Judge Jim Weir died in Rotorua on 9 January 2016 after a tragic accident at his home. He was aged 65. A highly successful career in the law saw him co-founding a law firm which flourished in Hamilton. He developed expertise in several areas of the law before appointment to the District Court bench and, in 2015, as chair of the Alcohol Regulatory and Licensing Authority.
Judge Weir graduated from Canterbury University with an LLB in 1972. He travelled overseas for some time before returning to New Zealand and being admitted to the Bar in 1977. He was employed by the Hamilton firm Stace Hammond Grace Partners. While there he met Tony Hemara and Ivan Fistonich and in 1980 the three set up the firm of Fistonich Hemara and Weir which had a distinctive office premises opposite the Hamilton courthouse. Jim Weir was to remain a partner in that firm for almost 20 years.
Gerard Rennie joined the practice the following year: "I was told when joining Tony, Ivan and Jim that courtesy to the firm I was leaving meant I should not attempt to bring any clients with me to the new firm. I was concerned, as I knew Jim was all but starting from scratch, building a practice. I need not have worried. I learned quickly that Jim, although a Cantabrian and having been in Hamilton only a few years, had already developed strong relationships in the local community. He was social, almost compelling company and an outstanding finder of clients."
Delivering a eulogy at Judge Weir's funeral, former High Court Judge Ron Young said an active social life was combined with a powerful social conscience.
"He cared deeply about those universal issues of poverty, civil rights and especially workers' rights. But this was more than just an armchair concern. He was involved with the Labour Party, the anti-Springbok tour protests, and he often acted for employees in employment disputes."
In 1983 Judge Weir married Margie.
"I'm prepared to put my neck out here and say this was the best decision Jim ever made," Justice Young said. "And three children arrived – Hannah in 1987, Alistair in 1989 and Emma in 1994. I know how proud Jim was of the three of you. We often talked of you on the golf course."
While Judge Weir's practice in the early 1980s had an emphasis on criminal and family law, as the leader of the new firm's litigation section his role changed as did his areas of practice. By the early 1990s he was focusing on employment law and was a member of the New Zealand Law Society's Employment Law Committee.
"I doubt Jim would have termed himself then as an intuitive lawyer but his capacity for work and his energy in developing skills required were extraordinary," Gerard Rennie says.
"Roger Laybourn and Elizabeth Dawe, respectively very sound criminal and family law lawyers came into the practice in the mid-1980s, enabling Jim to branch out. He became well known in the employment law area, acting for trade unions and employee groups. His ability to draw in clients saw him act for a major insurance company with a large office in Hamilton – in the days before insurers' centralisation within New Zealand.
"Jim was very loyal to his contacts. Barry James the patent attorney bravely moved to Hamilton to establish the fledgling firm which was to become James and Wells. Barry was a State house kid and of course Jim befriended him and he became a tenant in our building. Jim would have had no connection with IP law until then but I recall in those start-up days Jim agreeing to Barry's anxious request to take on a IP High Court application on 24 hours' notice. Jim worked through the night on the case. I arrived at work early the following morning to find the only patent attorney between Auckland and (curiously I think) Feilding ferrying the umpteenth coffee into Jim's office, expressing amazement to me over Jim's determination to get the job done".
In his eulogy Justice Ron Young recalled that as a litigator Jim Weir loved the courtroom drama.
"He was a fearsome and fearless advocate acting for the underdog – Jim's clients were always the underdog."
Justice Young also noted the courage it took to start a law firm just a few years after admission to the Bar.
"It took belief in his own ability, and Jim had every reason to back himself, and it took an entrepreneurial spirit to take a risk. And what a great success it was, launching him into the judiciary in 2000."
It was not all hard work. Gerard Rennie recalls that on Friday evenings the firm's library would host Hamilton practitioners and some other guests for an hour – or perhaps a little more.
"Jim, with his knowledgeable banter, was a draw card. His interest in politics was intense. He had been very competent in a number of sports - but was not a show-off. Someone else had to tell me that in his youth Jim was New Zealand ranked in table tennis. Jim wouldn't have volunteered that. Jim wasn't your average sporting bore – he had lived a life and in the right social context he was a raconteur. His telling of his London days as an employee of the legendary Island Records mogul Chris Blackwell and 'episodes' within that organisation had me falling about - I didn't know whether to laugh more at Jim's stories about the 'freedoms' of those times – or the fact that he had been an accounts clerk there. Jim's relationship with tasks requiring numeracy skills was fraught".
Justice Young, who had become a good friend, recalled a tramping trip to the Kaimais which Jim Weir and some of his Hamilton mates had arranged.
"A list of equipment and food to bring was provided to Jim and the others. The tramp day came. Jim was late. He eventually arrived wearing jandals and carrying a small piece of cheese wrapped in plastic. But none of that mattered – because all his fellow trampers knew that the conversation, the humour and the story telling would flow with Jim there."
After almost two decades steering the litigation arm of the partnership Jim Weir signalled to his partners his interest in striking out on his own and he commenced practice as a barrister sole in 1998. That lasted just two years. On 20 March 2000 Attorney-General Margaret Wilson announced the appointment of 49-year-old James Weir as a District Court Judge. He was sworn in on 14 April and began sitting in Rotorua from 15 May 2000.
After his appointment as chair of the Alcohol Regulatory and Licensing Authority, he commented that it had been a great experience working as a District Court Judge.
Sentencing was the hardest part of being a Judge, and often the most memorable, he told the Rotorua Daily Post.
"I think if you speak to any court judge they will say sentencing is the most difficult aspect of the job because you are depriving people of their liberty. It can be hard to not take that home with you at night. At the end of the day you need to do a brain dump but even then, it's the humanity or lack thereof that sticks with you."
Looking forwards to his new role, he told the Rotorua Daily Post that it would be a "different sort of action from court action".
"It is a multi-faceted role that will be dealing with the root of many crimes – alcohol and people getting into trouble when they're highly intoxicated. If I have noticed anything in the last 15 years it's that there is more violence now than when I started in 2000 and an enormous amount of that has to do with alcohol."
Judge Weir felt that his new role would mean that hopefully he moved from being an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff to "the ambulance at the top of the cliff".