Timothy Patrick Cleary was born in Meeanee, Hawke’s Bay, on 27 April 1900, the son of Patrick Cleary, a labourer, and his Irish-born wife, Margaret McCartin. He spent his early life in Mangaweka, where his family became small farmers. After attending Mangaweka School he went to St Patrick’s College, Wellington, on a Junior National Scholarship. In 1917 he was captain of the First XV, dux and head prefect. He also won a Senior National Scholarship and a University National Scholarship.
In 1918 Cleary enrolled at Victoria University College, where James Garrow, professor of law from 1911 to 1928, would rate him the best student he ever had. Cleary completed an LLB in three years. He then commenced practice in Wellington, working for Carroll O’Donnell and in time became his partner. In his early years in practice he lectured part time at Victoria University College. On 30 March 1933, in Lower Hutt, Cleary married Nea Constance Jervis, the daughter of Francis Jervis, a former All Black. In his early years Cleary particularly enjoyed horse-racing, but as time wore on all was sacrificed to his passion for law. Throughout his life he was a devout Catholic.
In 1937 Cleary joined M O. Barnett, establishing the firm Barnett and Cleary. In 1943 he was president of the Wellington District Law Society, and from 1954 to 1957 he served as president of the New Zealand Law Society. During his time in the latter position he played a part in the moves leading to the establishment of the separate Court of Appeal of New Zealand. He was also chairman of the Medical Services Committee in 1947–48, and served on the Law Society’s rules and library committees and on the Council of Legal Education.
Cleary was one of the outstanding advocates at the New Zealand Bar. He served as counsel on three royal commissions: those inquiring into war assets, the fire at J. Ballantyne and Company’s department store in Christchurch, and the waterfront industry. He was widely trusted and respected for his thoroughness, clearheadedness and perceptiveness, and for his carefully considered views and deep knowledge of the law. He was slow but lucid in his exposition, and had an acute sense of logic in his arguments. He was also fondly regarded as a modest, self-effacing, kindly and thoughtful man who was ready to help the fellow members of his profession.
For 10 years Cleary persistently declined offers of judicial office. Finally, on 23 October 1957, he was appointed a judge of the inaugural permanent Court of Appeal. The appointment, a popular one among his peers, was exceptional in that Cleary was appointed direct from the Bar. He was knighted in 1959.
Cleary’s term on the Court of Appeal was relatively short: he died in office in Wellington, from a heart attack, on 15 August 1962, survived by his wife and four children. His long-term impact on the Court of Appeal was limited because of the shortness of his tenure on the bench and his lack of previous judicial experience. However, his clear thinking and industrious approach left its mark in judgements that are still relied upon today. Further, he played a behind-the-scenes role that gave support and strength to the bench in its early years. After Cleary’s death his successor, Alexander Turner, remarked that ‘the country has lost one of the chief supports of its judicial structure’.