Sir John Hamilton Wallace died in Auckland on 20 September 2012 aged 78. He was known for an distinguished career in New Zealand law reform. His influence and input can be seen in such fundamental New Zealand institutions as our electoral system, our courts and our laws of evidence.
Sir John was born on 9 September 1934 in Auckland. He attended King’s College before studying law at Auckland University College. He then went to Merton College in Oxford, graduating MA in 1958. Sir John was called to the English Bar after fulfilling the requirements of Gray’s Inn in 1958. He returned to New Zealand and was admitted as a Barrister and Solicitor in 1959. Sir John married Elizabeth Goodwin in 1961 and they had two children.
Following his admission to the New Zealand bar, Sir John practised in the Auckland law firm Wallace McLean Bawden and Partners, becoming a partner in 1960. In 1973 he left to become a barrister sole, and was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1974. He specialised in civil and commercial litigation. During his practice as a barrister Sir John was prominent in Law Society activities, and was President of the Auckland District Law Society from 1980 to 1981 and Vice President of the New Zealand Law Society from 1981 to 1982. He was a member of the Contracts and Commercial Law Reform Committee from 1974 to 1985, a member of the Royal Commission on Courts from 1976 to 1978 and Chairman of the Equal Opportunities Tribunal from its establishment in 1978 to 1982.
In 1982 Sir John was appointed to the High Court bench, where he served until his retirement in 1996. His interest and experience in law reform and human rights was recognised shortly afterwards with appointment as Chairman of the Human Rights Commission in 1984. He was Chairman until 1989, and during his term he was also Chairman of the Royal Commission of the Electoral System. The comprehensive report prepared by the Royal Commission led ultimately to the current Mixed Member Proportional representation system used to elect New Zealand’s House of Representatives.
Appointment to the Law Commission in 1989 was another recognition of his strength and influence in law reform. Sir John was appointed Deputy President in 1991 and served as a Law Commissioner until 1996. While on the Law Commission, he was also appointed President of the Electoral Commission, serving in this role from 1994 to 1996.
On his retirement from the High Court bench and the Law Commission in October 1996, the Minister of Justice, Douglas Graham, paid tribute to his “outstanding contribution” to law reform in New Zealand.
Honours for his contribution to the law included the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal in 1977, the New Zealand 1990 Medal, and he was knighted in 1997 for services as a Judge of the High Court.
New Zealand’s Chief Justice, Dame Sian Elias, said the New Zealand judiciary had been greatly saddened to hear of Sir John’s death.
“Sir John was an outstanding New Zealander who had made a significant contribution to law reform in New Zealand as well as a Judge of the High Court,” she said.
“He was greatly admired in New Zealand legal circles and more widely as a man of great moral courage as well as great personal warmth and kindness. Sir John was someone of considerable intellect who cared deeply about fairness and justice for all in New Zealand society.”