Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys GNZM GCMG QSO KStJ PC
The legal profession farewells the Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys GNZM GCMG QSO KStJ PC, a figurehead of New Zealand law, following his passing on 29 December 2023, aged 92.
Sir Michael will be remembered for a life of service, his devotion to the betterment of law in New Zealand and of society at large a feature of both his judicial career and his role as Governor-General. “His distinguished life of service to New Zealand was one of dedication and reliability,” wrote Prime Minister Christopher Luxon. “Sir Michael epitomised what it is to be a great New Zealander. Our thoughts are with his family at this time.”
Born in Wellington, Sir Michael lived a lifetime touched by the law with his father Justice Reginald Hardie Boys having his own eminent career as a Queen’s Counsel and later a Supreme Court (now High Court) judge. In continuation of the family legacy Sir Michael attended Victoria University College, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws. The illustrious legal career that followed would see him serving as a Council member of the Wellington District Law Society from 1973 to 1979, and as its President in 1979. He was also a Council member of the New Zealand Law Society between 1976 and 1979 and served as a member of the Legal Aid Board, becoming its chairman in 1978.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Sir Michael was appointed as a judge of the High Court of New Zealand in 1980. He was then elevated to the Court of Appeal in 1989 and also served as a Privy Counsellor, sitting in London. To consummate this already distinguished career, Sir Michael was appointed New Zealand’s 17th Governor-General in 1996.
These milestones in Sir Michael’s career were underpinned by one common theme: change. His career traversed a dynamic time in New Zealand’s legal and political history, which he took on with wisdom and composure. The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 was enacted just as Sir Michael was appointed to the Court of Appeal, and his judgments would become the first cases to shape the way in which the Act was to be applied in New Zealand law. His time on the bench also spanned a period of development in the law of negligence with Sir Michael’s contribution, particularly in the Privy Council decision of Invercargill City Council v Hamlin, piloting important advances in the application of a duty of care in defective building cases. Sir Michael’s appointment as Governor-General in March 1996 also came at a pivotal point, with New Zealand’s first MMP election being held later that same year. Sir Michael played an important role in steering New Zealand through this transition, visiting Ireland and Denmark to see how their proportional representation systems worked. "Sir Michael guided New Zealand into the MMP era," said Prime Minister Christopher Luxon. "[He] was a figure of stability during a time of significant constitutional change."
Sir Michael’s contribution to the New Zealand legal landscape was widely recognised and celebrated in his lifetime. He was appointed New Zealand’s first Knight Grand Companion of The New Zealand Order of Merit when it was established in 1996 and was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws by Victoria University in Wellington in 1997. He was also a visiting scholar and Honorary Fellow of Wolfson College in Cambridge.
The conclusion of Sir Michael’s term as Governor-General did not mark the end of his commitment to serving others. Rather, he continued to support the community through volunteering for a literacy programme at Kapunui School in Waikanae, where he resided in his retirement – an initiative he remained involved in for over a decade. He also served for a time as a judge on the Court of Appeal of Kiribati.
Sir Michael leaves behind him a legacy that will long be remembered and his contribution to law in New Zealand will continue to impact the profession for years to come. In accordance with Sir Michael's wishes, a state funeral will not be held.