about the Authority’s operations. The result was a number of major changes including the appointment of independent investigators.

Sir Rodney was also involved in development of adequate compensation for former Lake Alice patients who had been mistreated during their stay in the institution.

Following his retirement, Sir Rodney also sat on the Fijian Court of Appeal and he was sitting on the Court when the May 2000 coup took place. This resulted in a hurried departure from the country with fellow judge Sir Thomas Eichelbaum.

During his lifetime Sir Rodney was a committed Christian. He had a long involvement in the affairs of the Presbyterian Church and was prominent in the Church’s General Assembly joint committee with the Māori synod, Te Aka Puaho. He was chair of the Hillsbrook Children’s Home, and became a trustee of the Mahi Tahi Trust, which focused on rehabilitation of Māori ex prison inmates by helping them connect with traditional cultural values.

Known for his quick wit, love of gardening and the environment, Sir Rodney never married or had any children. On his knighthood, Justice Lowell Goddard described him as “a man of great mana who has made a huge contribution not only as a judge, but as a member of society”. (New Zealand Herald, 31 December 1999).

At the same time, Chief Justice Sian Elias said Sir Rodney was a man of compassion who worked tirelessly for others and was deeply committed to the rehabilitation of prisoners and to youth.

Sir Rodney’s humanity and love of nature and the outdoors shone through many of his actions. Delivering the annual Encounters and Responses lecture in 2003 in the Waitangi Rua Rautau series, Sir Rodney drew on his own experience to argue that the presence of Maori and pakeha in New Zealand had led to compromise and the exchange of ideas. He later developed this theme in a 2005 paper on race relations and community relationships – issues for churches:

“The comment about ‘all being New Zealanders’ does have some significance… We all live in this country and for most of us we have no other, not any relationship with any other. Our relationship with the land is one which binds us all together, although we need to bear in mind that not all people who live here relate in the same way to the land as such. Nevertheless because for most if not all of us the land gives us our first identity we start from a unifying factor and can reasonably build on that. There is no doubt Māori have a special attachment to the land and to particular places, for many reasons, but it is also true that Pakeha hold such attachments as well.”

By Geoff Adlam, New Zealand Law Society. 

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Last updated on the 16th October 2018