Worley Bassett Edwards was undoubtedly the most controversial man to have sat on the Bench of the Supreme Court of New Zealand. Character flaws dogged his judicial career and earned him the fierce dislike of many practising lawyers. He was born in London, England, on 5 September 1850, the fourth of five children of Charles Scatcherd Wilson Edwards, a chemist, and his wife, Cornelia Cullen Waller. The family emigrated to Otago, New Zealand, on the Isabella Hercus in 1856 and commenced farming in a modest way on a remote section at Portobello. Edwards's unpublished memoirs, composed in 1911, stress the harshness of their living conditions and the sometimes inharmonious relationship between his ineffectual father and his dominant mother, who set her hand to most tasks and who taught him the value of book-learning.
The family's straitened circumstances were relieved about 1861 with Cornelia Edwards's appointment as the local schoolteacher. Partly financed by his savings of £12 from breeding rabbits, Edwards was sent to the High School of Otago where eventually he lodged with the rector, F. C. Simmons. A competent and competitive scholar, he was narrowly – and, according to him, unfairly – beaten to the honour of dux in 1866 by F. D. H. Bell, later to be attorney general. Edwards never forgot the fancied injustice.
Simmons advised Cornelia Edwards, who had moved to Oamaru (apparently after separating from her husband), to article her son to a solicitor. Without much enthusiasm Edwards began, in 1867, in the office of Julius and O'Meagher, but he worked hard and by the end of his first year he was put on a wage of £2 per week. For the next three or so years he lived in a rough lean-to at the family home, reading books in poor light and weakening his eyesight.
In 1871 an English cousin, Arthur Lowndes, who had made money in the iron business in Yorkshire, invited him and his eldest sister, Florence, to visit England. He also invited Edwards to enter into business with him in Middlesbrough, but nothing came of this. Edwards and his sister inherited about £1,000 each from an uncle and aunt and, having entrusted most of the money to Lowndes to invest for them, Edwards visited Norway, Italy, Sardinia, Tunis and Algeria. Lowndes's fanciful investments failed, leaving the brother and sister almost penniless in London after three years. Lowndes's mother rescued them, paying their fares to New Zealand.
Admitted to the Bar in 1875, Edwards served the balance of his articles with C. W. Cutten, a schoolfriend, then practised law with him at Oamaru, and at Wellington with A. de B. Brandon, and then with W. S. Moorhouse (later joined by Cutten). He took offence at what he regarded as breaches of faith by both Brandon and Moorhouse. With the help of Cutten's father, Edwards and Cutten bought out Moorhouse. By the late 1870s a stable and profitable partnership had been established. In 1881 Edwards unsuccessfully contested the Wellington South seat in Parliament. On Cutten's death, in 1885, he embarked on practice on his own account and on 2 June 1886, at Wellington, married Cutten's widow, Mary Ann Cutten, formerly George. Although Edwards wrote of the marriage as one of real love, there was rumour of conflict, chiefly over her extravagance with money. The five children of her two previous marriages joined Edwards's household. They took his name but were never formally adopted by him. A son, Godfrey L'Estrange Waller, the only child of the marriage, was born in 1890.
That same year Edwards was appointed as the sixth member of the Supreme Court and also as a judge in bankruptcy and a commissioner under the Native Land Court Acts Amendment Act 1889. With the change of government in 1891, proceedings were taken by the attorney general to challenge the appointment to the Supreme Court because there was constitutional and fiscal provision for only five members. The Court of Appeal upheld Edwards's appointment but its ruling was reversed by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. That rebuff left Edwards without an adequate source of income. (Compensation, of £5,500, was not paid him until 10 years later.) He returned to practise in Wellington, and served as president of the Wellington District Law Society in 1894. In 1896 Edwards was appointed – validly this time – to the Supreme Court. He was the first judge to have been educated wholly in New Zealand. From 1898 to 1900 he served also as president of the Court of Arbitration. He became the resident judge at Auckland in 1903.
Edwards was an erudite and industrious judge with fine analytical skills. His contribution to the law as a commissioner of the Native Land Court was also distinguished, and he could be a pungent critic of the advice tendered by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. However, although they were in awe of his legal knowledge, Auckland lawyers came to resent Edwards for his atrocious treatment of those whom he disfavoured, and the prejudice he displayed towards particular counsel and their clients. Naturally arrogant and vindictive, his behaviour may also have owed something to a feeling that fate had sentenced him to life in a coarse-grained colony.
By 1913 Edwards's courtroom behaviour had become intolerable to the local profession. Newspapers carried reports of his attacks on counsel for making long speeches instead of cross-examining witnesses, and for their 'wasting time'. He regularly interrupted certain counsel while allowing full rein to his small group of favourites. One of two cartoons in the New Zealand Observer plainly imputed to him partiality towards the female respondent in a 1913 divorce trial Paterson v. Paterson. Against the weight of the evidence, he found for her and the co-respondent. The drawings 'Justice is not blind', showing Edwards leering at the woman, and 'Experience', in which he boasts of his own worldliness, gave rise to contempt proceedings against the newspaper's proprietors. The full Bench of the Supreme Court held there was no contempt, although it observed that the cartoons may well have been libellous. The defendants, William Blomfield and William Geddis, had been cheered along Queen Street by Aucklanders as they set out for the trial at Wellington.
By late September 1913 dissatisfaction with Edwards had peaked. The mayor of Auckland had received a call from business leaders to hold a public meeting and Dr H. D. Bamford, president of the Auckland District Law Society, had prepared a resolution stating that the administration of justice had been imperilled by Edwards's failure to maintain an attitude of judicial impartiality. An overwhelming majority of Auckland lawyers signed the resolution, which was conveyed to Alexander Herdman, the attorney general. A plan to move an address to Parliament for Edwards's removal from office was outwitted by the MP Oliver Samuel, one of the judge's few friends. Edwards was transferred to Wellington, ostensibly to replace Mr Justice Chapman who was going on leave.
Life and law in the capital failed to cure Edwards's intolerance; Auckland's problem became Wellington's. Senior counsel, including Bell, Martin Chapman, C. P. Skerrett and others, refused to appear before him. He sat on the Bench in New Plymouth, travelling between there and Wellington on a powerful Indian motorcycle. Eventually the Wellington Bar lodged a protest and, in 1919, the year in which Edwards was knighted, it seemed likely that another effort would be made to present an address to Parliament urging his removal. Samuel, again, intervened. This time he mediated a settlement between Edwards and the government. Edwards would retire early, one year before the compulsory age, on full pension together with £1,000 compensation. His resignation was received on 31 January 1921, after which he set about re-establishing himself as a barrister. But he did not practise again in person.
Edwards's last years were spent between Wellington and Sydney, where he died (at Woollahra) on 1 June 1927; Mary Ann Edwards died in Wellington in 1935. To the end he exercised the patience of administrative and legal authorities. In Wellington he fought successfully to retain a Department of Justice typewriter, and unsuccessfully to have his retirement pension declared by the commissioner of taxes an allowance, not a pension. In spite of his legal acumen, Edwards had been temperamentally unsuited for his position; that he retained office highlighted the impotence of the government and legal profession in the face of their first such challenge.