Sir Edmund Thomas: A tribute to Sir Owen Woodhouse

by NZ Lawyer30 Apr 2014
Sir Edmund Thomas paid the following tribute to Sir Owen Woodhouse at a symposium held at the Law School at the University of Auckland on 13 December, 2007, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Woodhouse Report. Sir Owen Woodhouse was present. He died on April 15th this year and his funeral is being held today.

I have already been introduced in passing by Geoff McLay when he was quite critical of the fine distinctions drawn by the Court of Appeal in a decision relating to nervous shock. Let me plead my defence: I was not a member of the Court; alternatively, if I was a member of the Court, I delivered a dissenting judgment; alternatively, if I was a member of that Court and I did not deliver a dissenting judgment - then, I was unwell on the day.

I also thought that Sir Geoffrey may have been getting pertinently personal when he contemplated whether ACC could apply to a "one-legged judge". Now, I have never been described as a one-legged judge, but often, perhaps too often, or perhaps not often enough, I have been called a one-eyed judge. We would all accept that one-eyed judges are beyond rehabilitation. But should Sir Geoffrey in his reforming zeal choose to ensure that compensation is paid to one-eyed judges, I will be pleased to live out the rest of my days in relative affluence.

So, as a retired one-eyed judge, it is a great privilege to be asked to conclude today's Symposium with a tribute to Sir Owen Woodhouse.
Of course, it is difficult not to duplicate what speakers have already said. But I will try and avoid that by being largely irrelevant. Apart from the explicit and generous acknowledgements made by the various speakers today, the fact that they have prepared and presented such carefully researched and learned papers is itself a tribute to Sir Owen. 

I know that Sir Owen would not wish me to pay him a tribute without acknowledging the assistance he had from the other members of the Commission he chaired; Mr H L Bockett and Mr G A Parsons. They undoubtedly provided Sir Owen with real support.

Not more than a day or so ago, my preparation of this tribute to Sir Owen was interrupted by the Symposium's organizer, Associate Professor Rosemary Tobin, with a firm instruction sternly delivered. I was not, repeat not, to "go over the top".

With a speed of thought that escaped me during my professional lifetime, I at once deduced that Sir Owen had been in touch with Associate Professor Tobin. But this was to be expected. Even though his achievements are anything but modest, Sir Owen is essentially a modest and self-effacing man. I know that any tribute, over the top or not, will cause him embarrassment.

So I will do what lawyers often do in such circumstances and retreat behind a quotation. The extract comes from a speech written in 1968 when the Woodhouse Report was being widely debated.

This beautifully crafted Report is the work of a man with a deep-rooted social conscience fully aware of the needs and aspirations of the common man and woman. His Report reflects his vision of a more humane, harmonious and responsible society. As such, it represents the most far-reaching exhortation to the community to engage significantly with those who are less fortunate since the enactment of the Social Security Act in 1938. The comprehensive and unified scheme which he advances to replace a fragmented and capricious response to the problem of personal injury is conveyed with a clarity, cogency and cohesiveness that few, if any, authors could emulate. And it reveals the author's love of language being couched in such disarmingly straightforward and precise writing that it cannot but fail to persuade. Indeed, the sheer strength, power and eloquence of his expression, it is to be predicted, will defuse and mute much of the criticism which would otherwise develop in opposition to a system that will dislocate so many vested interests and will, in the fullness of time, lead to the introduction of the appropriate legislation in this country. 

Undoubtedly there are those who would say that this quotation is over the top. Yet others would say that the extract is a succinct, realistic and balanced appraisal of the Report. I am of the latter view - but then I would be. After all, I wrote it.


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