History - School of Law - University of Canterbury - New Zealand

History of Law at the University of Canterbury

The establishment of Canterbury University College, which in 1957 became the University of Canterbury, has been described as "a protracted and complex episode''. The beginning of higher education apparently took the form of a Canterbury Collegiate Union set up in 1872 and which offered courses in classics, mathematics, physical science and modern languages. To these was added in 1873, a course in Jurisprudence.

CJ FosterDr Charles James Foster, in whose long career there were many vicissitudes, was appointed Lecturer in Jurisprudence in 1874. He was a brilliant academic lawyer who in 1849 had succeeded to the Chair of Jurisprudence in the University of London, the first holder of which had been the famous John Austin. In 1864 he decided to emigrate to New Zealand and practised at the local Bar. He lectured for a year in the Collegiate Union and was then asked to continue his lectures at Canterbury College. Response to the introduction of the teaching of Law must have been poor, for in 1876 he offered to lecture for the second term without a salary.

The LLB degree was introduced in 1877 but according to the official history of the University, students completed their courses mainly by private study. Nevertheless, Foster lectured until 1879. At the beginning of 1880 lectures were discontinued.

Sir Apirana Ngata

Sir Apirana Ngata, New Zealand's first Maori graduate, completed his BA and 3 years of law studies at Canterbury College in 1891-93. He later finished his LLB and became one of New Zealand's early double degree graduates. Ngata went on to a distinguished political career and was an enthusiastic promoter of Maoritanga. Ngata House, one of the accommodation wings at University Hall, is named in his memory.

At this time examinations for Barristers and Solicitors were in the hands of the Chief Justice, and just what this entailed is indicated by the reprinting in [1975] N.Z.L.J. 191 of what would now be called "Course Prescriptions''. The extract comes from the Colonial Law Journal of 1875, exactly one hundred years earlier. The examination was to be "by papers and orally'' and the latter was held on four consecutive days by "the Judge when on the circuit next after the candidates had answered the papers''.


An aspiring barrister was required to sit what was described as a "general knowledge'' examination. This included translations from set Latin and Greek authors and grammatical, historical and geographical questions based on the passages translated; the first four books of Euclid; Algebra up to quadratic equations; and the etymology of the English language and English Composition. (Some candidates might have found a crumb of comfort in being allowed to substitute French or German for Greek, but Latin remained compulsory.) The history paper covered English history, including English Constitutional History, and the history of Europe, Greece and Rome. Blackstone's Commentaries was a set text.

In so far as Law was concerned, candidates were required to know the "Theory and Practice of Civil and Criminal Law of England and New Zealand''. Twelve topics were tested including the Law of Property, Contracts and Torts, Crimes, Equity, Rights and Liabilities of Married Women, Mistake, Injunction, Satisfaction, Pleading and Procedure in the Supreme and Inferior Courts, the Law of Evidence and "a knowledge of the leading decisions in the Court of Appeal in New Zealand.'' Finally, for good measure they were examined in the elements of Public and Private International Law.

There was a rider to the effect that the passing of first and second year University of New Zealand examinations would be regarded as sufficient "general knowledge" provided that the candidate had been examined in at least Latin, Greek (or French and German), Mathematics and History.

Intending solicitors had to pass examinations in Ancient History (Greek and Roman); Modern History; the Feudal System and the Middle Ages; English Composition; reading aloud and writing from dictation; Latin (but apparently not Greek); Arithmetic including vulgar fractions and decimals; Euclid and Algebra as prescribed for barristers. As to their Law, they were advised to read "in addition to the subjects and books specified in rule 22 of the General Rules of the Supreme Court of 1863, Joshua Williams on Real and Personal Property, Dart or Sugden's Vendors and Purchasers, Smith on Contracts, Broome's Commentaries and Smith's Equity.'' These examinations too were written and oral, and candidates were also excused the general knowledge papers if they had passed the Senior Civil Service examination.


The quad below the Dean's window on the original siteIn 1882, Canterbury instituted a scheme of prizes which were to be awarded to the candidate gaining the highest marks, irrespective of where he lived, and a gold medal in the Barrister Class was awarded to James Hay, MA, LLB in October 1883 (a brass tablet in the University Great Hall recording his services to the University recalls this fact). A suggestion in 1885 that the award should be made by the New Zealand Law Society was not approved and the awards seem to have lapsed until 1912, when the Canterbury District Law Society resumed awarding gold medals, but now only to Canterbury graduates.

Mr. Justice Alpers

When lectures were resumed in 1883 the appointment of lecturer went to William Izard who had read Law and History at Cambridge, graduating MA and LLB. His lectures were described as being "sound delivered in a pleasant informal and chatty manner'', and his term examinations and occasional class discussions were said to have helped to "develop habits of steady reading''. G. T. Weston followed Izard in 1901, and in 1906 T. A. Murphy took over and continued till 1921.

These early lecturers must have been dedicated men, for until T. W. Rowe was appointed as an assistant lecturer in 1912, the whole course had been taken by one man. Rowe was appointed Director of Legal Studies in 1922 and given two assistants. A. S. Taylor, who had been an assistant lecturer since 1923, followed him as Head of the Department in 1928. He in turn was succeeded in 1936 by K. M. Gresson (as he then was) one of Canterbury's most distinguished sons.

From his somewhat Dickensian office in Hereford Street, he ran the department for 11 years until he was appointed to the Bench in 1947. Sir Kenneth's warm humanity and concern for his students is well illustrated by the note which he promptly sent to those attending his lectures in Bankruptcy and Company Law. It reads as follows:

Sir Kenneth Gresson

"I regret that I shall be unable, through having to undertake other duties, to complete the remaining fortnight of Lectures . . . It is not practicable to arrange for some one else to complete the lectures for the term and students will, therefore, have to rely upon their own efforts. But in order to meet any question of students having paid for more than they have received I have calculated the cost of lectures to the student and find it to be approximately 1/6d per lecture hour. I propose, therefore, myself to make to students an appropriate refund, namely 5/- to those students attending one hour per week, 10/- to those taking two hours and 1 pound to those whose attendances at my lectures amounts to four hours per week. I enclose the amount of such refund accordingly and wish you success in the examinations but much hard work on the part of each of you before November will, no doubt, be necessary.''


Sir Kenneth subsequently became the first President of the New Zealand Court of Appeal and a Privy Councillor. A delightful story is told of him when on leave in London he was invited to sit with the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. While his noble and learned colleagues went off to the House of Lords for the luncheon adjournment, "K. M.'' as he was affectionately known to generations of students and practitioners, ate his sandwiches out of a brown paper bag and put his feet up. This had been his practice over the years and with his sturdy antipodean independence he saw no reason to change. The University of Canterbury recognised his long and distinguished service by the award in 1972 of the Honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

Isobel MatsonThe Department was next in the hands of L. W. Gee, "Laurie'' to innumerable students to whom he had lectured since 1928, and then from 1955-1956 E. P. Wills took over. 1957 saw the establishment of a Chair of Law, and with the appointment of Hamish Ross Gray from Nottingham and London Universities as the Foundation Professor, the Law Department had come of age.

A second Chair was set up in 1968 and filled for one year by Professor G. W. Hinde. Professor Gray returned to England in 1968 having been offered the Barber Chair of Law in the University of Birmingham. By this time student numbers had reached 360, the great majority of whom were studying full time for at least their first three years, and the foundations of a strong and vigorous Faculty of Law had been laid.

HR Gray

Professor Gray was succeeded in 1969 by Professor J. L. Ryan (Canada and London). Professor R. A. Caldwell was appointed to the second Chair in 1969 and took over as Head of the Department and Dean of the Faculty when Professor Ryan moved to New South Wales in 1974. Professor Caldwell left the University for the United Kingdom at the end of 1981. Dr. J. F. Burrows, himself a student of Professor Gray was appointed to a Chair in 1973. He still occupies a Chair and was Head of Department from 1979 until 1985 and Dean of the Faculty from July 1980 until June 1986.

Professor J. H. Farrar came from the University of Bristol at the end of 1977 and held a Chair at Canterbury until the end of 1980 when he moved to a Chair at University College Cardiff. He returned to Canterbury in 1983 and, succeeding Professor Burrows, was Head of Department and Dean of the Faculty until 30th November 1988. He was in turn succeeded by Professor G. F. Orchard who was appointed to a Chair in 1982. Professor Orchard was Head of Department and Dean from 1988. In 1994 he was re-appointed Dean and Mr D W Rowe was appointed Head of Department.


Sir Alec Haslam

The Faculty has been well served by others of its distinguished graduates. A. L. Haslam, graduating LL.M. with first class honours in 1927, gold medallist and Rhodes Scholar (the first Canterbury Law student to receive this award), returned with his Oxford D.Phil. to lecture part-time from 1936 till 1950. As Sir Alec Haslam, Senior Puisne Judge and Chairman for 13 years of the Council of Legal Education, he delivered the Centennial Oration at the University of Canterbury's Centennial celebrations in 1973 and received an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree. Sir Alec taught in the Faculty for many years.

In 1975 E. J. Somers Q.C. was appointed to the Supreme Court Bench and in 1980 to the Court of Appeal. A gold medallist in 1952, he lectured in the Faculty for 20 years and was a practitioner member of the Council of Legal Education from 1971 until he became a Judge; as was Mr A. D. Holland for a short period before he too was appointed to the Supreme Court, now the High Court, Bench.

Other graduates have also brought distinction to the Faculty. Dr. I. L. M. Richardson, gold medallist in 1954, was appointed to the Supreme Court in February 1977 and to the Court of Appeal in October 1977. He is now President of the Court of Appeal. He has a strong interest in legal education, having been Professor of Law and Dean of the Faculty at Victoria University of Wellington some years before his appointment to the Bench, and being currently Chairman of the Council of Legal Education. He was also Chairman of the Royal Commission on Social Policy.

Judge Tipping

Sir Alfred North and Sir Clifford Perry ended their long judicial careers as President of the Court of Appeal and Chairman of the Council of Legal Education respectively. Mr Justice Williamson, Mr Justice Tipping and Mr Justice Penlington are all graduates of the Law School as is an increasing number of District Court judges.

A C Brassington

One more personality must be mentioned. A. C. Brassington, that "elder statesman of the law'' as he has been called, lectured for 22 years from 1929 until 1951, and the Law School owes him much. Wise, witty, known affectionately to generations of law students as 'Brasso', he was one of those who from the first saw the learning of law as an academic discipline as well as a professional qualification.

Over the years his generous gifts of books to the Law Library have been a practical expression of this belief and it is appropriate that three of his most recent presentations should be recorded C. J. Foster's "Elements of Jurisprudence'' published in London in 1853, a copy of John Austin's "The Province of Jurisprudence Determined'', published in 1832 and bearing Foster's signature dated 1849 on the flyleaf, and Foster's "Supreme Court Code'' published in 1885 by the Lyttelton Times newspaper. Mr Brassington died in 1981.

The years under review have seen many changes. Thirty years ago students numbered 97. They were taught by busy practitioners between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. and 80 per cent studied part-time. In 1996 the number has grown to 1500; there is a full-time teaching establishment of three professors and 20 other ranks, while the range of subjects taught has greatly increased. A further development was the appearance in 1980 of the first number of the Canterbury Law Review.


Law buildingIn January 1974 the Faculty moved from the old University to the new site at Ilam and a mere two years later had already outgrown its new home. From 1987 it had enlarged accommodation on the seventh and eighth floors of the James Hight building but construction of a separate Law School building (which includes the law library) was finally commenced in 1991 and was occupied at the end of 1992.

In 1993 a 20 terminal teaching and general purpose computer laboratory was established on the 4th floor of the Law School. In 1994 an additional 10 terminal workroom in the Law Library was added by the Faculty to the Law School student network. Computer technology has now become an integral part of both the staff and student working environments, with the Faculty committed to regular upgrades as new developments occur.