New Zealand Law Society - Ka mua, ka muri: Celebrating 150 years of Law at the University of Otago

Ka mua, ka muri: Celebrating 150 years of Law at the University of Otago

Ka mua, ka muri: Celebrating 150 years of Law at the University of Otago
Ethel Rebecca Benjamin, 1897. Photographer unknown, Box-005-001, Hocken Collections Uare Taoka o Hākena, University of Otago.

Aotearoa New Zealand’s oldest law school celebrates its 150th anniversary in April. LawTalk speaks with the University of Otago about the upcoming celebrations and the impact the law school has had on shaping the past and future of the legal profession.

Titiro whakamuri, kōkiri whakamua – look back to move forward

The first university in New Zealand to teach law will be celebrating the milestone of 150 years of law teaching and study this April.

The University of Otago will be hosting an anniversary conference and reunion from 13 to 15 April to celebrate the establishment of Te Kaupeka Tātai Ture Faculty of Law.

Dean of Law at Otago, Professor Shelley Griffiths, says the 150th anniversary event is an opportunity to celebrate friendships and the achievements of staff and graduates of the faculty, and “while it is an opportunity to pause and reflect on the past, it will also provide some moments to think about the future of legal education and the profession as the Faculty continues into the future.”

Robert Stout, 1875. New Zealand Photographic Company photograph, Box-030-001, Hocken Collections Uare Taoka o Hākena, University of Otago.

Otago’s first law lecturer, Sir Robert Stout, started teaching common law in 1873 to 18 students. He left in 1875 to pursue a distinguished political career, including holding the office of Prime Minister and then Chief Justice. A series of local lawyers then lectured part-time for Otago, through the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

When the Faculty of Law was formally created in 1913 the roll boasted 47 students. Law students were generally employed in local firms and attended classes after hours at their teachers’ offices or the Supreme Court building. Two or three of the most active faculty members had offices in the Cadbury’s cardboard box factory. Later, classes moved to the Dunedin High Court.

Student numbers waxed and waned over the next four decades, reaching as high as 91 in 1928 and as low as eight in 1942, during World War Two. In the late 1950s, the first full-time Dean of Law and Professor, Frank Guest, was appointed (remarkably, he also taught law to fellow prisoners whilst a prisoner of war in Germany during WW2).

Diccon Sim, Gallaway Cook Allan partner

In 1966, with 161 law students and three full-time academic staff, law teaching moved to the University campus and into the building that is now the Staff Club. Ten years later, with 471 students and 12 full-time staff, Law moved into the Richardson Building where it remains today. The four-year LLB degree was adopted in 1967 and by 1970 almost all law students studied full-time. There was a dramatic increase in the number of women law students from the late 1960s.

Throughout this history there have been many remarkable law students, and Otago Law alumni have made a global impact. The Faculty’s student roll and focus have reflected societal changes and progress.

Sometimes this history has highlighted the progress still to be made; while Ethel Benjamin was the first woman to be admitted to law school in Australiasia in 1893, it took almost a century before the number of women law students equalled the number of men. Alumna Dame Silvia Cartwright, who will be a special guest at the 150th anniversary event, has previously observed the isolation she felt as one of three women studying law during her time at Otago. Professor Jacinta Ruru, one of the speakers at the anniversary event, was the first Māori professor of law to be appointed in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Frazer Barton, Anderson Lloyd partner and Law Society President

Shaping a future we all aspire to

Dean of Law, Professor Shelley Griffiths, says she is keenly aware of the responsibility the Faculty has to reflect the society we are part of, and for the education of future generations of lawyers and the research of their staff to contribute to the future we aspire to.

To support this, a new Dean’s Innovation Fund will be launched at the anniversary. This fund will enable the Dean to support relevant and important emerging priorities for students. These include funding for students experiencing hardship, and supporting student initiatives and activities, for example, travel grants for students to attend national and international competitions such as mooting.

The Innovation Fund initiative has already received generous support from two Dunedin law firms, Anderson Lloyd and Gallaway Cook Allan.

Anderson Lloyd partner and Law Society President Frazer Barton, says the firm’s contribution to establishing the Law Dean’s Innovation Fund is in line with its values and goals.

“It’s really important that this profession reflects the society we live in, that it is not elitist. We’re in a privileged role, we’re looked up to by society but there are certain expectations we have to live up to. We need to reflect society, so we need to support that diversity in all meanings of the word,” Frazer Barton says.

Professor Jeremy Waldron

Gallaway Cook Allan partner, Diccon Sim believes the aims of the Law Dean’s Innovation Fund reflect the personalised approach the Faculty takes to teaching and the opportunities it creates for students.

“The future of law looks a little different from what it’s been historically and the kind of people that have historically been drawn to law are not necessarily the people who are going to best serve the legal needs of New Zealand in the next 150 years,” observes Diccon Sim.

Alumni in the spotlight at anniversary

Professor John Dawson is a key organiser of this anniversary event, and says the programme supports the intent of looking back, reminiscing, and celebrating success, as well as looking to the future of the profession. It will be both a social and an academic event. He is grateful for the sponsorship received from many law firms.

The speakers include many successful Otago Law alumni, who will challenge and entertain the attendees. There will be a staff vs former students debate, a 30-year reunion of Te Roopū Whai Pūtake/the Māori Law Students’ Association, and a gathering of those who were students of Professor Guest, who died suddenly in office in 1967.

We highlight below some of the distinguished alumni who will speak:

Professor Jeremy Waldron

Professor Jeremy Waldron will speak on the rule of law and democracy under an unentrenched constitution. He will review the value of judicial review of legislation as a driver of law reform.

“It’s no secret that I am a strong believer in Parliamentary law reform rather than judicial law-making. And I will be urging law students and faculty in the audience not to feel ashamed about New Zealand’s lack of a codified constitution and judicial power to enforce it,” says Professor Waldron.

“At a time when judicial review is under attack – for example, in Israel recently – we should not feel that it is our task to call for greater judicial power or even to resist diminution of the powers that judges happen to have.

“Sometimes we just have to respect the verdict of ordinary people organised in a democratic system, and not treat ourselves – judges and law professors – as standing above politics and therefore necessarily having the final say.”

A graduate of Otago and Oxford, and an internationally renowned legal and political philosopher, Professor Waldron teaches at NYU School of Law, in Manhattan. Until recently, he was also Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford. He has written extensively on rights, constitutionalism, the rule of law, democracy, property, security, and homelessness.

Sir Ronald Young Sir Ronald Young

He says his time at Otago (1971 – 1978), when he studied parallel honours degrees in Law and Philosophy, was a calm and relatively unexciting time in the law.

“We were all intensely interested in law reform, and we had seen the massive reform of tort law in the early 1970s. And it was a good time to consider and study the prospect of law reform in Family Law and Administrative Law.

“I think this calmness gave us a healthy sense of business as usual in the law, and a strong sense of our law belonging to the people whose lives it ruled and whose wellbeing it protected.”

Professor Waldron received an honorary doctorate from the University of Otago in 2005, and in 2019 a Professorial Chair in Jurisprudence was created in his name at Otago.

Sir Ron Young and Kerryn Beaton KC

These alumni will be sharing career experiences in their joint session.

Sir Ron Young is the Chairperson of the NZ Parole Board. He previously served as a judge for more than 25 years, serving as New Zealand’s Chief District Court Judge, on the High Court, and on the Court of Appeal. He continues to serve on Pacific courts of appeal. He led the establishment of the judicial orientation programme for new judges and has been President of the New Zealand Electoral Commission. At the Otago 150th, he will debate the usefulness of the parole system in New Zealand.

Photo of Kerryn Beaton Kerryn Beaton, King’s Counsel at Walker Street Chambers

Kerryn Beaton is a King’s Counsel at Walker Street Chambers, Christchurch. She has held numerous roles within the criminal justice process, including public defender, Crown prosecutor, and now defence counsel. Her practice is particularly focused on cases involving abuse and vulnerable people. She acts for clients charged with the most serious offences, including murder. She has acted as counsel assisting several commissions of inquiry, including the UN Khmer Rouge investigations in Cambodia, and the current Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care. She will reflect on this career.

Justices Christine French and Forrie Miller

These leading judges will speak on their earlier experiences of appearing before the Privy Council and on the impact on the judicial system of the new Supreme Court.

Justice Christine French graduated from Otago and Oxford (she was the first female Rhodes Scholar from Otago, in 1981). She then conducted civil litigation at French Burt Partners in Invercargill, where she became a partner, and represented the successful respondent in the famous Invercargill City Council v Hamlin case in the Privy Council. She was appointed to the High Court in 2008 and the Court of Appeal in 2012 (another first for a female law graduate of Otago). She has served on the Council of the University and been awarded an Otago HonLLD degree.

Justice Christine French

Justice Forrie Miller is from a farming background in South Otago. He studied at Otago and Toronto and is a judge of the New Zealand Court of Appeal. He joined Chapman Tripp in Wellington, becoming its chairman and conducting commercial litigation on securities, regulatory and competition law. He was appointed to the High Court in 2004 and Court of Appeal in 2013. Justice Miller has performed many leadership roles within the judiciary, including promoting case management, managing the Earthquake list for Christchurch, developing electronic casebooks, and managing the courts’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He has been awarded an Otago HonLLD degree.

Tikanga Māori and the future of the legal system

A session on tikanga Māori and the future of the legal system will feature Otago graduates, Professor Jacinta Ruru, Natalie Coates and Metiria Stanton Turei.

Professor Ruru joined Otago’s Faculty of Law in 1999 and is Aotearoa New Zealand’s first Māori professor of law. She researches how state legal systems should reconcile with their Indigenous peoples, their laws and knowledges, and specifically considers Māori rights and responsibilities to care for, own, manage, and govern lands and waters.

She leads the national research project “Inspiring New Indigenous Legal Education for Aotearoa New Zealand’s LLB degree” alongside all Māori law academics across Aotearoa’s six law schools.

Professor Jacinta Ruru

Professor Ruru says there is a growing recognition that tikanga Māori has within it an incredibly dynamic Māori legal system. She says our courts and legislature are becoming much more open to enabling Māori laws to sit alongside and be part of New Zealand’s formal state legal system.

“I fundamentally believe that there are incredible solutions within the Māori world, that if we as a country open more of our hearts and minds to this it would create significant opportunities for us all as a nation.”

Natalie Coates is a partner at Kāhui Legal and was counsel in recent cases where tikanga and the Treaty of Waitangi have been central, including the Supreme Court Ellis proceedings (concerning the relevance of tikanga to whether an appeal can continue beyond death), and the Trans-Tasman Resources Ltd proceedings (that considered the relevance of tikanga and the Treaty of Waitangi in respect of a deep-sea mining consent off Taranaki).

Metiria Stanton Turei was a member of the New Zealand Parliament for 15 years and Co-leader of the Green Party for nine years. She reengaged in legal education and completed an LLM from Otago, where she is now a senior lecturer in jurisprudence, leading the inclusion of tikanga within the curriculum.

More information on the Otago Law Faculty 150th Anniversary Conference and Reunion:

The University of Otago Te Kaupeka Tātai Ture Faculty of Law thanks all the sponsors, speakers and attendees for their support of this event. The major sponsors are Anderson Lloyd, Gallaway Cook Allan, McMillan & Co, and Niche Recruitment.

Friday, 14 April to Saturday, 15 April, with some additional elements on Thursday, 13 April.

For a full programme and to register, visit the event website:

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