Page 1: Biography
Northcroft, Erima Harvey
Lawyer, military leader, judge
This biography, written by G. P. Barton, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Erima Harvey Northcroft was born in Hokitika on 2 December 1884, the son of Leonard Northcroft, a sharebroker, and his wife, Louisa Pellow James, who had come to New Zealand from Victoria. Erima attended Hokitika School then secondary school at Wellington College. From 1903 he worked for a law firm in Auckland and that year enrolled at Auckland University College. He commenced law practice in Hamilton in 1907. The following year, on 2 December, he married Violet Constance Mitchell in St Mary’s Cathedral, Auckland.
On the formation of the Hamilton District Law Society in 1912 he became a foundation member of its council; he later became president. His law practice was interrupted by service during the First World War as an artillery officer in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. In 1918 he was mentioned in dispatches, and the following year was appointed a DSO. After the armistice Northcroft was made a lieutenant colonel and worked as assistant director, then director, of education for New Zealand troops in the United Kingdom. On his return to New Zealand in 1919 he resumed law practice in Hamilton and rejoined the territorial force.
In 1923 Northcroft moved to Auckland to join what then became the firm of Earl, Kent, Massey and Northcroft, taking the place of Frederick Earl, who had retired. During the next 12 years Northcroft appeared in a variety of cases in all courts. His name became widely known throughout New Zealand in 1934 when, because of the failing health of New Zealand’s leading criminal lawyer, A. C. Hanlon, he took over as senior counsel to defend William Bayly in the Supreme Court at Auckland on charges of double murder.
The following year he was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court of New Zealand at Christchurch. He was a great believer in common sense and the orderly dispatch of business. It was sometimes said that he ran his court like a military orderly’s room. He certainly was a quick worker and preferred to deliver judgement orally at the conclusion of argument rather than reserve his decision, as most other judges would have done. His work style enabled him to assist some of his somewhat more reflective judicial colleagues, although his judgements were workmanlike rather than erudite.
Northcroft preserved his association with university education, and was a member of the Auckland University College Council from 1924 to 1935. In politics he held office in the Reform Party. He was, for one term, a member of the Hamilton Borough Council.
After the First World War Northcroft had retained a close interest in military matters. From 1927 to 1933 he was deputy judge advocate general and was judge advocate general from 1933 to 1935. On the outbreak of the Second World War, although then a judge of the Supreme Court, Northcroft was appointed district artillery officer, Southern Military District, and later fortress commander of the Lyttelton–Sumner area.
With his judicial and military background Northcroft was an obvious choice for appointment as the New Zealand judge on the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, which tried Japanese war criminals at the end of the Second World War. Although on arrival in Japan in 1946 he was treated by Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, to a lengthy exposition of his views on Japanese war criminals and what should happen to them, Northcroft strove to retain judicial independence and integrity in an unsympathetic, if not hostile, atmosphere. In his work on the tribunal Northcroft endeavoured to make a realistic military assessment of the circumstances in which some of the defendants had been involved and which had become the subject of war crimes charges. On one occasion he even travelled to a remote village to interview a Japanese officer who had been commander of a camp in Manchuria in 1931. His services on the tribunal, unique in New Zealand legal history, were recognised by the conferment of a knighthood in 1949. After returning to New Zealand in 1948 he carried on his judicial work as before, both in the Supreme Court and taking his turn in the Court of Appeal.
Northcroft had few reservations about his own abilities. He had a commanding presence and a voice of deep resonance, which was used to good effect in his advocacy. His principal recreation, particularly in his years in Auckland, was yachting – an activity he missed when he moved to Christchurch. Northcroft was a friendly man, sympathetic, understanding, and of broad humanity. Socially gregarious, he greatly enjoyed the camaraderie of colleagues and like-minded friends. He died in Christchurch on 10 October 1953, survived by his wife and two daughters, one of whom, Nancy, was a leading New Zealand town planner.