Story: Myers, Michael

Page 1 - Biography

Myers, Michael

1873–1950

Lawyer, judge

This biography was written by Peter Spiller and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Michael Myers was born at Motueka on 7 September 1873, the 13th child of Jewish parents Judah Myers, a merchant, and his wife, Eve Solomon. When he was six years old his family moved to Wellington; here he attended Thorndon School (1879–85) and Wellington College (1886–91). Myers excelled at school and won exhibitions and scholarships including a Turnbull Scholarship. He was a member of the First XV, and never lost his passion for rugby.

In 1892 Myers began his legal career as a clerk in the Wellington firm of Bell, Gully and Izard, and at the same time enrolled as an external student at Canterbury College. In 1897 he graduated LLB and was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of New Zealand; only two years later he was made a partner of the newly styled firm Bell, Gully, Bell and Myers. He received a guarantee that his annual income would not fall below £1,000.

On 2 August 1899 (the same day that he was admitted to partnership), Myers married Estelle (Stella) Miriam Salom at Adelaide, South Australia. She was the daughter of Maurice Salom, a businessman and politician, and his wife, Kate Solomon; the two had met when the Saloms visited Wellington in 1898. They were to have two sons, Maurice and Geoffrey.

Stella Myers managed the Myers home efficiently and was an invaluable support to her husband. They were a kind and generous couple, supporters of charities, who enjoyed mixing socially. Michael was the foundation president of the New Zealand Club, and served as president of the Wellington Hebrew Congregation and the Wellington Jewish Social Club.

During his formative years in legal practice, Michael Myers was much influenced by his partner Francis Bell, Crown solicitor in Wellington, appearing as Bell's junior in criminal cases and civil cases in which the Crown was involved. After Bell, Gully, Bell and Myers lost the prosecutorship to the Crown Law Office in 1910, Myers became a much sought-after criminal defender. 'Mickey' Myers, as he was known, also acquired briefs in other areas of the law, including parliamentary practice, and built up a large and wide-ranging general Bar practice. He was instructed by firms throughout New Zealand. In 1911 he took the first of several successful cases to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

In September 1922 Myers was appointed King's counsel. This required him to practise only as a barrister, and so he was obliged to leave the firm in which he had worked for 30 years. The partners, however, paid him a retainer. By the late 1920s Myers was acknowledged as the leading member of the New Zealand Bar by virtue of his quick, penetrating mind, enormous capacity for hard work, retentive memory, skills of persuasion and versatility of practice. He was a master of every branch of the law, and the number of briefs he was offered gave him an annual income of well over £10,000. In 1926 his success at the Bar culminated in a historic series of five successive triumphs in the Privy Council.

Dedicated completely to the law and the legal profession, Myers served as president of the Wellington District Law Society (1906 and 1924) and as a member of the council of the New Zealand Law Society and the Council of Law Reporting. Although he was resented by some for his perceived impatience, prejudice, arrogance and egotism, any difficulties were normally smoothed out over dinner at the Myers home or during a round of golf.

Resentment, however, may have been a factor in the apparent reluctance to appoint Myers chief justice following the death of Charles Skerrett in 1929. Myers confidently expected the appointment, which, however, was first offered to (and declined by) Harold Johnstone. Myers was then appointed sixth chief justice of the Supreme Court of New Zealand on 1 May 1929; he was the first to have been born in New Zealand, the first to have graduated in law from the University of New Zealand, and the first to have practised as a barrister sole prior to his appointment.

Myers's tenure of office coincided with an extraordinarily difficult and challenging period in New Zealand's history, covering the great economic depression, the onset of the welfare state, and the Second World War. He proved to be an extremely industrious, forceful, energetic and efficient chief justice, and his performance in court continued to be characterised by an acutely analytical mind and quick perception. His judgements on a wide range of legal issues, including civil and criminal procedure and the interpretation of statutes, were quoted and relied upon by subsequent judges. He promoted important reforms, notably the passing of the Criminal Appeal Act 1945, which considerably expanded the jurisdiction of the Court of Appeal over criminal matters.

Myers forthrightly defended the dignity and independence of the judiciary and legal profession. This was not always done with proper tact and good timing and was sometimes carried to excess. He even opposed the voluntary reduction of judges' salaries during the depression, believing that this would breach a constitutional principle, and was responsible for the introduction of elaborate judicial robes. During the latter part of his time on the Bench, Myers was affected by increasing deafness. In spite of his foibles he was regarded with enormous respect.

In December 1931 Michael Myers was appointed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, and in 1936 (on a visit to London) he sat as the first New Zealand-born member of this body. He was appointed a KCMG in 1930, was advanced to GCMG in 1937, and was made an honorary bencher of the Inner Temple in 1944. He served as administrator of the government for short intervals in the period from 1930 to 1941.

In 1945 Myers reached the statutory retirement age of 72, but the prime minister, Peter Fraser, arranged for a special act to be passed so that Myers could take part (as chief justice) in international conferences following the end of the Second World War. In 1945 Myers represented New Zealand at the conference of jurists in Washington DC, where he contributed to the drafting of the constitution of the new International Court of Justice. An attempt was made to appoint him to the court, but he found a tactful way of declining. He was also a member of the New Zealand delegation to the conference in San Francisco which framed the charter of the United Nations.

Myers retired as chief justice on 31 July 1946. He remained keenly interested in public and legal affairs (such as the proposed creation of a separate Court of Appeal, which he supported), and in 1946–47 he headed a royal commission on requests by Maori that they should be paid compensation for several blocks of surplus Crown lands in Northland. The commission recommended the payment of £15,000. Myers died on 8 April 1950 in Wellington, survived by his wife and their two sons. He was acclaimed as one of New Zealand's greatest lawyers and chief justices, while his work before the Privy Council and in establishing the International Court of Justice earned him the warm regard of his international peers.