Kenneth Macfarlane Gresson, who became the leading member of one of New Zealand’s foremost legal families, was born in Christchurch on 18 July 1891. He was the son of John Beatty Gresson, a lawyer, and his wife, Frances Helen Mary Macfarlane. His grandfather, Henry Barnes Gresson, was one of New Zealand’s first Supreme Court judges; Gresson’s brother became a prominent lawyer, and his nephew a judge. John Gresson died in a railway accident in 1891, some months before Kenneth’s birth, leaving Frances with three other sons and two daughters. Two years later she married Samuel John Gordon, a bank officer. The family moved to Ashburton in 1900 and to Wanganui in 1902.
Kenneth’s education commenced in Christchurch (he delighted in the unusual status of an ‘old boy’ of what became Rangi Ruru Girls’ School). He later attended Wanganui Collegiate School from 1903 to 1911; during this time he was head boy and completed extramurally some of the courses required for an LLB degree from Canterbury College. By 1912 he had moved to Christchurch, where he was articled as a law clerk to H. H. Loughnan and continued his studies for the LLB (though exempted attendance at lectures).
Commissioned as a lieutenant in the Territorial Force in 1911, on the outbreak of war in 1914 Gresson served as a captain and second in command of a company of the Canterbury Battalion which left New Zealand in October. He served at Gallipoli, where he was promoted to major and then severely wounded. After repeated operations and prolonged treatment in Egypt, New Zealand and England he returned to Christchurch, where he served as military representative on the Canterbury Military Service Board until 1919. On 2 October 1917, at Christchurch, he married Athole Bruce, with whose family he had been friendly for many years; they were to have a daughter and a son.
In 1917 Gresson was awarded his degree without further examination, was admitted to the Bar and began his professional career in partnership with C. E. Salter. From 1920 to 1930 he was first a partner in the firm of Papprill, Salter and Gresson, then practised on his own account, specialising in trusts, wills, administration and company work. He was also the chief law reporter for the Canterbury area for much of his career. Gresson was active within the Canterbury District Law Society, serving on the council (1932–35), as vice president (1936) and as president in 1937.
Gresson’s principal impact on the legal profession was as a lecturer in the Faculty of Law at Canterbury College (1923–47), and as dean of the faculty (1936–47). He was a member of the Council of Legal Education, and of the first Law Revision Committee appointed by the minister of justice in 1937; in this capacity he was influential in the enactment of the Law Reform Act 1944. During the Second World War Gresson was aliens authority for the Christchurch area. He also found time for extensive involvement with the Anglican church, serving on the Standing Committee of the Christchurch Synod between 1927 and 1940 and as chancellor of the diocese of Christchurch (1943–46). He was a member of the General Synod of New Zealand in 1928, 1940, 1943 and 1946.
Kenneth Gresson was appointed as a judge of the Supreme Court of New Zealand in 1947, sitting in Wellington and on circuit in the lower North Island. In addition he sat frequently as a member of the Court of Appeal, then comprising a panel of three or more Supreme Court judges. When a separate and permanent Court of Appeal was created in 1957, Gresson was appointed its first president, serving until his mandatory retirement in 1963.
As a member of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council for some months in 1963, Gresson heard at least nine cases, in two of which he gave the opinion of the Privy Council. He served as the first chairman of the Indecent Publications Tribunal (1964–67). Gresson’s career brought a variety of honours and awards: KBE (1958), privy counsellor (1962), honorary bencher of Lincolns Inn (1963), and an honorary LLD from the University of Canterbury in 1972.
Kenneth Gresson believed that his faith required Christian conduct in every aspect of his life. In his professional career this showed itself in his scrupulous fulfilment of his obligations, including making a personal refund to students of a proportion of their course fees when appointment to the Supreme Court prevented him from completing his course of lectures. He was often critical of others who failed without cause to discharge their own obligations, though his humanity and charity made him tolerant of human frailty. He was also renowned for his bluntly practical cast of mind, strong sense of humour and sympathy for those he saw as being less than fairly treated. As president of the Court of Appeal he was swift to protect the dignity of the court and the judiciary.
As a judge he was required to decide cases involving many different areas of law. His reported judgements in the field of wills and estates constitute perhaps his most substantial contribution, but he wrote leading judgements in fields as diverse as criminal law and administrative and public law. Assessments of his judicial career vary: he has been called conservative and unduly ready to follow English precedent, ‘unpredictable’ and ‘a great dissenter’. Certainly, in his last years on the Court of Appeal he expressed dissenting opinions more frequently than at any other stage of his career, perhaps because his judicial philosophy differed significantly from that of the other members of the court. He was in many ways a judicial conservative with a liberal personal philosophy; his colleagues had more conservative personal philosophies but were inclined to permit themselves an active role in reformulation of the law.
A survey of Kenneth Gresson’s judgements shows certain consistent themes. He was careful to remain within what he considered the proper function of the judiciary – to determine matters of law – and not to trespass on what he saw as the preserves of other elements of the legal system. Thus he was remarkably respectful of jury verdicts and equally reluctant to engage in judicial law-making; his decisions are also marked by the strongest regard for individual liberty and autonomy consistent with community needs. Where these guiding principles could not easily be reconciled, his judgements could appear idiosyncratic; very liberal and enlightened dissenting views on censorship or in the requirement for an intentional element for criminal liability were counterbalanced by adherence to old English authorities on the tortious liability of local bodies for failure to maintain roads. However, all these judgements are shaped by his perception of the degree of scope the law permitted to judges to express their own views.
Gresson enjoyed his retirement years in Christchurch, despite the death of his wife in 1971, until the after-effects of an operation to deal with the continuing effects of his war wound caused his death on 7 October 1974. He was survived by his children.