New Zealand Law Society - Hon Sir Timothy Patrick Cleary, 1900 - 1962

Hon Sir Timothy Patrick Cleary, 1900 - 1962

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The ninth New Zealand Law Society President, from 1954 to 1958, Timothy Cleary, was truly a remarkable man as all who knew him would agree. As with Humphrey O'Leary, his start in life was modest: his people were small farmers at Mangaweka.

Modesty and self-efacement were perhaps the chief of all his qualities but his clearheadedness, his rare perceptiveness, his simple humanity, and the trust that all manner of men instinctively put in his judgment took him inevitably and despite himself to the top of the profession.

A master at St Patrick's College, where he went on a scholarship, recalled in a quip which Cleary himself would have appreciated but shrugged off, that he passed through the school topping every class and subject except once when he dropped to the level of first equal. Professor Garrow rated him as the best student he ever had.

He began in a small conveyancing practice but was soon overwhelmed with briefs from all over the country: the difficulty always was to get him to send a bill. He was slow of speech but prodigious of thought, with an acute sense of logic in argument and a rare lucidity of expression. Above all he was a lovable man.

Characteristically, Cleary's presidency was marked not by the spectacular but by his own carefully pondered and wise guidance of the Law Society's routine affairs. But the Law Practitioners Act was revised and the discussions stemming from the Legal Conference in 1954 were continued as to the need for a separate Court of Appeal. The establishment of this in 1957 brought intense satisfaction to the profession. Indeed, when the statute was passed the Attorney-General remarked to his Solicitor-General that the only step necessary to ensure the successful launching of the new court was to persuade TP Cleary to accept appointment. This, with a man who was known to have declined judicial office persistently for ten years, was a problem that had to be overcome.

Cleary left the presidency to go straight to the Court of Appeal at the beginning of 1958.

The unique and spontaneous tribute paid on his death in 1962 when his friends erected a tablet in the corner of the library at Wellington where he had spent so many nights and weekends, presented a fine Presidential Chair and established a prize for students in his honour, shows more clearly than words can do the abiding affection the profession felt for Timothy Cleary.

From "Seven New Zealand Presidents", Portrait of a Profession, edited RB Cooke QC (New Zealand Law Society, 1969), pages 177-178.

Sir Timothy was born in Meeanee, Hawke's Bay on 27 April 1900. He grew up in Mangaweka before going to St Patrick's College in Wellington on a Junior Scholarship. He studied law at Victoria University College from 1918 to 1921 and began practice in Wellington with Carroll O'Donnell, later becoming his partner. He married Nea Constance Jervis on 30 March 1933 and established law firm Barnett and Cleary in 1937.

Sir Timothy was president of the Wellington District Law Society in 1943 and of the New Zealand Law Society from 1954 to 1958. His prominence as a leading advocate was widely recognised. After declining offers of appointment for a decade, he finally moved to the bench on 23 October 1957 when he was appointed as one of the first members of the new permanent Court of Appeal. He died of a heart attack on 15 August 1962.

From Peter Spiller, "Cleary, Timothy Patrick", from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 6 June 2013.

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