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New Zealand Law Conference

Issue date: 
Tuesday, 9 April 1996
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Mr President, Mr President, members of the judiciary from near and far, other distinguished guests, people of Ngai Tahu, ladies and gentlemen, tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

There has, I should admit, been a sense of unreality about, the past few weeks. This afternoon, that sense has become particularly acute. To be on this side of the footlights, and not the other where I've always been up until now, is astonishing. But at the same time, it is also a great honour and a great pleasure to be here.

In the transition from my old life to the new, the judges, and the legal profession as a whole, have been most supportive. A hardened cynic might, of course, wonder at the enthusiasm of some of the farewells. But not being such myself, I have truly been touched and greatly encouraged by the goodwill that has been so evident.

I'd like to give you just one example: an old friend kindly referred me to the judgement of Dawson J., sitting alone in the High Court of Australia, in a case called Sykes v. Governor-General and reported in the Australian Law Journal - references supplied on request - in which His Honour held that there was nothing in the Constitution of Australia to prevent a member of the judiciary being appointed to the office of Governor-General. I thought that was most encouraging.

So it is without any legal inhibition at least, that I am able to be with you today and by opening this Conference, to pay tribute to the profession to which I owe so much. May I say too, what a pleasure it is to have so many distinguished guests from overseas. You will all, I know, make an important contribution to the business of the Conference.

On a personal level, I am delighted to meet again Mme Justice McLachlun, the jet-setting member of the Canadian Supreme Court, and Lord Browne-Wilkinson from London. He and his fellow Law Lords were wonderfully welcoming when I sat with them on the Privy Council last year. That whole experience was truly stimulating; its high point was the hearing of Invercargill City v. Hamlin, splendidly argued on both sides by women lawyers from New Zealand, who made me very proud of the profession in this country.

As our visitors will quickly discover, and not to be falsely-modest about it, New Zealand does Law Conferences well. I've attended a fair few and each has been excellent, different from all the others, with its own distinctive flavour, its own particular emphasis. This 23rd New Zealand Law Conference should be no exception. Here in this fine old city of Dunedin, once a centre of trade and commerce, always a centre of scholarship, seasoned with Scottish good sense, we have a programme that is stimulating and up to the minute, with something - many things in fact - for everyone. The organisers are to be congratulated for what they have achieved.

It's a mix of serious business and good fun, as life should always be. For lawyers and judges (meaning of course, no disrespectful contrast), as for anyone else, the secret of success is getting the balance right. The mix for this Conference looks appropriate to me. I hope it helps all of you maintain your centre of gravity during the next three years.

For as we know, professional life is no easy ride. In ours, the law becomes more complex, legal problems more intricate, our skills require constant sharpening. And this is the age of accountability - however erratically that ideal is sought. The profession and the judiciary are under constant surveillance and subject to frequent criticism; some of it constructive, much not; some justified, much the result of ignorance or misunderstanding.

We have no right to be immune from criticism. Where the criticism is valid, then we must heed it and learn from it. But where it is ignorant or misinformed, often it is a cross we just have to bear. Our means of response are limited. Judges can do little but quietly and diligently discharge their duties: duties more important than the fashion of the day or the clamour of the moment. If explanation or defence is needed, they must, traditionally, look to the profession, for that is its collective responsibility. With that, I must add, goes an individual responsibility for members of the profession to refrain from attention-seeking, 'smart' personal comments about judges.

The profession is better able than the judges to answer ill-founded criticism levelled at its members and it has usually done so, effectively. But as with the judges, the best response to any criticism of the profession as a whole, will be the demonstration by lawyers throughout the country, that they are genuinely conscientious in the service of their clients; and that they are making themselves available, and in the many forms their availability must take, to meet the legal needs of all members of the community.

It does us no harm, from time to time, to remind ourselves, and society at large, by adapting the well-known words of Sir Thomas Erskine, that, without the independence and integrity of the profession, and we have that, the social order can have no existence; and that impartial justice the most valuable part of the constitution.

I trust that this Conference will prove a time for reappraising the true worth of our profession; for equipping ourselves with new and sharper professional skills; and for reaffirming our essential commitment as a profession, to the service of our clients and the upholding of the rule of law in the New Zealand community.

It is with that trust that I have the greatest pleasure in declaring this 23rd New Zealand Law Conference duly open.

Nunc Gaudeamus.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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