Retired judge of the Supreme Court of New Zealand, Sir Noel Anderson QC, passed away on Wednesday, 6 October 2021, aged 77. At the time I wrote a short tribute to him, but with the intention to write more on his legacy–as a judge, a friend and a colleague.
Sir Noel was a proud Westie (West Aucklander). He grew up in poverty and knew hardship in his early life. He had a disrupted childhood–attending many different schools and living in a succession of state houses–before becoming the first person in his family to go to university.
He studied law at the University of Auckland, graduating in 1966. Sir Noel rose to prominence as a barrister, acting as counsel in many leading cases, and in some of the epoch-defining Royal Commissions such as the Erebus inquiry and the Royal Commission on Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion. His appointment as silk in 1986 recognised that he was a leader at the bar.
The following year, at the age of 43, he accepted appointment as a High Court judge, sitting first in Hamilton and then in Auckland. He was appointed to the Court of Appeal in 2001, as President of the Court of Appeal in 2004, and to the Supreme Court in 2006. Although he retired in 2008, he continued as an Acting Judge of the Supreme Court until 2014.
Lawyers knew him as a judge who was good humoured and who would listen carefully to what they had to say
As a judge, Sir Noel brought intellect and a strong sense of fairness to his work. He was a man of great humility. He understood the complexity of people’s lives and worked hard to ensure that all who came into his courtroom were treated with dignity and respect. Lawyers knew him as a judge who was good humoured and who would listen carefully to what they had to say. They also knew him as a judge who would exercise the power conferred upon him by judicial office with the greatest care. Throughout 27 years of sitting in judgment upon others Sir Noel never lost his interest in people, or his concern for the vulnerable in our society.
There is another aspect of Sir Noel’s character that must be added to the mix if this description of him is to be accurate. Outside court he was a high energy human being–almost a perpetual motion machine. In court he kept this under control by engaging with interest in the argument and in the people before him. He was endlessly interested and interesting.
Sir Noel believed that New Zealand needed to develop law that met its unique circumstances – its peoples, its customs and its history. These concerns and beliefs found expression in the way he conducted hearings and in the many significant judgments he delivered during his judicial career. Sir Noel presided over a number of high-profile and difficult cases in both the criminal and civil jurisdictions. His judgments were of significance to the development of New Zealand’s law and New Zealand society (for example, in exploring important issues arising from the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act in cases such as Hansen v R  NZSC 7 and Attorney General v Chapman  NZSC 110, and deciding the judicial review of the Winebox Commission of Inquiry, Peters v Davison  3 NZLR 744). He wrote intelligently and lucidly. His judgments continue to help shape the direction of New Zealand law through their citation in decisions of the courts.
He brought to the Court not only vast experience as a judge, but also his personal qualities of courtesy, modesty and fearlessness in judging
Sir Noel was appointed President of the Court of Appeal at a critical time for that Court–the setting up of the Supreme Court earlier that year had resulted in the appointment of the four senior members of the Court to the Supreme Court. This was a substantial loss of experience. The new President had the task of re-establishing the Court and setting its direction within a new appellate structure. He also had to take on not only the administrative and leadership responsibilities of an extremely busy court, but also the wider role in the administration of justice in the senior courts. The former Chief Justice, Dame Sian Elias, has acknowledged the burden carried at this time by Sir Noel in relation to judicial administration.
The President was also required to oversee a rebuilding of the court building to allow better accommodation of an expanded court. The inscriptions on the glass around the court building of statements about law taken from both our indigenous and inherited history are a reminder of the values and the good Sir Noel saw in the law and the expectations of justice the community is entitled to have. The legacy created by those inscriptions is perhaps greater than Sir Noel could have expected, provoking not just admiration, but also discussion amongst passers-by, law students and lawyers about the important concepts memorialised there.
Sir Noel was appointed a Judge of the Supreme Court in 2006. He brought to the Court not only vast experience as a judge, but also his personal qualities of courtesy, modesty and fearlessness in judging. He was a valued colleague to those on the Court and his humour, his knowledge of history and poetry, and his rather quirky enthusiasms (for machinery, pens, obscure words, and much more) were greatly appreciated by them and often defused the inevitable tensions in such an institution. Sir Noel retired in 2008 but continued as an Acting Judge of the Supreme Court, sitting as required, until 2014. In retirement, he took great pride and personal pleasure in working with Tūhoe in their Treaty settlement negotiations with the Crown.
Although Sir Noel loved the law, it was not the whole of his life. He was a devoted husband to his wife Winnie, a loving father to his children, Janet and Andrew, and a proud koro to his grandchildren and great grandchildren. Janet, a lawyer herself, describes her father in this way:
“Dad was so passionate about the law, he just loved it–it was never just a job to him, he lived and breathed it. However, he did also like doing practical things like fishing, working on car engines and building decks. He was a lovely person and a great dad, and his death has left a massive hole in our lives.”
I pay tribute to a life spent in service to the law, to the judiciary and in pursuit of a just society.
Haere e te tōtara o te ture, haere atu rā