1 Nov 2018

Former Chief Justice Sir Thomas Eichelbaum dies

7:33 pm on 1 November 2018

Former Chief Justice Sir Thomas Eichelbaum has died aged 87.

New Zealand Law Society president Kathryn Beck said the legal profession had lost an important contributor to the justice system.

Sir Thomas was Chief Justice from February 1989 to May 1999 and was the president of the Law Society from 1980 to 1982.

Ms Beck said he was a friendly, humane, cheerful and essentially modest man.

Sir Thomas Eichelbaum.

Sir Thomas Eichelbaum. Photo: Courts of NZ

"He was an excellent administrator who was respected by all as a person of integrity who was also willing to consult and seek advice where necessary. The Criminal Appeal Division of the Court of Appeal was established during Sir Thomas' time as Chief Justice and this was a very successful initiative.

"A humble and very approachable man, his time as Chief Justice was viewed as one where the efficiency of our courts was greatly enhanced."

Johann Thomas Eichelbaum was born in Germany in 1931 and came to New Zealand with his parents in 1938 to escape Nazism. His father was Jewish.

He was educated at Hutt Valley High School and Victoria University, and was a lawyer in Wellington for more than 20 years before becoming a high court judge in 1982. He found sentencing offenders difficult, often bewailing the fact that society hasn't found an alternative to jail for some offences.

His appointment as Chief Justice in 1989 broke a political convention. No serving judge had been named to the job before because it was argued that judges could be tempted to rule in favour of the government if they had hope of higher office.

Knighted the year he was appointed, Sir Thomas proved an advocate of judicial reform, criticising the time it took for cases to be heard, and arguing for the courts to work more efficiently. Under him, the first Māori High Court judge was appointed, judges' wigs were abandoned, television and radio entered the courtroom and the judiciary began publishing an annual report.

He called for the removal of informal barriers to women in the law and judiciary, and saw the naming of the first women to the High Court. He was succeeded in May 1999 by the first woman Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias.

Although he had been a Privy Councillor, he supported abolishing appeals to the council, telling a Parliamentary select committee it was absurd that New Zealand's most important legal issues should be decided on the other side of the world.

Sir Thomas also accused the Business Roundtable of putting pressure on the government and judiciary to favour the well-off.

In retirement, Sir Thomas carried out two inquiries for the government into errors involving the use of DNA in evidence.

In 2000, then justice minister Phil Goff appointed him to inquire into aspects of the case of the convicted child sex offender Peter Ellis.

He then chaired the Royal Commission on Genetic Engineering, and in 2002 carried out an inquiry for the rugby union into why it lost co-host status for the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

Sir Thomas is survived by his three sons.