Herbert Richard Churton Wild (known as Richard) was born in Blenheim on 20 September 1912, the son of Leonard John Wild, a teacher, and his wife, Doris Churton. The family moved to Wanganui and Christchurch before settling in Feilding. From 1925 to 1929 Richard attended Feilding Agricultural High School, where his father, the founding headmaster, introduced innovative features such as placing a measure of self-government in the hands of the students. Richard was dux of the school and president of the school council.
In 1930 he enrolled at Victoria University College, graduating LLB in 1934 and LLM in 1935. He was active in student affairs and in sport. As well as becoming president of the students’ association and a nominee for the Rhodes Scholarship, he represented the college in rugby and boxing and New Zealand Universities in rugby. In 1938 he played representative rugby for Wellington.
While studying at university he was employed as a clerk in the Department of Agriculture, and then as a law clerk, first at Brandon, Ward and Hislop, and later with Bell, Gully, Mackenzie and O’Leary. When Humphrey O’Leary was appointed King’s counsel in 1935, Wild became his secretary. Four years later he went into practice on his own account, and lectured part time at Victoria University College until the outbreak of the Second World War.
Wild enlisted in January 1940. On 19 August, three months before sailing for the Middle East, he married Janet Grainger in Wellington. Now a schoolteacher, Janet had been a fellow student at Victoria University College. Wild served with the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Middle East and in Italy from December 1940 to November 1944. He became brigade major of the 4th New Zealand Armoured Brigade and in January 1943 was mentioned in dispatches.
On his return to Wellington in 1945 Wild became a partner in the firm that was known from 1946 as Bell, Gully and Company. He demanded a high standard of efficiency from his law clerks, constantly urging them to ‘make the clerks’ room like a submarine’. In his first years in practice he lectured part time in commercial law at Victoria University College; in 1947, with D. A. S. Ward, he published Mercantile law in New Zealand. He maintained his links with the defence forces as assistant director of the New Zealand Army Legal Department and was a member of the commission inquiring into war pensions in 1950–51. He was also counsel assisting the commission into the conduct of members of the Police Force in 1953–54, and a member of the board of governors of Samuel Marsden Collegiate School.
In 1955 Wild was appointed judge advocate general of the army. Two years later he was appointed solicitor general, taking silk the same year. During his eight-year term he revitalised the Crown Law Office, recruiting able members of the profession as Crown counsel and reorganising the department to meet the demands of the increasing litigation involving the government and the administration of criminal justice. As the Crown’s principal legal adviser and counsel, he appeared in many leading cases, mainly in the Court of Appeal and before the Privy Council. He was president of the Wellington District Law Society (1960), and from 1962 to 1964 vice president of the New Zealand Law Society. His leadership and chairmanship were acknowledged as outstanding. In 1962–63 he was chairman of the Committee on Absolute Liability, the precursor to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Compensation for Personal Injury in New Zealand, which led to new accident compensation legislation. In 1964 he contributed a paper on ‘Social progress and the legal process’ for the New Zealand Institute of Public Administration.
On 18 January 1966 Wild was appointed chief justice of New Zealand, the youngest to assume the office since the appointment of James Prendergast in 1875. Wild became a member of the Privy Council and was knighted (KCMG). He brought many qualities to his high office: complete dedication to whatever cause he undertook; an outstanding capacity for sustained and concentrated work; a flair for organisation; firm and incisive argument and judgement; a clear and logical mind; practical wisdom; and a broad knowledge and experience of contemporary issues. His passionate belief in the fundamental importance of the administration of justice in an ordered, democratic society shone through all his work as a judge and head of a judiciary committed to administering justice efficiently, effectively and promptly.
During his chief justiceship the judiciary was called on to face increasing pressures in both civil and criminal litigation. There were changes in the judicial system and the jurisdiction following the Royal Commission on the Courts, and the Royal Commission on Personal Injury. There were also changes in jurisdiction in administrative matters, in the grouping of judges in main centres to reflect population trends, in the reconstruction of the rules of court, and in the seconding of New Zealand judges to the Privy Council. Not only did Wild assume the responsibility for the effective planning and administration necessary to meet these increasing changes, but he also shared to the full the judicial work, presiding at Supreme Court sessions throughout New Zealand, sitting in the Court of Appeal, and also as a member of the Privy Council in London in 1969, 1972 and 1977. In England during his term of office he became an honorary bencher of the Inner Temple, and in New Zealand he was awarded an honorary LLD in 1969 by Victoria University of Wellington. In 1975 he chaired the Sixth Asian Judicial Conference, which was held in New Zealand.
Six years before Wild reached retiring age, a tumour of the brain was diagnosed. After courageously working on despite the effects of his illness, he retired in January 1978. In February he was appointed a GBE in recognition of his distinguished service. On 22 May 1978 he died in Karori, Wellington, survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters. Tributes from his contemporaries in public life and his profession left no doubt that Sir Richard Wild was one of the great chief justices of New Zealand.