Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

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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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PRENDERGAST, Sir James

(1826–1921).

Judge and Administrator, Attorney-General, Chief Justice of New Zealand.

A new biography of Prendergast, James appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

James Prendergast was the third son of Michael Prendergast, Q.C., Recorder of Norwich, Judge of the Sheriff's Court of the City of London, and a Commissioner of the Central Criminal Court. His mother was Caroline, the sister of a well-known Academy artist of his day, George Dawe, R.A. Young Prendergast, who was born in London in 1826, was not immediately attracted to the law while at Cambridge. After attending St. Paul's School, London, he went up to Gonville and Caius where he graduated B.A. in 1849. After a brief interlude of schoolmastering in Somersetshire, he emigrated to Victoria and met with some success at the Eureka Diggings, Ballarat. But the gold fever in him died, and he moved to Melbourne where his lawyer brother found him a post as a clerk of petty sessions. After 18 months he returned to England and in 1856 began to read law, being called to the Inner Temple late in the same year. For some years he practised in England as a special pleader, but in 1862 he set off across the world again in the ship Chile, bound for Otago.

On being admitted to the New Zealand Bar, he began practice in Dunedin, his first brief coming from Julius Vogel who, 13 years later, as Sir Julius Vogel, Premier of the Colony, was to appoint him Chief Justice. The brief was an attachment against the Otago Daily Times for alleged contempt. Prendergast won the suit and was warmly commended by Mr Justice H. B. Gresson for his handling of it. This success laid the foundation of the reputation he later enjoyed as a safe verdict-getter. As senior partner in the firm of Prendergast, Kenyon, and Maddock, his fame as a pleader stood high, and by the unanimous voice of the profession in Dunedin he had the preference in legal arguments in banco. At nisi prius he was handicapped by a too lawyer-like technique, but in banco and Court of Appeal work he was regarded as practically invincible.

His work as Crown Solicitor for Otago in 1865 brought him to the notice of the Central Government, and he was invited by Henry Sewell to join the Legislative Council with the post of Solicitor-General in the Weld Administration; but before Prendergast could take the oaths of office Weld resigned and was succeeded by Stafford. The new Premier went one better and made Prendergast Attorney-General, an office which under the Attorney-Generals Act of 1866 was vested with life tenure. Prendergast was sworn in under the new enactment and filled the position for eight years, during which time he began the consolidation of the criminal law, putting through no fewer than 94 Acts to that end. In 1875, after the resignation of Sir George Arney, Prendergast became Chief Justice and held the office for 24 years (1875–99).

There have been better Chief Justices than Sir James Prendergast, but he brought to the Judiciary a forthrightness and disciplinarian attitude at a time when the Bar badly needed guidance and direction. Scorning any attempt at well-rounded periods, or even figures of speech for display, he went straight to the point, frequently to the degree of bluntness. His vigorous personality was reflected in many uncompromising judgments and opinions which, whether right or wrong, were always interesting. It was said of him that on the principle that thirsty men want beer, not explanations, he was concerned primarily with reaching a decision, and only secondarily with the mechanics of elaborating it. But at the same time he was slow, safe, careful, and cautious, despite surprising slips and misunderstandings, and he made a valuable contribution to the New Zealand law as a member of the Commission which changed common-law procedure to the present-day system.

Sir James Prendergast was knighted in 1881. In 1899, at the age of 73, he resigned his judicial commission and devoted his energies to business and farming pursuits, which latter he had begun in 1871 as the owner of the extensive Tiritea Estate at Fitzherbert and Bunnythorpe. In his role as a landowner, he played a prominent part in the establishment of the Manawatu and West Coast Agricultural and Pastoral Association, of which he was the first president. In business his interests were banking, insurance, and investment. He died at Wellington on 27 February 1921, aged 94.

In 1848, at Cambridge, England, Prendergast married Mary Hall. Lady Prendergast predeceased her husband; there were no children.

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

  • Colonial Law Journal, 1876
  • Evening Post, 28 Feb 1921 (Obit).


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