The best of the High Court – 1988 edition (or, yet more proof NZLII is excellent)

That petrol scent in your nose is the smell of the oily rag on which NZLII runs.  NZLII is sitting on box after box of unreported senior court decisions from the 1980s and 1990s.  This absolute treasure trove of information is otherwise packed away in unscanned, unsearchable boxes in law libraries.  For the most part, the cases aren’t on the subscription legal databases.  And, conversely, the uploading makes freely available the unreported versions of cases that hitherto have only been available in costly official reports.  It is a massive democratisation of the law from that era.

If someone who knew about law were to have skimmed all of 1988’s High Court decisions they could tell you about the learned and scholastic decisions from that year.  But I don’t know anything about law, so the results of my skim can only tell you about the interesting and absurd cases instead.

I can tell you about Hobbs v Police HC Christchurch AP231/87, 11 February 1988 where a Ms Hobbs owned a dog who attacked someone.  A policeman attended her house to interview her about her claim that the attack was out of character, only to himself be “attacked by the dog … after the dog was released from its chain by the appellant whereupon the dog immediately attacked the constable’s leg”.

I can tell you about Cairns v Department of Statistics HC Hamilton AP155/87, 4 February 1988 where Mr Cairns filled out his census form in runic Latin, not English, and was convicted of the offence of not producing a completed census form.  On appeal, Doogue J dismissed the appeal on the basis that Mr Cairns hadn’t “produced” the form by posting it in.  But his Honour noted that “it has to be said that if the legislation had intended that all responses to the surveys conducted by the Department under the Statistics Act were to be in English, then one would have expected the legislature to say so. The statute is silent as to the language of completion.”

And I can tell you about Lopesi v Auckland City Council HC Auckland AP191/87, 15 January 1988 where it was held that a totally illegible signature still met the requirement for a signed certificate under alcohol breath-testing laws.

Of course, being 1988 there was some dated language that simply wouldn’t be used by judges today.  No modern judge take the same approach as Holland J when his Honour said “That is a matter on which I cannot venture an opinion without being better informed” (Church v Hercus HC Christchurch CP26/86, 15 February 1988).

But 1988 was a good year for legal nonsense.  Like the charge of speeding through Kaeo defended on the basis that it was a “one horse town of the North” and speeding through it was not likely to endanger anyone (Carter v Ministry of Transport HC Whangarei AP35/88, 12 September 1988).  As Chilwell J noted, Kaeo may be a one horse town but “the appellant’s vehicle was a 156 brake horse car”.  In a similar vein 1988 also saw a young Tipping J, a long way from the Supreme Court, issuing an injunction about advertisements for bookcases (Freedom Furniture Ltd v Lifestyle Furniture Ltd HC Christchurch CP514/87, 22 Februrary 1988).

There is also the late 1980s typography, which goes wrong at times and makes full stops look like exclamation marks, leading to breathless judgments, like this from Gilmore v Police HC Palmerston North AP35/88, 19 February 1988:


And then there are the plainly kick-ass parties:


An interim injunction of a cottage-industry Buzzy Bee knock-off contains shades of Denning and shades of Cull J trying to describe Lose Yourself.  Anderson J commenced his judgment in Tot Toys Ltd v Mitchell HC Tauranga CP186/88, 22 November 1988 with the following:

Some four decades ago a New Zealand company, H.E. Ramsay & Co. Ltd., devised a wooden children’s toy which has come to be known over the years as Buzzy Bee. This toy has a wooden head and wooden body, or rather abdomen for it lacks a thorax, and is in other respects more whimsically than anatomically designed. The affidavits indicate and it is really a matter of common knowledge, I would think, amongst New Zealanders that the design of this toy and its colour has remained constant since its creation. It has a yellow head with black markings, a red abdomen decorated with three transverse bi-coloured stripes of black and yellow. The antennae are represented by light flexible springs terminating in a red wooden knob. In lieu of six legs it has two blue wooden wheels in the front and a small trailing wheel at the rear. The wheels are joined by a single axle which has located at its centre a pinion, the purpose of which is to actuate a metal strip against a sounding cavity so that when the toy is pulled along it creates a representational buzzing sound. The wings which are traditionally yellow are made of wood dowel culminating in flat round simulated wings. Just as the traction of the toy actuates the sound so also by dint of friction does it cause the wings to revolve.

The affidavits indicate that some 400 thousand of these toys have been sold over the decades and that they have become a favorite from generation to generation, being purchased quite often it would seem by fond parents or doting grandparents influenced by warmly nostalgic memories of their youth.

And, beyond the absurd, the frankly fascinating.  Consider Re Tupuna Maori HC Wellington P580/88, 19 May 1988 an application for the grant of letters of administration “in respect of the deceased whose head is now in the possession of Bonhams Auctioneers of London for auction on 20 May 1988”.  The purpose of the application was “for the limited purpose of according to the deceased a proper burial according to Maori law and custom and to prevent as far as possible further indignity being visited upon him”.  Letters of administration would assist in bringing proceedings for the return of the head.  How brilliant is that?!  And the Court granted it, describing it as “plainly quite extraordinary and, I think, totally unprecedented”.  The deceased was estimated to have died in approximately 1820, which might be the longest span of time between a death and grant of letters of administration.  (You can read about the conclusion to this story here.)

There’s the perfect turn of phrase: “She has stretched the mercy of the Court to its fullest extent” (Charles v Police HC Wellington AP39/88, 30 March 1988).  And opening lines both sunny: “The subject of this proceeding is a crop of potatoes” (Christenson Potato Company Ltd v Registered Securities Ltd HC Hamilton CP63/87, 27 May 1988), and ominous: “The time has come when this unfortunate mess should be cleared up.  The case does not reflect great credit on anyone who has handled it” (Hyde v Direen HC Dunedin AP100/87, 20 May 1988).

The uploading of the 1988 decisions is a triumph, frankly.  You will use these cases.  And they’ve been uploaded at zero cost to you because of the goodwill of NZLII.  Consider donating what you can to NZLII, and support efforts to secure funding for NZLII wherever you can.  Whether you like the rule of law, or whether you just like a good zinger in a judgment, NZLII is indispensable.

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