New Zealand's first chief justice, William Martin, the youngest son of Henry Martin, a manufacturer, and his wife, Mary Martin, was baptised on 22 May 1807 in Birmingham, England, where he received his early education at King Edward VI Grammar School. Formally admitted to St John's College, Cambridge, in 1824, he took up residence as a Foundress scholar in October the following year. He studied Classics and mathematics, graduating BA in 1829. In 1832 he graduated MA and was elected a Foundress fellow of his college. He became a student at Lincoln's Inn on 9 June 1832, and was called to the English Bar in November 1836. Resigning his fellowship in 1838, he left Cambridge for London to begin work in law, opting for equity conveyancing in chancery chambers. In January 1841 William Martin was appointed chief justice of New Zealand; official confirmation was given on 29 September 1841.
His interest in New Zealand undoubtedly owed much to his close friendship with George Augustus Selwyn, who was to become the first Anglican bishop of New Zealand. Martin also closely identified himself with the missionary and evangelical aspirations of the Anglican church in the south Pacific.
On 3 April 1841 William Martin married Mary Ann Parker at St Ethelburga's, London, where her father, the Reverend William Parker, was rector. Four days later Martin embarked, on his own, for New Zealand. He shared the voyage on the Tyne with William Swainson, who was taking up appointment as the second attorney general of New Zealand, and with Thomas Outhwaite, the new registrar of the Supreme Court. The four months at sea gave Martin and his two fellow passengers opportunity to work on the drafting of the ordinances which would be necessary to establish the Supreme Court and its procedure. Martin reached Wellington on 9 August 1841, and after a month's stay sailed on the same ship to Auckland, where he disembarked on 25 September 1841. Mary Ann Martin joined him eight months later, having sailed from England via Sydney in the company of Bishop Selwyn and his party.
Although designated chief justice of New Zealand, Martin had jurisdiction throughout the entire colony for only two years. In 1843 H. S. Chapman was appointed as a puisne judge and assigned to the southern district. The jurisdiction of the court was created by the Supreme Court Ordinance 1841 which, on being disallowed by the British government because of three substantial defects, was replaced in 1844 by an ordinance of similar provisions. The jurisdiction of the new court encompassed the ancient jurisdiction of the royal courts at Westminster as well as trial of civil and criminal proceedings with the aid of a jury.
The courthouse in which Martin presided was erected in Queen Street, Auckland. The first sessions of the Supreme Court were opened on 28 February 1842 in the presence of members of the Bar, recently sworn and enrolled, and an assembly of the public, Maori and Pakeha.
After the conclusion of the formalities the first trial began, a case of murder against John Hopwood, the jury returning a verdict of manslaughter; next a trial for theft; and then came the famous trial of Maketu for murder committed in the Bay of Islands. The crime had aroused widespread excitement: among the tribes at Kororareka (Russell) because of a threat to kill the prisoner in revenge for his killing of a grand-daughter of Nga Puhi chief Rewa; and among Pakeha because of the horrible features of the crime. It was Martin's first major trial. Fundamental issues were raised for the future legal relationship between Maori and the system of law established by governmental authority in exercise of the sovereignty of the Queen, which had been recognised by the Treaty of Waitangi just two years before.
After hearing argument from counsel appointed to defend the prisoner, Martin ruled that, even although he may have been unaware of English law, Maketu was a subject of the Crown, was governed by English law, and accordingly the court possessed jurisdiction to try him for an offence against English law now part of the fabric of New Zealand law. Maketu's plea that he should be tried by a special jury consisting of equal numbers of Maori and Pakeha was also dismissed, because as a Maori he was not an alien and consequently not entitled to be tried otherwise than by an ordinary jury. In view of the solemnity and unique significance of the occasion Martin's pronouncements, translated into Maori as he spoke, about the application of the general law of New Zealand to all subjects of the Crown within the colony, had a profound effect on those Maori who witnessed the trial. Repeated time and again further afield, the chief justice's rulings exercised a powerful influence in the process of adjusting Maori thinking to the new system of English law. Maketu was convicted of murder and was the first person hanged by legal process in New Zealand.
Martin was consulted by the governor on a wide range of legislative proposals and administrative measures. He was involved in the preparation of several key ordinances, the first group of which were designed principally by Swainson, in consultation with Martin, to erect a structure of courts suitable for New Zealand conditions. These related to the administration of justice and established county courts of criminal and civil jurisdiction, regulated juries, extended the powers of police magistrates and regulated summary proceedings. The result was not entirely successful: some of the early ordinances were revoked after a short time; others, like the County Courts Ordinance, were found to have defects in their operation. Although Swainson bore the major responsibility, he would have been entitled to expect Martin to detect some of the more significant weaknesses in the legislation. In truth the scheme of courts proposed by Swainson and Martin was too elaborate for the circumstances of the colony.
Martin, from 1844 to 1856, and Chapman in Wellington, from 1844 to 1852, were appointed to prepare rules for the procedure of the court. The work took an inordinately long time to complete, owing largely to the difficulties of communication between the two judges and also to the greater volume of judicial work which fell to Chapman, whose family commitments also left him with little time for what Martin described as 'our great work', which for Martin had 'come to be in the place of sons and daughters'. To ensure effective consultation with Chapman, arrangements were made for the two judges to meet at New Plymouth, Wanganui, or Taupo: long overland journeys were a feature of Martin's life and in the first few years after his appointment he was away from home for nearly half the year on circuit.
The new rules, which eventually emerged as the mature fruit of the commissioners' deliberations, reversed the emphasis of the previous procedure. The significant feature of the Supreme Court Ordinance 1844 had been the system of oral pleading, subject to judicial supervision, which enabled both the parties and the judge in an informal manner to isolate the main issues for decision. The system had few disadvantages and many benefits, not least of which was that the convoluted, expensive, and dilatory procedures of the courts of common law and equity in England were not imported into the young colony. Given the basic wisdom of the early procedure it is surprising that after years of monumental effort Martin and Chapman came to recommend in their two reports that procedures should be introduced which produced in New Zealand highly technical rules of written pleading and sterile formalism. These ensured that the practice and procedure of the Supreme Court would continue for many years to mirror the practice and procedure of the superior courts of England.
In addition to his judicial responsibilities Martin was appointed official inspector of native schools. The duties of that office were most congenial to a man of his temperament and background: he and his wife maintained a lifelong interest in education, which in Martin's view was closely associated with the church. When it became desirable to move St John's College from Waimate in the north to Tamaki, near Auckland, Martin joined with Selwyn and Swainson in choosing the site. Martin was appointed one of the two lay members of the college council in 1850; and acted as a co-examiner with Selwyn.
For reasons of ill health, and to recuperate from surgery, Martin was granted 18 months' leave of absence in 1855, and the following year he and Mary Martin travelled to England, intending to spend the northern winter in Italy. On 12 June 1857 Martin tendered his resignation on account of his indifferent health. The next year Oxford University conferred on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law and the New Zealand Parliament enacted Martin's Annuity Act 1858, awarding him an annuity for life. In 1860 Martin was knighted by letters patent.
Free from official responsibilities after his return to New Zealand in 1858, Martin was able to devote himself to the education of Maori students at St Stephen's School, to the study of languages, and especially to the life and work of the church. He never took holy orders, but often wore semi-clerical dress.
Martin displayed a deep respect for the Maori people: throughout his life he was an earnest advocate of their interests, sometimes to the point of placing his judicial status in question. In 1846 he was a critic of the British government's instructions to the governor, as showing a disregard for the moral obligations of the Crown under the Treaty of Waitangi. He published his views of the proposals in a pamphlet, England and the New Zealanders, and also joined Selwyn and others in a strongly worded petition to the Crown proclaiming an intention to use all legal and constitutional measures to inform Maori of their rights as British subjects and to support their enjoyment of those rights. In a practical way he assisted in educating Maori about their legal rights by publishing a booklet with instructions about English law, Ko nga tikanga a te Pakeha, published in 1845. Notwithstanding the criticism which Martin attracted from some quarters by his vigorous espousal of the Maori cause, his sincerity and integrity were never in doubt and on his retirement from office he enjoyed the enviable distinction of being universally respected by all parties and both races. In 1860 he published a strong dissent from the government's policy in Taranaki, The Taranaki question, and later answered an officially sponsored pamphlet, Notes published for the New Zealand government, by a rejoinder, Remarks on 'Notes published for the New Zealand government'. In those publications, as in a later pamphlet published in 1863, Observations on the proposal to take lands under an act of the General Assembly, Martin stated his views with a deep and dignified conviction. For him the rock on which the relationship between the Maori people and the new settlers was based was the Treaty of Waitangi, a sacred compact which alone gave abiding moral justification for British legislation and administration and for the exercise of British sovereignty. Yet that philosophy was not reflected in his judicial attitudes towards the treaty: they rather reflected the prevailing view of parliamentary sovereignty and the royal prerogative which did not easily accommodate the notion of the treaty as a fundamental law.
In later years Martin's advice was sought by ministers on various matters relating to Maori interests. In 1871 he prepared a detailed statement of the amendments required in Maori land law and collaborated with the native minister in the drafting of legislation to amend the Native Lands Act 1865. In 1874 Martin left New Zealand permanently and after spending four years based at Lichfield, England, where Selwyn was bishop, he eventually took up residence in Torquay, Devon. He applied his knowledge of Polynesian languages to the writing of Inquiries concerning the structure of the Semitic languages (1876–78). At the time of his death at Torquay on 18 November 1880 he was engaged in preparing notes for a work on the New Testament. His whole life was imbued with Christian conviction. Three days before his death he wrote: 'My civil work is done. My ecclesiastical work is done; and I now leave it in God's hands. I pray for the Church of England. I embrace all Christians in the bonds of Catholic unity.'
As a man he was modest and gentle, inclined towards the theoretical rather than the practical. As a judge he was courteous and patient, but firm, impartial, and of unimpeachable integrity.