Sidney Stephen forged a reputation for fairness.
Sidney Stephen was the chief justice on New Zealand when he died at age 61 years on 22 January 1858. He had forged a reputation in Australia and New Zealand in standing up for fairness and fighting corruption.
His status was reflected in the newspaper funeral notice which read: “the presence of all Public Functionaries of the Colonial Government is required, and the attendance of all other persons who may be desirous of testifying their respect is requested. The Public Offices will be closed on the day of the funeral.”
A eulogy in the Daily Southern Cross newspapers concluded with: “We cannot close this notice of one who has occupied so high a position in the Colony, without averting to some of those qualities of mind and heart for which he was distinguished. First of these, was his thorough independence as a judge; and second – what many of our humbler readers will consider to be first, as it is the one that endears him most to their memory – his readiness, at all times, to give advice to the poorer classes, to who the processes and technicalities of the law were apparently an effectual bar to the impartial administration of justice. That these are not mere words of fulsome panegyric, our local readers, many of them with tears, will testify.”
Sidney Stephen was born at Somerleage, Somerset, England, in 1797. He was a son of John Stephen, Puisne Judge (a judge of a superior court, but ranked below Chief Justice)at St. Kitts in the West Indies, and later a member of the New South Wales judiciary and acting Chief Justice.
When his father was appointed a Judge in New South Wales, Sidney Stephen moved to Australia with him. The young barrister found early in his career that he had to fight a legal monopoly in Sydney which he described on one of his appearances in Court as “exclusive, unjust, ridiculous, anti-progressive and un-English”. He broke the monopoly and won a reputation and a practice. In 1838 he went to Hobart Town, where his brother Alfred was Attorney-General.
In 1852, he moved to Auckland in place of the Chief Justice, Sir William Martin, whose health had broken down.