Story: Skerrett, Charles Perrin

Page 1 - Biography

Skerrett, Charles Perrin

1863–1929

Lawyer, judge

This biography was written by G. P. Barton and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996

The fifth chief justice of New Zealand, Charles Perrin Skerrett, was born probably on 2 September 1863 in India, the son of Peter Joseph Skerrett, a quartermaster sergeant, and his wife, Margaret Wilkinson. In 1875 Skerrett's family came to Wellington, New Zealand, where his father obtained employment in the Department of Justice as a court usher. Charles completed his education in Wellington and thereafter was employed as a telegraph messenger in the Telegraph Department, as a cadet in the Colonial Treasurer's Department, and, in 1879, as a clerk in the Resident Magistrate's Court office in Wellington. There he came to the favourable notice of members of the legal profession and decided in 1881 to be articled as a law clerk to Hugh Gully. After passing the requisite professional examinations Skerrett was, on 5 September 1884, admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court.

For almost 40 years after becoming a partner in the firm of Brown, Skerrett and Dean in 1887 Skerrett was in active practice. In 1892 he entered into partnership with Andrew Wylie and eventually, through a succession of mergers, was a senior partner in Chapman, Skerrett, Wylie and Tripp. Skerrett practised almost wholly as a barrister. He acquired a reputation as a skilful advocate, and his forensic skills were enhanced by a deep knowledge of human nature, an engaging sense of humour, and a natural eloquence. He was involved in a wide range of litigation including several appearances in 1904 before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London.

When the rank of King's counsel was created in New Zealand in 1907, Skerrett was among the first group to be appointed, retaining (as was permitted at the time) his practice as a solicitor. He played a prominent part in the affairs of the Wellington District Law Society. For several years from 1903 he acted as counsel to the New Zealand Law Society and in 1918 became its president. As head of the legal profession Skerrett was prepared to speak out strongly in situations where he considered the interests of justice or of the profession to be endangered.

Outside law Skerrett's interests were numerous. He was very much an outdoors man, keen on fishing, golf and deerstalking. He took a close interest in horse-racing, and was an enthusiastic polo player, being captain of the Wellington Polo Club and deputy master of the United Hunt Club. He was president of the New Zealand Football Association from 1920 to 1928 and of the New Zealand Sports Protection League. Skerrett served several terms as president of the Wellington Club and was president of the Wellesley Club from 1911 to 1923.

On 1 February 1926 Charles Skerrett was appointed chief justice of New Zealand and was made a KCMG. The appointment was universally acclaimed. As a judge he displayed the same qualities that had made him so popular when at the Bar. His conduct of trials was exemplary and his judgements, although not always upheld on appeal, were lucid, plain and forthright, without being particularly profound.

In September 1927 Skerrett was appointed, along with C. E. McCormick of the Native Land Court, to serve on a royal commission of inquiry which investigated complaints made against the administration in Western Samoa, where New Zealand held a League of Nations mandate. The work of the commission showed great efficiency, industry and dispatch, but its report, of which Skerrett was the principal author, was a disappointment. Skerrett and McCormick appear to have approached their task in a legal rather than in a broadly political frame of mind, and seem to have lacked any real understanding of Samoan society; at one point they even asserted that Samoans were 'wholly incapable of forming a co-operative marketing organisation of their own'. They failed to understand the force of Samoan objections to the means employed by the administrator, George Richardson, to implement his policies, and accepted his personal view that dissatisfaction – which they considered to be more apparent than real – was merely the result of intrigue by a handful of unscrupulous and ambitious men. The report did not serve any significant purpose, but on the strength of its recommendations, some leading spokesmen in the groups opposed to the Samoan administrator were deported to New Zealand. That action, far from quelling the local dissent, provided a fertile ground for Samoan leaders to present a formidable demonstration of the strength of Samoan commitment to the cause of self-government.

Skerrett's tenure as chief justice was short-lived because of illness. He was unable to perform his judicial duties for much of 1928, and thrombosis made it necessary to amputate one of his legs in order to prevent gangrene from setting in. Before he could resume work it became necessary for the other leg to be amputated. Determined to the end, Skerrett decided to make a private visit to England to seek advice about artificial limbs. He embarked on 29 January 1929 but died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 13 February. His body was taken to England, and after a requiem mass at Westminster cathedral was buried at St Mary's cemetery, Kensal Green, London. Skerrett never married, but was survived by his sisters and a brother.

Charles Skerrett was of solid build, with dark hair and blue eyes and a slightly abstracted look. By personality and temperament he was ideally suited to law practice. He combined a close attention to detail with a genial manner that made him almost universally popular. Although he could be direct in speech and critical of compromise, he was never overbearing or aloof. Skerrett achieved his success by sheer ability and industry. He was held in the highest esteem both within the legal profession and in the wider community.