The Spike [or Victoria University College Review 1954]
Robert Orr McGechan
Some of the warmest tributes paid to the late Professor McGechan came from his former students overseas. They wrote of his unlimited enthusiasm for legal education, his unfailing helpfulness, and the high standards he set for himself and for all who would follow the profession of the law. Those closely associated with him soon came to know him as a man of unswerving fidelity to his ideals, resolute of purpose, completely devoted to the causes of university education, the law, and international co-operation.
His personal interest in his students and his eagerness to help them were revealed in a hundred ways.. As is well known, he and Mrs. McGechan were hosts to students at their home year after year. No project of the Law Faculty page 4 Club ever failed to receive his warmest support. He did all he could do to maintain a placement service, through which he not merely brought solicitors and potential clerks together, but gave wise guidance to many a student planning the first steps of his career. The policy he adopted in developing his class library was chosen expressly in the hope that it would incidentally afford some financial relief to students. He conceived and carried through to completion the project for a special Law Reading Room—now the most attractive room in the College. Anxious that former students should not get out of touch, he instituted the Law Faculty Newsletter. It was mainly through his initiative that valued gifts of law reports for the library were received from practitioners and from graduating classes of students. He grasped every opportunity of assisting the best students to advance their studies abroad, and encouraged visits to New Zealand from law teachers overseas who might help to raise the standards of our own teaching.
When Professor McGechan first lectured here in 1940 he used the methods to which he had been accustomed as a student in New South Wales. This involved no break with local tradition. But as the years went by he became increasingly dissatisfied with this technique, and turned his attention to a critical examination of aims and methods. Changes came quickly after his return in 1951 from a visit to American universities and law schools—not because this experience had fundamentally altered his outlook, but because it confirmed and crystallised the views he had already tentatively formed He proceeded apace with preparation of case materials, launched the first issue of the Victoria University College Law Review, introduced a greatly expanded programme of moot courts, and was on the threshold of a major piece of research in administrative law, which would have proved immensely valuable in itself and would also have been an inestimable aid in teaching.
On broad issues of legal education he became the most vital and most controversial figure in New Zealand. Deeply convinced that existing arrangements impeded the improvement of legal education he sought unceasingly to change them. At a Dominion Legal Conference, at meetings of the Law Faculty or the Professorial Board and the Senate, he was constantly appealing for the reforms he felt to be needed. He succeeded in introducing a combined B.A.-LL.B. degree and in improving the requirements for LL.M., and advocated many other reforms. His one aim was to raise the standard achieved by graduates in law. When he felt that a rule did not produce sufficient advantages to justify it, he was always ready to remove it. As the records show, he was the moving spirit in eliminating the rule that no credit be given for a pass in a single subject and the rule making Latin compulsory. But his major objectives were greater autonomy for the Colleges and increased responsibility for the Law Faculties of the University in all matters affecting legal education.
His special field of interest was administrative law. It was in this field that he made most of his contributions to legal literature. He had met, and was corresponding with, leading experts on administrative law in America; and it was on the practical problems of adminstrative law in New Zealand that he had embarked on the research project already referred to. At the same time he was keenly aware of the unanswered and the unanswerable problems of legal philosophy, and especially the ethical problems that are confronted in jurisprudence. page 5 This combination of interests evinced his exceptional capacity for a "multidimensional perspective" that embraced both legal realities and legal ideals. He would always underline the ethical considerations that may be the unexpressed determinants of judicial decision, while still retaining in the forefront of attention the realities of human controversy and social disorder. His favourite quotation in recent years was from an article on jurisprudence. The writer, criticising certain attitudes said that they resulted in a view of jurisprudence as a maze of inert ideas, a museum of intellectual curiosities far removed from logic or practice "What follows," he said, "is that analytical, historical, metaphysical, and sociological jurisprudences and their various hybrids and offshoots are exhibited before innocent students like a series of butterflies, all neatly labelled, pinned to their proper cards, and thoroughly dead." For McGechan the tasks of law, and of law teachers, were never antiquarian. The essence, in both cases, was to achieve in practice and not on paper the better integration or reconciliation of human ideals.
This philosophy, combined with his professional interest in international law, led him directly to international affairs. He was active as a member and an office-bearer in organisations engaged in the objective study of international problems. He sought to promote understanding and co-operation between peoples and the elimination of causes of friction, beginning with our own attitudes and prejudices.
His death was the more tragic because he was reaching the peak of his Powers. But during the fourteen years of his tenure of the Chair of Jurisprudence his vision, his tireless activity, and his passionate interest in law teaching, have profoundly influenced the university and a generation of law students. To the roll of great and devoted teachers of this College we proudly add his name.
I. D. Campbell