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Woodhouse, Arthur Owen

by Tim Shoebridge


Owen Woodhouse was a distinguished judge and the architect of New Zealand’s no-fault accident compensation system. After naval service in the Second World War, Woodhouse worked as a lawyer until his appointment as a Supreme Court judge in 1961. In 1966–7, he chaired a royal commission of inquiry into accident compensation which proposed the establishment of a comprehensive state scheme to cover all aspects of injury from accidents. The system was implemented in 1974. A similar Woodhouse-chaired inquiry in Australia foundered after the fall of the Whitlam government. Appointed to the Court of Appeal in 1974, Woodhouse gained a reputation as an innovative judge with a strong social conscience.

Early life and naval service

Arthur Owen Woodhouse was born in Napier on 18 July 1916, the eldest child of Wilhelmina Josephine Catherine Allen and her husband, accountant Arthur James Woodhouse. He grew up in Napier, where he attended Napier Central School and Napier Boys’ High School. The devastating 1931 earthquake damaged his family’s home, and his father lost his job shortly afterwards.

On completing his schooling in 1932, Woodhouse took his father’s advice and pursued a career in law. He initially studied for his LLB extramurally, working at the Napier law firm of Humphries and Humphries. In 1935 he moved north to study at Auckland University College, while working as a junior clerk at Earl, Kent, Massey and North. He was active in campus life, serving as editor of the student newspaper Craccum and as a member of the university’s debating team.

Woodhouse returned to Napier shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, taking up the position of managing clerk with Kennedy, Lusk and Willis; he graduated LLB in 1940. He married Margaret Leah (Peggy) Thorp in Napier on 24 June 1940, and the first of their six children was born the following year.

Woodhouse enlisted for military service shortly after his marriage, and joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in December 1941 after an initial period in the artillery. He served as an officer on a motor torpedo boat during the Allied invasion of Sicily from mid-1943, and as a Coastal Forces Liaison Officer with the partisans in Yugoslavia later that year. He was promoted to lieutenant in January 1944, and his time was divided between intelligence work in Italy and commanding motor torpedo boats in the Mediterranean until the European war ended in May 1945; he was subsequently awarded the DSC for bravery. At the war’s end he was promoted to lieutenant commander and spent six months as assistant to the naval attaché at the British embassy in Belgrade.

Owen Woodhouse’s childhood hardships and wartime experiences left him with an understanding of misfortune and a lifelong desire to help alleviate the troubles of others, together with a practical, decisive and purposeful approach to problem-solving. He brought these values and personal qualities to his subsequent career as lawyer, judge and reformer.

From lawyer to judge

On his discharge from the navy in 1946, Woodhouse joined the Napier firm Lusk, Willis and Sproule, barristers and solicitors, which soon made him partner. There he gained experience as a litigator in both the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal, often representing the Crown in court. In March 1954 he replaced his law partner L.W. Willis as Napier’s Crown Solicitor. He spent 13 years on the council of the Hawke’s Bay Law Society.

Woodhouse made his first foray onto the national stage in 1956–7, when he served as legal counsel for a commission of inquiry into water fluoridation. Woodhouse, who wrote the resulting report, shared the commission’s view that the fluoridation of local water supplies presented no credible health risk to the community and was a legally defensible public health measure.

The government recognised Woodhouse’s experience as a litigator by appointing him a Supreme Court judge in June 1961, aged just 44; he was only the second such judge to be drawn from courts outside the four main centres. He and his family moved to Auckland, where, as Justice Woodhouse, he presided over a variety of civil and criminal cases.

Accident compensation inquiry

In 1966, Keith Holyoake’s National government created a commission of inquiry to review the current system for compensating victims of workplace accidents, in which some injured people were covered by workers’ compensation schemes but others were forced to seek redress through slow, costly and cumbersome litigation which rarely produced a satisfactory outcome.

The commission comprised Woodhouse as chairman, former Labour Department head H.L. Bockett and chartered accountant G.A. Parsons. The commissioners heard evidence from interested parties and spent several months investigating other countries’ schemes. Woodhouse wrote the report of their findings, which they presented to the government in December 1967. Judge Ted Thomas later described the report as ‘the work of a man with a deep-rooted social conscience fully aware of the needs of the common man and woman’, and which reflected ‘his vision of a more humane, harmonious, and responsible society.’1

The Woodhouse report’, as it would be remembered, condemned the existing workplace accident compensation system as ineffective, wasteful and convoluted, and argued that it should be replaced in its entirety. In its place, the report proposed that the social welfare system be extended to include financial support for anyone injured in an accident anywhere, at any time, and for any reason, and without having to prove that anyone else had been negligent. Since everyone participated in community activities, everyone should share responsibility for helping the unlucky few who were injured in the course of those activities.

Central to the scheme was the proposal that, in exchange for the universal right to compensation, New Zealand citizens should lose the right to take personal injury cases before the courts. This would remove the need for organisations and individuals to pay compulsory liability insurance, and the money currently being paid to private insurers could almost entirely fund the new state-administered accident compensation system without the need for additional taxation.

This revolutionary proposal attracted the interest of legal and political observers around the world. The National caucus, however, was divided; Minister of Labour Tom Shand was strongly in favour but Prime Minister Holyoake felt Woodhouse had exceeded his terms of reference and exposed the government to political embarrassment. Subsequent investigations, however, supported the report’s conclusions and costings, and a select committee, chaired by National MP George Gair, recommended that its major proposals be implemented.

The Accident Compensation Act, passed in October 1972, created the Accident Compensation Commission (later Corporation, abbreviated to ACC) to promote workplace safety and pay compensation to those injured in workplace or road accidents, who accordingly lost their right to sue. In November 1973, Norman Kirk’s Labour government extended coverage to all personal injuries, realising the Woodhouse report’s vision of a society in which all citizens could expect comprehensive medical care for injuries, irrespective of their cause.

When the scheme became operational on 1 April 1974, ACC commissioner L.M. Graham described it as ‘a quite breathtaking revolution in our society’.2 Justice Robin Cooke viewed it as ‘a kind of social charter’, granting citizens a new ‘body of rights’.3

The Woodhouse report had argued that the accident compensation scheme should eventually be extended to cover sickness and disease, as there was little meaningful difference between the effects of chronic illness and injury on members of the community. In 1975 the Labour government created a committee to report on this proposal, but it was disbanded without reporting by the incoming National government led by Robert Muldoon.

Woodhouse in Australia

In December 1972 Australia’s newly elected prime minister, Gough Whitlam, asked the New Zealand government to release Woodhouse from his judicial duties to chair an Australian inquiry on national rehabilitation and compensation for personal injury. Whitlam’s progressive Labor Party planned an ambitious programme of social reform, including a Woodhouse-style no-fault accident compensation system.

Woodhouse was based in Australia from March 1973 until July 1974, hearing submissions, producing a report of findings, and drafting a bill through which the scheme might be implemented. It was a complex and difficult process; Woodhouse faced competing priorities at the state and federal levels, and the overlapping objectives of other committees reviewing the social welfare system.

Woodhouse’s report, tabled in the federal parliament in July 1974, reiterated his key New Zealand findings but recommended the scheme cover both illness and injury. The bill embodying the recommendations had a contentious and protracted passage through the house and senate, prompting the cabinet to draft a fresh bill in which coverage for illness was deleted. This bill lapsed when the governor-general controversially removed the Whitlam administration from office in November 1975.

Judicial career

Owen Woodhouse was appointed a judge of the Court of Appeal, New Zealand’s highest court, in February 1974; he took up the appointment in Wellington in July, after returning from Australia. That September he was also appointed to the judicial committee of the Privy Council, the final arbiter of New Zealand’s legal judgments; he was to hear cases with the Council on two occasions. He was appointed president of the Court of Appeal in May 1981.

Woodhouse brought a liberal outlook to all his judicial roles, with an emphasis on social justice. Where some judges favoured literal readings of statutes and close adherence to legal precedent, Woodhouse preferred to interpret legal issues in the context of changing community values, grounded in common sense rather than abstruse, technical arguments. Judges, he argued, must ‘understand and keep abreast of changing social, moral and economic pressures, and so be able to respond adequately to contemporary aspirations and needs.’4

Accordingly, Woodhouse’s judgments took a progressive approach to social issues. He favoured the equal distribution of assets between men and women in divorce cases and argued that publications should be banned as pornographic only if they were judged objectionable by the standards of contemporary society, rather than by past standards that were enshrined in legal precedent. He sought to protect the rights of individuals and defend them from official harassment, and showed an unwillingness to protect those who, he judged, had failed to fulfil their obligations to others.

Woodhouse was forthright and confident in his Court of Appeal decisions, and more willing than some judges to overturn decisions of lower courts. He viewed the court as a means of guaranteeing consistent justice for all citizens, by testing the fairness of convictions and ensuring the prescribed punishments reflected contemporary values.

Woodhouse believed that judges had a legitimate and indeed critical role to play in the formulation of law, and that their judgments should serve to ‘develop and extend general principles’ of legislation and ‘keep the law attuned to modern needs.’5 At times his judicial activism placed him at odds with more conservative colleagues such as Clifford Richmond.

New Zealand Law Commission

Woodhouse retired from his judicial responsibilities in 1986 and was appointed inaugural president of the newly established New Zealand Law Commission, an independent body tasked with systematically reviewing and revising New Zealand law. Justice Minister Geoffrey Palmer called on Woodhouse, his friend and mentor, to helm the programme and help develop its policy. Woodhouse hoped the Commission would help make New Zealand law ‘contemporary, comprehensible, accessible, necessary and fair.’6

One of the Commission’s earliest tasks was to review the legislation controlling ACC, assess it against the Woodhouse report’s original objectives, and address contemporary concerns about the scheme’s rising cost. Among its findings, the Commission’s report reaffirmed the basic principles of the Woodhouse report, rejected claims that the scheme was too expensive, and reiterated Woodhouse’s hope that it would eventually be extended to cover illness.

By the time Woodhouse retired in 1991, the Law Commission had reported on, among other things, commercial and criminal law, court organisation and procedure, the interpretation of legislation, and Māori fishing rights. Woodhouse later expressed disappointment that few of the Commissions recommendations had been implemented by Parliament.

Later life and legacy

In 1991 Owen and Peggy Woodhouse returned to Auckland, where they spent their retirement. By then four of their six children had been admitted to the bar, and their son, Peter Woodhouse QC, was appointed a High Court judge in August 2007. In retirement Woodhouse wrote A personal affair (2004), a memoir of his and Peggy’s early lives and his wartime service.

Woodhouse was widely honoured. He was made a KB in September 1974, a KBE in June 1981, and a member of the Order of New Zealand, the country’s highest honour, in February 2007. He received honorary doctorates in law from Victoria University of Wellington in 1978 and York University in Toronto in 1981.

Sir Owen Woodhouse died at his Auckland home on 15 April 2014, aged 97; Lady Woodhouse had died in 2000. Woodhouse was widely praised as an innovative, compassionate judge, and mastermind of the country’s pioneering accident compensation system. In a eulogy, Geoffrey Palmer described him as ‘a complex, multi-faceted human being, blessed both with penetrating insight and human empathy. His compassion for people was perhaps his most salient characteristic. … He believed those in distress should be helped and the well-being of each one should be of concern to all.’7

  1. E.W. Thomas. ‘Tribute to Sir Owen Woodhouse.’ New Zealand Law Review 129, 2008: 130. Back
  2. L.M. Graham. ‘Social and economic changes reflected in the Accident Compensation Act 1972.’ New Zealand Law Journal, 3 December 1974: 537. Back
  3. Brightwell v ACC, New Zealand law reports, 1985, v.1: 139, quoted in I.B. Campbell. Compensation for personal injury in New Zealand. Auckland, 1996: 74. Back
  4. O. Woodhouse. ‘The judge in today’s society.’ In Auckland Law School centenary lectures. Ed. L.C.B. Gower. Auckland, 1983: 93. Back
  5. Ibid: 96. Back
  6. O. Woodhouse. ‘The new Law Commission.’ New Zealand Law Journal, April 1986: 109. Back
  7. G. Palmer. ‘Eulogy for Rt Hon Sir Owen Woodhouse.’ New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations, vol. 39 no.1, February 2014: 87. Back

Links and sources


    Sir Owen Woodhouse papers. Archives New Zealand. Agency AGGK.

    McLay, G. ‘Sir Owen Woodhouse and the making of New Zealand law.’ Victoria University of Wellington Law Review 54, 2023: 857–81

    Palmer, G. Compensation for incapacity: a study of law and social change in New Zealand and Australia. Wellington and Melbourne, 1979

    Palmer, G. ‘Eulogy for Rt Hon Sir Owen Woodhouse.’ New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations, vol. 39 no.1, February 2014: 87–91

    Spiller, P. New Zealand Court of Appeal, 1958–1996: a history. Wellington, 2002

    Woodhouse, O. Government under the law. Wellington, 1979

    Woodhouse, O. ‘The judge in today’s society.’ In Auckland Law School centenary lectures. Ed. L.C.B. Gower. Auckland, 1983: 87–103

    Woodhouse, O. A personal affair. Taupō, 2004



How to cite this page:

Tim Shoebridge. 'Woodhouse, Arthur Owen', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2024. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 June 2024)