A short account of hazards faced in court

The greatest jeopardy I have faced to date in Court was when I argued an appeal in front of Brewer J. The other side didn’t turn up but that promising start evaporated when the first words out of his Honour’s mouth were that he didn’t see how I was “getting home on this one”. I ventured 15 minutes of submissions into a fraught judicial headwind and the decision was reserved. My sense of deflation persisted the two weeks it took for judgment to be delivered – a judgment that found for my client but took time to disagree with every legal point I had made. At the time I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Experience has taught me that is often a symptom of encountering justice.

Still, all very pedestrian for modern legal practice where the day-to-day risks usually only involve having a metaphorical book thrown at one. 

I can’t remember where I saw it first, but I read a story about a New Zealand courthouse ceiling collapsing on someone once. Fiat justitia ruat caelum. Let justice be done, though the heavens fall. That’s danger. 

But then I read another story about a courthouse ceiling collapsing on someone. And I thought: “how many bloody ceilings have collapsed in New Zealand?”.

As it turns out, many. 

Non-sticking plaster

On 22 May 1935, a “large piece of decorative plaster work” fell from the ceiling of the Invercargill Supreme Court lobby, striking and “temporarily stunn[ing]” a lawyer called Gordon Reed. Contemporaneous reports record that when “Mr Justice Kennedy was about to make fixtures, a few minutes later, Mr Reed, with his hand to his head, from which blood was trickling, put in a belated appearance and apologised to the court for having to seek leave to seek a doctor”.

Today, that would be band three of Taueki – four aggravating factors being present – serious injury, use of a weapon, attacking the head, and perverting the course of justice (if you accept my optimistic submission for the Crown that Reed was prevented from making legal submissions). But in 1935, the courthouse seemed to avoid immediate official sanction. A grand jury recommended a new courthouse ought to be constructed (Kennedy J quoted in “Invercargill’s New Court-House” (1942) 18 NZLJ 65 at 65). Work began in 1938 and it was opened in 1942. At the opening, the several speakers described how uncomfortable and unsuitable the old courthouse was. Only Kennedy J mentioned that it once almost did for a member of the bar. 

Gordon Reed outlived the courthouse, just. The picture below is from the New Zealand Law Journal and shows him at the opening of the new courthouse ((1942) 18 NZLJ 65 at 67). He died suddenly in 1945, age 49, when he dropped dead on a golf course.


Although the incident was possibly the first time in history that both bench and bar were in agreement as to which was acting like they’d just sustained a serious blow to the head, it was not the only instance of collapsing ceilings. 

Part of a plaster ceiling collapsed in the Lyttelton Resident Magistrates Court in 1884. It missed the participants “though some of the fragments sprinkled the heads of a few of the occupants of the gallery”. The same year, the South Canterbury Times warned that the ceiling in the courthouse at Timaru “is now showing signs of disintegration, and any of the public is liable at any moment to be smitten on the head with a descending lump”. Perhaps, as the issue only affected the part of the ceiling over the public gallery, it was not thought to be so pressing, although the South Canterbury Times was not impressed. It was sure to note in its report that the ceiling over the head of “the presiding genius” was holding up well. 

That was not the only near miss. The Wanganui Courthouse ceiling nearly collapsed in an earthquake in 1929. In 1927, a bailiff at the Christchurch Magistrates Court had a piece of paper knocked from his hand when a piece of plaster measuring three feet by two feet crashed from the ceiling of the court clerk’s office. And the Invercargill Magistrates Court – in the same building as the Supreme Court that nearly took out Gordon Reed – joined in again in 1938 when “a great mass of plaster and cement had become detached from the ceiling over the public stairway to the Supreme Court and had fallen on the stairs”

In 1951 in Dunedin “during a sitting of the Supreme Court a large portion of the ceiling gave way and substantial portions of plaster fell about the dignified figure of James Ward” (Iain Gallaway “The First Hundred Years 1879-1979” in Jim Sullivan (ed) Occupied Lawfully – Otago District Law Society 1979-2004 (ODLS, Dunedin, 2006) at 16). Gallaway records Ward was unharmed but died 11 years later when he was sent a parcel bomb at his law office – a crime that is still unsolved, and a reminder that a few falling chunks of internal masonry have to be kept in perspective. 

The Supreme Court building at Auckland was similarly plagued. In 1924 the Herald recorded: “A portion of the plaster ceiling in a new lavatory in the Supreme Court fell yesterday, fortunately without injuring anyone. Some few months ago another part of the ceiling came down, and prior to that one of the massive upstairs windows was blown in. It has frequently happened that the rain penetrates to the inside, and on one occasion the Judge’s desk in the Arbitration Court was deluged with water”. The Herald recorded a further fall of a ceiling a few weeks later and recorded that “no active steps ha[d] been taken to effect repairs” since the earlier collapse. Those are the incidents I could find in a Saturday afternoon of searching, but the phenomenon seems to have been so common in Auckland that it was the subject of an 1883 cartoon in the Auckland-based Observer:

Observer ceiling cartoon

Dr Jane Adams offers a scholarly take on the history and design of New Zealand courthouses, including their shortcomings (for a start you might like to read her article “Majesty and modernity” [2018] NZLJ 99). But the impact of near-death ceiling collapse on at least two generations of lawyers has yet to receive proper scholarly attention. That is something I hope this piece will begin to remedy. As has been remarked, “There is no doubt that among the allies of fraud and crime can be numbered unsuitable Court Houses” (Anonymous “Court houses and other things and persons” (1926) Butterworths Fortnightly Notes 451 at 452). As for the causes of the ceiling collapse phenomenon, well, contemporaneous reports on courthouses were headlined “timbers affected by borer”, but the articles that followed were silent as to which particular judge was to blame. Plainly, further investigation is needed.

Cheating death

The risk of instant skylight-creation wasn’t the only jeopardy facing practitioners in the first hundred odd years of colonial legal practice in New Zealand. Courtrooms were interrupted by fights, including one where “a small man was chased through the court-room by his big wife”. The criminal proceeding that followed included “an exhibit of hair alleged to have been from the head of one of the men”. Drunkards shouted from the public gallery, including one man described so well by the Victorian-era Evening Star as “an inebriated auditor of the proceedings”.

Returning to Invercargill, which we can now recognise as the most perilous site of justice in the country, in 1926 a steam stove exploded in a magistrate’s courtroom only 45 minutes before court was due to start. It effectively destroyed the entire room. The explosion broke every window, upended counsel’s table and the press bench, and embedded metal shrapnel from the stove in every wall. The consensus was it would have been unsurvivable if the room had been occupied at the time. Reports also relate that “plaster had been knocked down from the corner of the ceiling”, though in the circumstances it seems churlish to add that to our list of ceiling-specific failures. 

Incredibly, that is not the only instance in New Zealand of a courtroom being blown up. An aggrieved litigant blew up the Murchison Courthouse in 1905, injuring several but fatalitising only himself.

And that isn’t even the only intentional courthouse bombing in the country. In an event that seems to have disappeared down collective memory-holes, the Supreme Court at Auckland was “seriously damaged” by a bomb in January 1972 (see Sir Alfred North “Dissent and the Rule of Law” [1973] NZLJ 1 at 1). The event falls into the lacuna of internet-accessible history: it predates internet news stories and postdates Papers Past coverage, so as soon as I’m lawfully allowed into a library newspaper archive I want to find out more.

That’s about all I’ve got before we get to more modern examples. So I leave this short account of hazards with the following excerpt from the Otago Daily Times from 1938. It is a thing of understated beauty, and no more perfect thing has ever been written. In the meantime, stay safe in your bubble, and keep an eye on the ceilings when you are next at Court. 



One thought on “A short account of hazards faced in court

  1. Might I recommend the works of Cyril Hare? County Court judge, who wrote excellent mystery stories. ‘Tragedy at Law’ sprung to mind as you related the stories of deficient court buildings.


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