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My First Eighty Years

Appendix — Sir Hubert Ostler's Reply to Farewell Speeches from Members of the Wellington Bar and Representatives of the New Zealand Law Society

page 234

Sir Hubert Ostler's Reply to Farewell Speeches from Members of the Wellington Bar and Representatives of the New Zealand Law Society.

Reprinted from New Zealand Law Journal, 2 March, 1943.

Gentlemen, I have known for some time that I possessed your respect and confidence; that you knew that, whatever my faults, I was trying to hold the scales of justice evenly, but it makes me proud and yet humble to realize that, to some extent, I have also won your affection.

‘If I had not for some time lost the gentle art, I should have blushed at hearing the high praise lavished on me by your two speakers. I can only attribute it to the fact that, as old friends, they are unconsciously biased in my favour. I wish I could think that my work as a Judge deserved half the praise which they have bestowed on it to-day. I have tried my best to carry the Torch of Justice which was handed to me by my distinguished predecessors, so that I could pass it on to my successor, whoever he might be, undiminished in brightness. But then I was set an impossible task.

‘My predecessors were such giants that, as compared with them, I have always felt I was amongst the pygmies. Looking back, of all the qualifications that a good Judge should possess, I can honestly say that I had only three, and for two of those I can claim no credit. I certainly had a good digestion and a sound set of nerves, but for those qualities I am indebted to my heredity. The only qualification for which I can claim any credit myself is the habit of work which I had acquired by the time I came to the Bench.

‘I acquired the habit of work in this way. As some of you know, for the first eight years of my life, after I left school, page 235 I was a working-man in the country. I started on a piece of virgin bush which belonged to my mother, and in those eight years knocked it into a bush farm, doing all the various jobs of work which were necessary for that purpose. When I came to start in the profession of law in my twenty-fifth year without having even taken the preliminary hurdle of passing the matriculation examination, and when I looked round and saw men younger than myself who were not only through their examinations but actually taking cases in the Courts, I realized that only by a long stern chase could I possibly catch up in the race; and that could only be accomplished if I worked every minute of my time. And so I got into a habit of work which by the time I came to the Bench had so hardened me that whenever I had a bit of work to do — a difficult judgment to write — I felt mentally and physically miserable until I had tackled it, wrestled with it, and finished it, and so although the justice I dispensed might often have been rough, none of you can complain that it was not at any rate prompt justice.

‘I thought then that those eight years had been absolutely wasted, that they were years that the locusts had eaten; but I came to think quite differently later, and I firmly believe that the years I spent knocking round bush camps, saleyards, and shearing-sheds were a better preparation for the practice of the law than anything I ever learned out of a book. Moreover those eight years of work gave me a strong constitution and great physical strength, except for one piece of bad luck which was the real cause of my subsequent premature breakdown in health.

‘When I was twenty-two years of age I had a riding accident. I was violently thrown against a stump and iniured my spine; in fact, one of the doctors who saw the X-ray photographs which were taken later, declared that I had actually broken my neck. I think that opinion, however, was somewhat exaggerated. At any rate, I seemed to recover completely from the accident, except that I always had a page 236 stiff neck after it, and for many years I played football and indulged in many strenuous forms of sport. But nearly thirty years later — three years after I had become a Judge — the result of that accident began to appear. From that time I have had increasing pain and ill health accompanied by a creeping paralysis. Irreparable injury had been done to my spinal cord; and although an operation gave me temporary relief, from that date I have been gradually stiffening up with a paralysis which has at length made of me the physical wreck which you see before you. Gentlemen, you will realize that I am not complaining in any way. I have had a glorious life. For over fifty years I seldom knew what it was to have a day's illness or what it was to feel tired.

‘The profession of the law seems to have fallen on evil days as compared with the time when I first entered it, and its future is dark and uncertain. Nevertheless, knowing all that, if I had the chance to start again, I would unhesitatingly choose the law. It is quite true that our profession has produced a few rogues. No profession is exempt from that disadvantage. But it is sound at the core and is composed almost entirely of men of sterling honesty who are trusted by the public and who are doing work for the community which is indispensable. There is a spirit of camaraderie and good fellowship about the profession which is unique, and that is especially noticeable at the Wellington Bar. Moreover, in the law a man can keep his independence of mind, and he has no necessity to truckle or to be servile to anyone. Yet, oddly enough, I drifted into the law by a pure accident and started training for my career without the least enthusiasm. It happened in this way.

‘In April, 1900, most of my friends in the country went off to the Boer War in the Fourth Contingent. I was madly keen to go too, but being an only son of a widowed mother I felt it my duty to stay. So I stayed behind, very restless and dissatisfied; but just then things began to move in the farming world. The dairy industry was just started, and page 237 butterfat reached the unheard-of price of 6d. per pound. A tenant came along wishing to lease the farm, so a lease was granted at a rent upon which my mother could live, and I was free. I rushed down to Wellington at the beginning of September, 1900, to see whether I could get away in another Contingent to Africa, but at that time Johannesburg and Pretoria had fallen, and it looked as though the war had come to an end. No more Contingents were being sent, but the Defence authorities told me that in about three months' time they would be sending a boatload of horses; so I said “What about a job looking after the horses?” and they said yes, that they would want men for that, and they took my name.

‘My plan was, if I was too late for the war, to sit on the doorstep of Cecil Rhodes and to make a nuisance of myself until he gave me a job in Northern Rhodesia helping to govern backward tribes of natives, which was the life I fancied. I had sufficient forethought to obtain a testimonial for that purpose, merely to show that I came of honest parents and had not been in jail, which were the only qualifications I could boast. I bethought me of Sir Robert Stout, an old friend of my family, who himself at the age of nineteen had migrated from his home to New Zealand in the days when the voyage itself was a hazardous venture, and who, I thought, would therefore have been sympathetic to my plan. But when I put it before him, to my surprise he was extremely hostile. “Why go to that foul country? It is bleaching with white men's bones. New Zealand needs all its young men! Why not stay in New Zealand, and if you are not satisfied with farming, why not go in for a profession?” I told him that the only profession that attracted me was medicine, and that required money which I did not have. “But”, he said, “you can get into the law without money, why not go in for law, my boy?” I had then all the farmer's contempt for the pettifogging lawyer, but I found some difficulty in expressing that view to such a page 238 distinguished member of the profession; so what I did say was that I did not think I was cut out for the law, and that in any case I had not passed the matriculation examination. He said: “Well you say that the boat will not be going for three months, and the examination takes place in December; why not sit down and work for it, and if you do not pass you will have plenty of time to go to Africa.” I thought that good advice, so I worked and sat for the examination, and in January, 1901, Lady Stout sent for me and said that she had obtained my marks and they were good, and she got me to promise to go on studying for the law. So I commenced without any enthusiasm, but merely because the law was the one profession I could work my way into without money. I had no sooner started than the war blazed up again, and at least four more Contingents were sent from New Zealand. I was very tempted to throw it up and go off, but having set my hand to the plough, I kept on at my work.

‘Throughout my whole career in the law I have been favoured with wonderful good luck. I had a bit of a struggle for the first two and a half years, but that in itself was good discipline. My first trouble was that I could not get a job in any legal office. I tried them all from top to bottom, and none of them could see any merit in me. I daresay there was a fair amount of hayseed in my hair, and my appearance must certainly have been bucolic. By persistence I managed to “wangle” a personal interview with both Mr H.D.Bell and Mr Skerrett; and each of them looked at me with a frosty eye and told me to put my application in writing. And you may be quite sure that behind that cold eye each was thinking what he would say to his “watchdog” when he got hold of him for letting me get past his guard. But they both made noble amends to me later. At last I managed to secure a job at £1 a week outside the law, and with that and £15, which was the sole extent of my capital, I managed to get through my first year at the University. I obtained lodgings at 15s. per week in Arthur Street, a little street off the top page 239 of Cuba Street, and I had to look at every sixpence twice before I spent it.

‘At the end of the first year I was penniless. The only way I knew of earning money was by manual work, so I slipped off to the country and got a job cutting down timber-trees and sawing them into lengths for transport to a sawmill. I stayed at that job for four and a half months, and by working long hours I was able to make high wages for those times; and two days before the University started again, I returned to Wellington with £60 in my pocket. Then I thought if I could only get a job in a legal office I could get through the following year. It was my friend, Mr H. E. Anderson, who helped me on that occasion. He had been a clerk in the office of the late Mr Alexander Dunn, who at that time had only just started, and had one clerk, and did not even have a typewriter in the office. Mr Anderson had been getting 15s. per week; but he was leaving to go into his father's office, and knowing that I was looking for a job he kindly sought me out and told me that if I went round quickly I might obtain his. I rushed round and was interviewed by Mr Dunn. After looking me over, he said that he was prepared to take me, but could not afford to pay more than 15s. per week. I felt that I must have that extra 5s. in order to carry on, so I argued the point with him, and when he heard that I could use a typewriter, and had learned shorthand, he agreed to take me at £1 per week; and he bought a typewriter, and I was installed in my first legal office. It was there I learnt everything I ever did learn about the solicitor's side of the profession, which has never been much. I would like to say that I could never have wished for a better employer than Mr Dunn, who treated me with consideration and generosity. He gave me a bonus of £5 at Christmas, which was extremely welcome, and he raised my salary in the New Year to £1 5s., without my having to ask for it. I got through my second year on the £60 I had made and the salary from Mr Dunn. I still had page 240 very little, but managed right through without ever getting into debt. Then one day in March, 1903, Mr Jack Stout came round to see me and told me that he was giving up his position as Associate to his father, and on his father's behalf offered it to me. From that moment, of course, my financial worries were over.

‘I also had the very good fortune to be closely associated with four giants of the law. I had four years with Sir Robert Stout. Then I started as editor of the Law Reports with the right to practise as a barrister, which, of course, I never dreamed would be of any value, as no one would be likely to employ an unknown junior. But just as I commenced the new work the first King's Counsel were appointed in New Zealand, and in a short time I was working day and night devilling and doing junior counsel work for Mr Bell and Mr Skerrett, as they then were. I was working in close association with them for four years. Then Mr Salmond, as he then was, was appointed Solicitor-General, and he offered me the position of Crown Solicitor. I was five years in the Crown Law Office, so that I had the great advantage of studying the methods of work of those four great lawyers. The rest of my career at the Bar you all know. I had ten years' heavy practice at the Bar in Auckland, nineteen years' practice in all. The whole of that was barrister's work. I really know little about the solicitor's side of the profession.

‘As you know, I have had eighteen years on the Bench, and in spite of the fact that for fifteen years of that time I have had increasing ill health and pain, I have really enjoyed every minute of my work on the Bench. What has made it so pleasant has been my relations with members of the Bar. I have never had anything but kindness and consideration from them, and have never had such a thing as a “breeze” in Court, and I have been helped by nearly every counsel who appeared before me.

‘Gentlemen, I feel sad to leave it all prematurely, but I do not wish to be lugubrious in any way about the parting. page 241 Even if I had kept my health I would only have had five and a half years more before I reached the age of retirement, so that, in any case, it is about time I said good-bye and made room for a younger man.’

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