New Zealand Law Society - Memories of the Auckland Magistrates’ Courts

Memories of the Auckland Magistrates’ Courts

Memories of the Auckland Magistrates’ Courts

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Sir Ian was admitted as a solicitor in 1957. Over his long career in the law he has worked as a solicitor, barrister, High Court Judge, law academic, arbitrator and mediator. In the first of an occasional series, he turns his memory back to practising in Auckland in the 1960s and the world of the Magistrates’ Courts and the fascinating contrasts with the 21st century legal world.

At the top of the short hill that is still called Courthouse Lane, one reached in the 1950s and early 60s, unsurprisingly, the Magistrates’ Court. Even in those times the inadequate building was neither big nor efficient enough for a fast-growing city. Its only satellite courts were at Otahuhu and Papakura – both of which were fairly tiny buildings.

A large downstairs courtroom served as the Number One Courtroom/Police Court. Upstairs was the Number Two Courtroom for civil and overflow crime. The “Agony Court” (ie, Destitute Persons’ Court) was in the Dilworth Building. The Traffic Court, a trestle table on a stage, was in the Masonic Building in Princes Street. A very run-down courtroom in a grotty High Street building catered for judgment summonses, inquests and other miscellaneous jurisdictions deemed of low importance.

Further afield than Otahuhu and Papakura were courts of very modest dimensions and cosy intimacy for all their diverse patrons at Helensville and Warkworth. No court on the North Shore nor in West Auckland. The Otahuhu court was small until replaced by a Ministry of Works Mark I courtroom of 1970s’ vintage – later superseded by the Manukau court complex which was badly designed in its first incarnation. It could not cope with multiple-accused trials where there were more than four accused. I believe that basic error of forward-planning has now been rectified by new facilities – built at vast expense. The omission could have been avoided with prudent planning which was not in those days, a feature of Justice Department courthouse strategy.

In the early 60s, a new Magistrates’ Court was built in Kitchener Street behind the old one. Mildly high-rise and posh by the standards of the times! More courtrooms, fewer outstations, habitable chambers for the “beaks”. It was soon to become too small and inefficient and it was demolished to make room for a large apartment hotel, leaving the court facade as a rather incongruous reminder of its past. When Labour came to power in 1984, Geoffrey Palmer quickly had the District Court’s present Albert Street edifice erected.

The Muldoon era had not been very courts/lawyer friendly and I doubt whether Muldoon would have acted with such commendable despatch and foresight as did Sir Geoffrey in providing Auckland with reasonable and modern court facilities.

An interesting lot

The magistrates or “Beaks” of these earlier days were an interesting lot. They processed a large volume of work largely by the application of pragmatic common sense, garnished with the occasional bit of law. Addressed as “Your Worship”, few hankered for the title of “Judge” which was reserved for the then few judges of the Supreme (now High) Court.

Much of the magistrates’ work was repetitive and the evidence provided formulaic. For instance, every morning, the night’s assorted catch of drunks would be brought before the court, charged with drunkenness in a public place. Their cases were usually called first. No duty solicitor or legal aid counsel.

The method of disposition of their charges was swift and efficient – without any thought of alleviating any alcoholism problems of those who were usually repeat customers. The court orderly constable would leap into the witness box, be sworn and say that he was familiar with the signature of Constable X who took the following statement from the defendant: “I am a married/single man. [Police statements in those days always began thus] I acknowledge that I was drunk in (a public place)”. The defendant would then be fined a minimal amount, having usually spent the night in the cells drying out. How the orderly constable got to be familiar with the signatures of so many police officers was never revealed nor challenged!

The Police Court business was often completed in a morning. The rather disreputable jurisprudence which later developed over driving with excess blood or breath alcohol had yet to be developed. Some were charged with driving whilst intoxicated. The principal methods of proof were urine testing and the constable’s observation of the accused (did he/she exhibit rotational nystagmus or was he/she able to walk in a straight line?). On one celebrated occasion a woman had been asked to provide a urine sample in a saucer at the old Police Station in Princes Street (where the university students’ buildings now are). Leonard Leary QC had a lot of fun cross-examining, asking the constable whether this had been the saucer for the cat’s milk. The prosecution failed.

The magistrates did not have the criminal jurisdiction now enjoyed by the District Court. Consequently, those who feared for their chances if summary jurisdiction were elected, chose jury trial in the Supreme Court. This involved deposition hearings before JPs. Often in that bedraggled courtroom in High Street. JPs also heard minor offences since there was no “mail order justice” then whereby such horrendous charges such as over-parking or dog licence infractions could be dealt with on the papers in Chambers. Always polite, some of them had a rather strange concept of the burden of proof in what was in theory a criminal offence.

“Q” and debt collection

Judgment summonses were a species of debt collecting – a “speciality” which attracted a few “specialist” lawyers such as Q (real name Arthur Gilbert Quartley, MBE) who seemed to the young to be incredibly wrinkly and ancient. He was reputed to ride to the hounds at his advanced age. His main client seemed to be an outfit called Library Covers. Q specialised in suing non-paying businesses which advertised on the covers of books loaned out by the many private lending libraries. If judgment were obtained against a non-payer of the agreed fee for such advertising exposure as a library cover offered, then the debtor could be summoned to appear in the Judgment Summons Court where orders for instalment payment were usually made – nominally under threat of imprisonment if the order were disobeyed. A throwback to Dickensian Debtors’ Prisons. But few ever went to jail for debt. The prisons found debtors a nuisance: all you had to do to thwart imprisonment was either pay up or apply for a rehearing.

Tenancy cases were numerous thanks to rent control legislation which greatly favoured tenants and made being a landlord rather uneconomic for some. The Act enabled many elderly sole legal practitioners to keep their occupation of city offices at very modest rents. Those tenants who were unable to pay for a lawyer to appear for them could call on the free services of the Rents Officer, an employee of the Labour Department (now part of the Ministry of Everything, aka MBIE). One of the Magistrates, H Jenner Wily SM – recognised as one of the better legal minds on that Bench – actually wrote a textbook on the Tenancy Act which ran to at least two editions and was a best seller for Butterworths (no funny names for legal publishers in those days).

The DP Court

The Destitute Persons’ Court (DP Court) dealt with applications for separation and maintenance by women who would usually in those aggressively male chauvinist days be deserted and left with nothing. Because legal aid did not arrive until 1969, most lawyers appeared for applicants for little or no fee. Although divorce and many other ancillary matters such as custody and access were dealt with in the Supreme Court, magistrates could and did make orders affecting children in the DP Court. Unmarried mothers in those days got a particularly raw deal. They were treated as pariahs and often sent away from their home town lest they bring “shame” to their family. They were often pressured to surrender their baby for adoption and forbidden the chance to bond with the new-born. Those who did not adopt out could obtain a paternity order against and seek child maintenance from the child’s father. The magistrates exercised jurisdiction to make adoption orders which provided good business for those lawyers who acted for institutions (often run by churches) which provided maternity hospitals for unmarried mothers. How things have changed!!!

NZ Coat of Arms

The Family Court with its far-reaching jurisdiction, specialist judges, counsellors and other accoutrements is a far cry from the smallish room in the Dilworth Building where the DP Court operated. Counsel sat around a table and there was little prospect of confidentiality. Most of the women applicants for separation and maintenance orders had been badly treated by their husbands (there were few de facto relationships in those days). They were usually dealt with sympathetically by the Court and, like the Rents Officer, there was a state-provided Maintenance Officer whose job it was to pursue maintenance dodgers. His strike-rate was not impressive. Many sad cases came before this court which lacked proper resources and the introduction of a Family Court in 1981 was a long-overdue reform.

Counsel who frequented the DP court used to seek separation orders which, after three years, could form the grounds for a divorce petition. People could usually find the funds to pay for a divorce – particularly if remarriage was contemplated – whereas there was never much remuneration for lawyers from DP Court work. Separation agreements had the same effect and were often negotiated and signed at the DP court. Most legal firms did DP work on a pro bono basis before legal aid was introduced.

Mick Robinson, George Skelton and Jimmy Dickson were probably the most frequent attendees of the DP Court, although most other court lawyers could be seen there from time to time. They generated many anecdotes and the law no longer has such colourful characters. Despite the huge volume of work they took on, they all did well for their clients and exercised great cunning and judgement.

The Traffic Court was often conducted in the Masonic Lodge Building on Princes Street. The magistrate perched on a sort of stage at a trestle table and looked down on the customers in the body of the hall. My first-ever appearance after my admission as a solicitor only in 1957 was here. A former fellow-boarder at my old school had been charged with speeding. He had little money. I was able to persuade a reluctant Jack Kealy to impose a fairly modest fine. The Lodge courtroom was utilitarian and no place for legal histrionics!

The run-down courtroom in High Street was also the venues for inquests, conducted by the Auckland Coroner. In my day a courteous Otahuhu lawyer called Alan Copeland had succeeded a Mr Addison who had held the job for many years. There were none of the airs and graces of today’s Coroner’s Court – specially-gowned judges, lots of counsel representing a wealth of possibly affected interests, wide media publicity etc. The sole evidence came usually from a constable reading a prepared statement summarising all the facts and laden with hearsay, often to the third degree. Nobody ever objected to the slack procedure which resulted in the Coroner pronouncing on the cause of death. There were no interventions by assorted pressure groups, grieving relatives, nervous employers, insurers and the like, as one might expect today.

And now, the Magistrates

What of the Beaks themselves? The senior was Len Sinclair who ran his court efficiently and well and who gave counsel a reasonable run. Like some of his colleagues, he preferred not to get too involved with any complicated legal arguments and one had to wait a while sometimes to receive a reserved judgment in a civil case. He had been an ad hoc judge sent to Niue in the 1950s to try the three killers of the Resident Commissioner there. They were all sentenced to hang on the island but narrowly escaped execution after a concerted public campaign in their favour and the lodging of an appeal to the Privy Council.

Jenner Wily, mentioned earlier, did not mind a legal argument provided it was reasonable. But he was fairly austere and light-hearted moments were rare. He worked very hard and I doubt whether he would be seen at the Northern Club in the afternoons to which some of his colleagues repaired to play snooker. As well as his tenancy book, he wrote one on Magistrates’ Court practice which concentrated on civil procedure.

Fred McCarthy was kindly and amiable and given to referring to cases in the House of Lords as authority for whatever course he was to take judicially. Sometimes, the names of and references for these cases did not benefit from over­ close scrutiny. Fred had been a partner of Sir Trevor Henry who became a Supreme Court judge in the 1950s. Fred’s claimed circle of friends and acquaintances was fairly broad which could be helpful if one were able to name-drop during a plea in mitigation. After retirement, Fred became Transport Licensing Appeal Authority (if not that, some similar tribunal). Sadly, he died suddenly during an Auckland-Wellington flight.

Malcolm Cort Astley (“Cort” to his friends) was a big man with one artificial eye. But nobody knew for sure which was the glass eye. He was a bit ponderous and given to saying, “The law is plain, my duty is clear” or for variety, “My duty is plain, the law is clear”. Despite the pomposity, no doubt acquired during his practice in Dargaville as a colleague of the Holland Government Attorney-General Clifton Webb, Astley was not as fierce in his decisions as he was in manner and usually arrived at a reasonably predictable result.

Bob Grant rarely reserved a judgment. He was a rapid firer from the hip but with a huge store of experience of human nature and common sense – his decisions were usually unchallengeable. With a striking mane of grey hair and some charm, he motored through the lists with great efficiency. He could be relied on to give a first offender a chance by not imposing imprisonment unless he really had to do so. Bob, in the Judgment Summons Court, articulated rapidly and repeatedly the necessary mantra which went something like: “No appearance. No excuse. Debtor is to pay x pounds per week off the judgment debt. In default 7 days’ imprisonment”.

Stan Spence was hugely respected for his courteous and compassionate style on the bench and for being the best magistrate for a civil case. The only problem was that he reserved most of his judgments for a long period. When he died suddenly (to the great sadness of the bar) there were many undelivered reserveds which died with him. Stan had never been a partner in a law firm. He had been employed for many years at Nicholson, Gribbin, Rogerson & Nicholson where accession to partnership rarely occurred. That formidable advocate of the 1950s, John Terry, was in a similar situation to Stan. After years at Nicholson Gribbin he left to form his own practice.

Alan Coates, who was appointed to the magistracy later than the others mentioned, was hugely respected in the profession as a competent solicitor and Vice-President of the Law Society. On the Bench he was dignified, courteous and effective without any mannerisms or idiosyncrasies. In retirement, he was appointed a temporary Supreme Court Judge – the first-ever magistrate to achieve that office. He struggled a bit at first – not helped by some insensitive scheduling which gave him some complicated civil cases in his early days with subject-matters like marine insurance and crafty taxation structures. But his innate qualities ensured that his transition became reasonably successful.

It was said – no doubt uncharitably – of Jack Kealy that he owed his appointment as a magistrate to his having been the unsuccessful National candidate for Auckland Central, then a safe Labour seat. Jack’s knowledge of the law appeared to be modest. Yet he tried hard, although given to persuading parties in civil cases to settle, usually without effect. He was made Chair of the Town & Country Planning Appeal Board, predecessor of today’s Environment Court but without that Court’s high regard or expertise. Town Planning was in its formative stages with a badly-drafted Act and councils which were laws unto themselves (even more than they are now!). Jack, despite his best and sincere endeavours, did little to clarify the law in this area or to enhance the public acceptance of planning as a necessary burden of modern life. The whole resource management (as we must now call it) process had to await the appointment as Chairman of the Planning Board of Arnold Turner in the 1970s. He ruled his tribunal with great efficiency and firmness and created credibility for the planning process.

Provincial courts

The magistrate who sat in provincial courts from Pukekohe to Thames, from Huntly to Te Aroha – name virtually any town in the Waikato/King Country except Hamilton – was Bill Freeman. He rarely if ever reserved a judgment, rarely sent anybody to prison, rarely listened to a legal argument. Nobody was quite sure where he had practised before appointment – which was apparently a long time ago. I did hear one story which had him as a clerk in the Justice Department. Bill was rarely appealed because of his low rate of judgment production and his reluctance to imprison. On the Bench, he often seemed distracted but kindly. He did a huge mileage and must have saved the Department much money because of the width of his exercise of jurisdiction.

Stewart Hardy – former Deputy Mayor of Wellington – was small of stature but his sentences were anything but small. Drunken drivers could all expect prison, even for a first offence. He conducted a one-man crusade in the Waikato for better driving and enjoyed some success through fear tactics. Supreme Court judges visiting Hamilton on circuit would routinely have a long list of sentence appeals from those drivers sent unexpectedly to prison and most appeals succeeded. Stewart was unrepentant and undeterred by the many reversals. He and Mr Justice Hardie Boys (the elder) were often in a judicial stand-off over the appeals.

I had two civil fixtures before Stewart Hardy in my first year of practice. Both in country courts. His modus operandi, if you were lucky, was to listen to the plaintiff’s opening and then demand to see counsel in Chambers. I well remember squeezing into the tiny room backstage in the Te Kuiti courthouse to be told how my opponent and I ought to settle a motor accident case. His views of the case were formed before he had heard any evidence. On another occasion, he gave me – just four months admitted and reliant on public transport – a lift from Putaruru to Hamilton in his large car. I was able to observe the swiftness of the driving of one who regularly denounced speedsters and to listen to his views on the Supreme Court judiciary.

There were others before whom I had not appeared. “Whisky Bill” Inglis – a former World War II General – presided in Hamilton with no great reputation as a lawyer. Northland had a Mr Herd SM of whom I know little.

The next echelon

Moving on to magistrates in my later years of practice before legislation in 1981 made them all District Court Judges.

The best lawyer and the most considerate and astute magistrate was Cecil Eustace Hayward Pledger – known as Max. He was courteous, humane and on occasions firm – with no tickets on himself. He knew the law well and had been a well­ regarded practitioner in Hawke's Bay. Sadly, he died when making submissions to the Royal Commission on Abortion, etc, in 1976.

Hector Gilliand was obsessive about punctuality. It was rumoured that he would wait outside the magistrates’ entrance to a courtroom until the stroke of 10am when he would proceed quickly on to the bench and strike out any matter for which there was no counsel in attendance. He was not a bad lawyer and if he agreed with your legal argument, he would nod agreement often. I had this experience when acting for a grandmother of an orphaned child who was seeking custody of the child. Hec had formed the view, after reading the affidavits, that the grandmother was to be preferred as guardian of the child over the mother’s sister and nodded vigorously at me as I delivered submissions. Said to belong to an evangelical church, Hec was fairly tough in his sentencing.

Bill Meade (known as “Slogger”) was a kindly man with a good legal mind who was conscientious almost to a fault. He worried a lot about his cases – particularly about what sentence to impose. Unlike Hec Gilliand, Bill did not see speedy disposition as universally desirable and cases could take a long time. He could feel harassed by slick or supercilious counsel to whom he sometimes showed a sterner side to an otherwise long-suffering nature.

Harry Rosen (the same name as the eponymous chain of menswear stores in Toronto) had been a partner in Meredith Meredith Kerr and Cleal (as Meredith Connell once was). There he specialised in appearing for the Inland Revenue on tax prosecutions, invariably submitting that “The Department takes a very serious view of this matter”. Although he had a good legal brain, he was not noted as being “user-friendly” when in practice: he did not change his demeanour when on the bench. He could be disagreeable to counsel and witnesses but usually his decisions were unexceptionable and usually correct and his penalties not excessive. He did have a warmer side. He did a lot of good work for Jewish charities. He was a prodigious reader and on most lunch hours, could be seen walking down Lorne Street towards to the Magistrates’ Court armed with many library books from the Auckland Public Library. I remember him with some affection because when my appointment as a judge was announced, his wife telephoned to say that Harry was seriously ill but that he had asked her to pass on his congratulations and his approval of my appointment.

DG Sinclair was not one who radiated bonhomie either on or off the bench. He had not been known in Auckland when appointed, having been a solicitor in Paeroa. I was on the Law Society Council then and had the task with some other Council members of welcoming him on behalf of the profession. His response to our welcome was muted. When on the bench, he spoke little and looked rather grim.

The Licensing Committee

DG was made Chair of the Licensing Committee. One of the tasks of this body was to allocate wineshop licences – usually only one – in areas which the Licensing Control Commission had decreed should have one or more wineshops. This was under the old Licensing Act and before the current crazy system where local authorities grant liquor licences to premises where feral youths attack and rob the licensees – especially in lower socio-economic areas. There was huge competition amongst wineries and other dispensers of alcohol for a wineshop licence. Usually, the potential available premises in the designated suburb were few and not purpose-built. Often several contenders for a licence each had some form of conditional purchase agreement with the owner. One of the alleged criteria for the grant of a licence was the suitability of the premises. Most of the premises on offer were fairly unsuitable and usually there was little to distinguish the merits of one application from another. DG and his committee members would listen to several days of witnesses extolling the superiority of their applicant and their applicant’s premises. He sat there Buddha-like, hardly saying a word, while the lawyers postured away, trying to draw distinguishing winning features of a particular application while denigrating the opposing applications which could be up to eight or nine in popular locations. DG and his committee might just as well have tossed a coin since they had to choose one. The reasons given were often pretty spartan but he was shrewd enough to make them fairly appeal-proof.

John Hetherington Murray (aka Lord Pupuke) was the first judicial officer at the North Shore court – located then in Takapuna. He had been in practice in Hamilton and secretary of the local law society. He was, to quote obituary writers in the better English newspapers, “not plagued by self-doubt” and given to sentencing by delivering a lengthy homily to the defendant. Local legend had the usual form of entering a guilty plea adapted to “We consent to take the homily as read and enter a plea of guilty”. He achieved some notoriety when he heard the prosecution of the Rugby legend, Don Clarke. I forget exactly what the charge was. In a characteristically long judgment John Murray acquitted the defendant and on the way, made a plea for magistrates to be called “Judge” (not really an issue in the case).

There were other magistrates whom I did not encounter or else encountered fleetingly. No doubt there were some “characters” amongst them and I hope someone might tell us about them.

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