James Prendergast


James Prendergast
James Prendergast

James Prendergast (1826–1921), arrived in Dunedin in 1862. He had qualified as a lawyer in England, and was admitted to the Otago bar later that year. He arrived at the time of the Otago gold rush, and his practice flourished along with the local economy.

One of his first clients was Julius Vogel, a future premier of New Zealand.

In 1863 Prendergast became acting Otago provincial solicitor, and in 1865, the province's Crown solicitor. That year he was called to the Legislative Council and became attorney-general in the Stafford government. His main tasks were to consolidate the criminal law, and to organise and regulate New Zealand's legal profession. In 1870 Prendergast became first president of the New Zealand Law Society.

In 1875 the Vogel ministry appointed Prendergast Chief Justice of the New Zealand Supreme Court, a post he held for the next 24 years. Perhaps his most notable judgment, and his major contribution to New Zealand's race relations history, was Wi Parata v Bishop of Wellington. This was an 1877 case involving Maori land at Porirua. Prendergast did not agree that the courts could consider claims based on aboriginal or native title. Maori, as a "primitive and barbaric" tribal society, possessed no legal status, and therefore no legal rights that could be upheld. The Treaty of Waitangi was a "simple nullity", as it could not create legal rights that had no foundation.

Some legal academics and historians debate whether Prendergast's approach to Maori custom was unusual, or reflected the law at that time. Nevertheless, he established a legal precedent of great significance. It is also fair to say that his views on Maori customary law and culture were widely held in 19th-century New Zealand.

Adapted from the DNZB biography by J. G. H. Hannan

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