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The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Otago & Southland Provincial Districts]

The Hon. William Downie Stewart

The Hon. William Downie Stewart , sometime member of the Legislative Council of New Zealand, was born at Blairdrummond, near Stirling. Scotland. on the 15th of May, 1842. He studied law for some time in Scotland, but came out to the Colony when nineteen years of age, and entered the office of Messrs Richmond and Gillies in Dunedin in 1862. In 1864 Mr. Stewart became a pupil of Mr. James Prendergast (afterwards Chief Justice), who was then in practice in Dunedin, and, on the appointment of the latter as Attorney-General of the Colony, he was admitted in June, 1867, as a barrister and solicitor. He then began the practice of his profession. In 1879 Mr. Stewart was elected a member of the House of Representatives for Dunedin, and, on the defeat of the Grey Administration, again stood for Dunedin, and was returned a second time in the same year. He contested the Dunedin West seat at the election of 1880 against the Hon. Thos. Dick, but was defeated by eight votes. In 1884, however, he was returned by a small majority over the same opponent, and three years later he was successful in securing re-election, Mr. Dick again contesting the same seat with him. Mr. Stewart was in 1891 called to the Legislative Council, his being the last life appointment made by Lord Onslow. In 1879 he was offered but declined the office of Attorney-General in the
The Late Hon. W. D. Stewart.

The Late Hon. W. D. Stewart.

Grey Administation. Mr. Stewart in 1875 visited Britain, travelling through the United States, where he made a special study of the laws of various states; on his return to this colony he delivered a lecture to the Otago Law Students' Soclety on “English and American Law.” This lecture, which was republished in the States, suggested a number of legal reforms, most of which have since become law. Mr. Stewart advocated a code of procedure, and that the costs of an action should be fixed according to a scale; that prisoner in poor circumstances should have a right to counsel paid by the State; that confessions made to clergymen and communications made to physicians should be privlleged; that the rate of interest should be fixed; that there should be a Contractors' Lien Act; that the legal status of married women should be altered; that a betterment law should be passed; the abolition of primogenlture; and the fusion of law and equity. In 1879 he introduced a Bill to enable a woman to whom unchastity was imputed to bring an action for slander without proof of special damage. This reform has since been carried in England and Victoria. In 1885 he carried the Evidence Amendment Act, by which the Courts were entitled to take judicial notice of the laws of foregin countries, and under which an action for seduction may be brought without proof of loss of service. In 1879 he carried an Act by which deeds could be proved in the Magistrate's Court, without calling the attestin witness. This alteration of the law has proved a great benefit, and is re-enacted by section 89 of the “Magistrate's Court Act, 1893.” In 1884 he carried an Act making the publication of a false notice of birth, death, or marriage in a newspaper punishable by fine or imprisonment; and in the following year an amendment by which acknowledgment of deeds by married women was abolished, and an amendment in the “Administration Act, 1885,” by which executors and administrators may resign or be removed. After the maritime strike of 1890 Mr. Stewart prepared and carried to a second reading a Strikes and Arbitration Bill, the first proposal of the kind in the colonies to provide a means of settlement of differences between employer and employed. This Bill was the basis of the Industrial and Conciliation Act, passed in 1894 by the Seddon Ministry. In 1891 he carried several important amendments in the law relating to trustees. Mr. Stewart supported the extension of the franchise to women, and advocated trade protection for a young colony, and the reading of the Bible in public schools. In 1883 he again visited the United States and Canada. He took an active interest in all legal and social reforms. Mr. Stewart was married in 1868 to the youngest daughter of the late Mr. George Hepburn, of Waikari, Canterbury, who died ten years later, leaving two sons and two daughters. One daughter passed her art examination at Oxford. In 1881 Mr. Stewart married Miss Mary Thomson, youngest daughter of Mr. John Thomson, formerly Provost of Irvine, Ayrshire, Scotland. He died on the 25th of November, 1898.