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Chief Justice James Prendergast and the administration of New Zealand colonial justice, 1862-1899

The New Zealand legal system during the nineteenth-century was in a state of rapid change and constant turmoil. After the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between Maori and the British Crown in 1840, British immigration to New Zealand began in earnest. As a British colony, New Zealand gradually acquired the British legal system and adapted it to suit the colonial environment. These adaptations resulted in conflict with Maori and eventually the supremacy of British law in New Zealand. This thesis explores the role of James Prendergast in helping to create the colonial New Zealand legal system. Prendergast served as Attorney-General of New Zealand from 1865 to 1875 and Chief Justice of New Zealand from 1875 to 1899. Firstly, the English background of Prendergast is analysed and provided as a context for his actions in New Zealand. Then, Prendergast’s rise to power in New Zealand is explored, focusing primarily on his roles as Attorney-General and Chief Justice. Particular attention is paid to Prendergast’s relationship with Maori, his enduring legacy in New Zealand statute and case law and the relationship between English law and the colonial New Zealand legal system. The recent vilification of Prendergast by modern scholars is detailed, especially in relation to Prendergast’s decision in the case, Wi Parata v Bishop of Wellington (1877). Finally, an assessment is made of Prendergast’s life, legacy and influence in New Zealand legal history. Several important conclusions are reached through the study of the life of James Prendergast. Through his words, actions and judgments, Prendergast played a highly influential role in the development of the New Zealand legal system. Prendergast is more than just the two-dimensional figure that he has become in modern scholarship. Many of Prendergast’s actions that were considered successful by contemporary colonial society are also the actions for which Prendergast is now criticised by modern New Zealand society. A clash has occurred between the standards of the past and the views of the present. This thesis also proffers the argument that the English legal system was of overwhelming importance in the development of the New Zealand legal system and the administration of colonial justice. The central problem in adapting the English system to the New Zealand environment was the inflexibility of the law in the face of indigenous people’s rights. Prendergast was a product of Victorian England and failed to come to terms with Maori society. While he was a competent judge who left a legacy of common law precedent, Prendergast’s main success was as an administrator and leader of the colonial legal environment. While the Wi Parata decision of 1877 was legally dubious, it is misleading to judge Prendergast's career solely by this one decision. James Prendergast is a pivotal figure in the study of nineteenth-century New Zealand legal history. He has left a legacy of legal precedent and jurisprudential controversy. This judicial biography provides an account of his successes and failures throughout his long and eventful life.
Type of thesis
Morris, G. H. (2001). Chief Justice James Prendergast and the administration of New Zealand colonial justice, 1862-1899 (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/14387
The University of Waikato
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