New Zealand Law Society - Hon Sir John Charles White MBE, 1911 - 2007

Hon Sir John Charles White MBE, 1911 - 2007

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The death of Sir John White on 27 October 2007, just a few days short of his 96th birthday, marks the passing of a distin­guished jurist.

Sir John was born in Wellington on 1 November 1911. He was educated there and also in Dunedin where he was head pre­fect of John McGlashan College. He studied law at Victoria Uni­versity of Wellington graduating with a Master's degree, and rep­resented the university in both cricket and tennis.

After graduating he qualified in shorthand and typing and be­ came an associate first for Mr Justice Ostler, and then Mr Jus­tice Quilliam in the Supreme Court, Wellington.

Of the generation who came of age between the world wars, Sir John's career was interrupted by military service, an experience that affected him profoundly.  He had been travelling in Europe with friends in 1939 as war clouds gathered, and returned just before hostilities broke out.

Shorly after his return, in January 1940, Sir John was called to meet General Freyberg and was soon appointed as the general's personal assistant and aide-de-camp. Within 36 hours he was commissioned and uniformed, and awaiting embarkation with the first echelon of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Apart from one brief visit, he did not return for five years.

Sir John was to experience some of the most significant bat­tles of the war, including Crete, El Alamein and Monte Casino, and he recorded his impressions in the general's diary and through taking remarkable photographs with Freyberg's Leica.

Some of the qualities with which he has been described - such as devotion to duty, honour and loyalty - were developed at this time. He was fiercely loyal and felt an undying admiration for his General and the Kiwi soldiers who served under him in extraor­dinary conditions - in Greece, Crete, North Africa, and in  Italy .

For his honourable service Sir John was mentioned in des­patches, and invested with the MBE in 1943. He finished the war as Major White.

Sir John had met his future wife, Dora Wild, sister of Dick (later Sir Richard) Wild, while studying at Victoria University. Dora was part of the Volunteer Aid Detachment, and was able to join Sir John in Egypt in 1943. In October of that year they were married in Maadi – in uniform.

Back to Wellington after the war, Sir John was partner in the firm of Young Bennett Virtue and White for over 20 years, practicing mainly in the personal injury field before the advent of accident compensation. He estab­lished a formidable reputation as a civil jury advocate and attract­ed a wide range of litigation work to the firm.

He became closely involved in the work of the New Zealand RSA, becoming national vice president and receiv­ing the organisation's gold star badge. He was particularly interested in war pensions and worked tirelessly to ensure they were retained and enhanced. He took on the Territorial Force appointment as Director of the New Zealand Army Legal Service in 1955, and he also served in a voluntary capacity for over 20 years as Judge Advocate General of the Army, the Fleet and the Air Force, the first to hold the combined position.

 Sir John had become involved in the affairs of the Law Society during the late 1950s and  became President of the Wellington Dis­trict Law Society in 1961. Subse­quently he was a Vice President of the New Zealand Law Society, and for five years chaired the Society's legal aid committee which con­tributed significantly to the Soci­ety's successful preparation for the introduction of legal aid in New Zealand.

Around the same time he was part of the group that planned and supervised the construction of the Law Society building in Waring Taylor Street, Wellington.

He also found time to be on the 1963 Committee on Absolute Li­ability, the Law Revision Commission, the New Zealand Council for Law Reporting, the Council of Legal Education, and the Wel­lington Medico-Legal Society.

His high standing in the pro­fession was recognized in 1966 when he was appointed Solicitor-General and Queen's Counsel. He held this position for five years, heading the Crown Law Office, advising the government and representing the Crown in leading cases, including two important tax cases in the Privy Council.

In 1970 Sir John was appointed a Judge of the then Supreme Court, a post he held either in a   permanent or an acting capacity for 15 years. Remem­bered with warm affection by counsel who appeared before him, he was said to discharge his duty with courtesy, patience, im­partiality, compassion and with an unflinching resolve to do jus­tice according to law.

Despite suffering the severe blow of the loss of his wife Dora in 1982 after nearly 40 years of marriage, Sir John continued to work as an acting Judge and also conducted a Royal Commission in Fiji, and sat as Acting Chief Justice and member of the Court of Appeal of the Solomon Islands.

He married his second wife, Elspeth, in 1987 and they divided their time between Melbourne and Wellington.

In retirement Sir John took great enjoyment in the activities of his 14 grandchildren, and con­tributed his time, prodigious memory and outstanding  photog­raphy  collection to assist military historians writing about the war and about General Freyberg.

Variously described as having qualities of "integrity, sound judgement, keen mind and a wealth of experience", and as a man with "a very high sense of duty", Sir John White was also a gentleman – a gracious man with a gentle sense of humour and great humility.

This obituary was published in the Wellington District Law Society's monthly newsletter, Council Brief, in December 2007.

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