Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Callan, John Bartholomew

by P. J. Downey


John Bartholomew Callan was born in Dunedin on 15 August 1882, the son of Ellen Mary Brophy and her husband, John Bartholomew Callan, a solicitor. John senior had left Ireland in 1859 for Melbourne, where several of his kinsmen became prominent in politics, the law and the judiciary. One, Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, was premier of Victoria in the 1870s; his son Sir Frank Gavan Duffy became chief justice of Australia in the 1930s. John Callan senior moved to Dunedin in 1877 and entered legal practice.

Young John was educated at the Christian Brothers’ Boys’ School in Dunedin, where he was dux in 1897. A fellow pupil was James Liston, who was to become the outstanding Catholic churchman of his generation. Callan then attended the University of Otago, graduating BA (1902) and LLB (1906). In 1905 he and another student won the Joynt Challenge Scroll for debating at the inter-university tournament. At the time the teaching of law at Otago was in considerable difficulty, and Callan and others were coached for their examinations by James Garrow, later an influential professor of law in Wellington. Perhaps because of this experience, Callan was to become heavily involved in university legal education.

After admission to the Bar in 1906 he worked for some years in his father’s firm, Callan and Gallaway. When his father became a member of the Legislative Council in 1907, Callan became a partner in the firm. In 1911 he was part of an Otago District Law Society deputation that criticised the teaching of law at Otago University. As a result, a panel of part-time lecturers drawn from the profession was established in 1912; Callan was the lecturer in torts. On 10 July 1913 he married Margaret Elizabeth Mowat in Dunedin; they were to have one child, a son. In 1917 he enlisted in the army, and served in France with the 3rd Battalion of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, attaining the rank of captain. During his military service he appeared on occasions as counsel in courts martial for the New Zealand and Canadian divisions; in his own brigade he sometimes presided. On his return to New Zealand he became vice president of the Dunedin RSA. A keen athlete in his youth, Callan maintained his sporting interests as a member (and later president) of the Otago Amateur Athletic Association.

Around 1922 he became dean of the law faculty, serving on a part-time basis. He earned a reputation as a knowledgeable and entertaining lecturer, contributed to the New Zealand Law Journal and presented papers at New Zealand Law Society conferences. In addition to his practice and lecturing, Callan served for many years on the councils of the Otago and New Zealand law societies, and was president of the former. In 1930–31 he was instrumental in promoting, through the New Zealand Law Society, the establishment of the statutory Council of Legal Education, and served on it from its inception. He was also a member of the Senate of the University of New Zealand (1934–35).

In 1934 Callan became a King’s counsel and moved to Wellington. There, he took part in community and cultural activities, speaking to various groups and societies. He also gave a series of weekly talks on international affairs on radio 2YA. On 3 May 1935 he was appointed a temporary judge of the Supreme Court of New Zealand. The position was made permanent on 1 August that year, and he moved to Auckland, where he was to live the rest of his life. In accordance with the system of the time he sat as an appellate judge on appeals against decisions of his fellow judges. Universally admired for his knowledge of the law and firm conduct of his court, he was nevertheless kindly and courteous to counsel, particularly those who were young and nervous.

Throughout his life Callan was an ardent Catholic, and as a prominent layman he often spoke at important church functions. In 1949 he was disturbed by newspaper reports of a statement by Pope Pius XII on the duties of Catholic lawyers and judges, particularly in divorce cases, and indicated privately that he was prepared to resign his judicial office. He was greatly relieved, however, when assured by Bishop Liston that the statement was not applicable in New Zealand, where divorce could be understood to refer to the civil contract of marriage rather than the sacrament of matrimony.

While on the Bench Callan chaired various statutory bodies, including the Aliens Tribunal and a 1941 enquiry into the leaking of official information. In his practice he did little work in the field of criminal law, but was engaged as counsel in several significant civil cases representing the Crown. As a judge his decisions were clear and forthright, and on occasions he wrote leading judgements in the Court of Appeal. Renowned for his irrepressible humour, deft wit and warm personality, John Callan was a dark-haired man with a narrow, pointed face and intense, dark eyes. He died in Auckland on 12 February 1951, survived by his wife and son.

Links and sources


    ‘Mr Justice Callan. His interesting career’. New Zealand Law Journal. 21 May 1935: 127–128

    New Zealand Law Society. Portrait of a profession. Ed. R. Cooke. Wellington, 1969

    Obit. Evening Post. 13 Feb. 1951: 10

    Obit. New Zealand Law Journal. 6 March 1951: 54–59

How to cite this page:

P. J. Downey. 'Callan, John Bartholomew', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 July 2024)