New Zealander of the Year Finalist: Sir Edmund Thomas

By Phil Taylor

Every day this week in news, business and sport we feature the finalists for the Herald New Zealander of the Year. Top honours will appear in the Weekend Herald on Saturday.

Sir Edmund Thomas. Photo / Richard Robinson
Sir Edmund Thomas. Photo / Richard Robinson

Sir Edmund (Ted) Thomas always had courage of his convictions.

As a lawyer he argued the case that stopped the 1985 All Blacks tour to apartheid South Africa, and he was central to the establishment of an association for barristers independent of the Law Society.

It takes courage to take an unpopular course, more so when it means going up against the establishment.

The retired Court of Appeal judge's stand in the Bill Wilson conflict-of-interest affair has probably cost him a friend or two but it is clear from the complaint he filed about the now former Supreme Court judge, that he was interested in maintaining the credibility of the courts.

He described in his complaint the prolonged failure of the judge to make full disclosure of relevant information regarding his business relationship with a senior lawyer appearing in a case before him as "a serious breach of judicial ethics" with potentially serious ramifications.

"There is a real risk that the court will be seen as dysfunctional. The court, and not just the individual judge, is brought into disrepute," he said in his complaint.

Having replaced the Privy Council with the Supreme Court, he said, it was in everyone's interest that it be as robust as possible.

Misconduct by judges is usually dealt with behind closed doors. It is conjecture, but feasible, that no panel to investigate would have been appointed had it not been for Sir Edmund spelling out the possible effect on confidence in the courts.

There have been murmured claims that Sir Edmund was meddling. Those claims are wrong.

Sir Edmund was right to intervene. The judge's declarations were not good enough. And despite Mr Wilson's offer to be questioned on oath, it appeared as though the fine detail of a financial imbalance in contributions to their business (and so the potential for bias) had to be prised free.

The Judicial Conduct Commissioner agreed, finding grounds for an unprecedented judicial panel investigation, and so, essentially, did a three-judge High Court panel.

It has been a salutary lesson for the judiciary; a disaster for Mr Wilson whose resignation ended the process.

What Sir Edmund's intervention makes plain is that much clearer requirements and real transparency are required regarding public disclosure of the financial interests of judges.

It is to be hoped that will be the legacy of Sir Edmund's involvement.

A private member's bill to set up a register of judges' interests has been drawn from the ballot.

- NZ Herald

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