Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

HANLON, Alfred Charles, K.C.

(1866–1944).

Barrister.

A new biography of Hanlon, Alfred Charles appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Alfred Charles Hanlon was born in Dunedin on 1 August 1866, the third son of a strapping 6-foot sergeant of police who began life in New Zealand in the gold-rush days of Otago in 1862 as a constable under St. John Branigan. His future had been early determined for him by his father, a duty constable in the High Court of Dublin, who, after watching the great advocates of the Irish Bar in action, made a vow that one day a Hanlon would be called to the Bar. More than 20 years later he signed the articles of apprenticeship for his third son in a small legal office on the other side of the world. Young Hanlon received his primary education at Halliwell's and Christian Brothers Schools in Dunedin, and had completed only one year at the Otago Boys' High School when, at 16 years of age, he entered the law office of J. A. D. Adams, founder of the firm of Adams Brothers, which was later to produce two Supreme Court Judges – father and son. After six years with the firm, having completed his law examinations, he was admitted as a barrister and solicitor by Mr Justice Williams in 1888.

As admission meant the loss of his £130 a year clerkship, he commenced practice in 1889 on his own account, with capital nil, his assets a rented room, a deal kitchen table, three cane chairs, a letterpress, and a pile of law books. It was soon realised that Hanlon was an advocate of no mean quality, and with his initial criminal case of the first magnitude – the murder trial of the Winton baby farmer, Minnie Dean – he was marked out as one of the leading criminal advocates of his day. This was in 1895 and he was not yet 30 years of age. His services were at once in keen demand and within a short time he was defending a Chinese charged with murder at Three Kings in the far north, while engaged also on an Admiralty brief at Invercargill in the deep south. He defended more than a score of persons charged with murder, but only one of his clients, the notorious Minnie Dean, suffered the death penalty. His term at the Bar, extending over more than 50 years, was characterised by a continued series of brilliant successes, many of which were without doubt “verdicts for counsel”. The eminence he achieved was contrived in the face of the keenest competition from an exceptionally strong Otago Bar. Six of his contemporaries afterwards became Supreme Court Judges, but the semi-isolation of judicial office was foreign to one of his temperament and he withstood all efforts to lure him on to the Bench. In 1930 he was granted the patent of King's Counsel and for some years he appeared as senior counsel in many cases of importance, both civil and criminal. From 1940 onwards his appearances in Court were very few, and when he died in Dunedin on 6 February 1944, at the age of 77, he had been in retirement for two years.

Hanlon could not be described as a profound lawyer. He relied with great success on a commanding presence, a grasp of facts, a rich and expressive vocabulary, and an extraordinary faculty for brief and effective cross-examination, all of which fitted him for nisi prius work and, indeed, made him one of the great masters both of criminal and of civil advocacy. His scrupulous fairness, perfect courtesy, and proper deference invariably won the confidence of every tribunal before which he appeared, and throughout his life he maintained criminal pleading on its proper plane as the discharge of a high and honourable duty. Upon the record of New Zealand's criminal lawyers his name stands supreme. And only one Commonwealth advocate has been held his peer – Marshall Hall, of the King's Bench. Yet Hall, perhaps in some slight degree a better cross-examiner, could not vie with Hanlon's dynamic personality. Never were the New Zealander's qualities of this sort better illustrated than in his brilliant defence in Rex versus Stott and Bromley, when he left the jury (with the concurrence of the Judge) in foggy doubt as to whether the murderer was either of the two accused or else the chief witness for the Crown. Towards the end of his life Hanlon published Random Recollections – Notes on a Lifetime at the Bar, which is a collection of reminiscences of some of his greatest cases.

In 1894, at Dunedin, Hanlon married Mary Ann Hudson, and they had one son and three daughters.

by Ronald Jones, Journalist and Script Writer, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Wellington.

  • Random Recollections – Notes on a Lifetime at the Bar, Hanlon, A. C. (1939)
  • New Zealand Herald, 7 Jan 1953


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This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

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