John George Findlay was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, probably on 21 October 1862, the son of Jane McCubbin and her husband, George Alexander Findlay, a sawmiller and timber merchant. John spent his formative years on the West Coast, where he attended Scott's Academy, Hokitika. He gained his LLB at the University of Otago in 1886 and was called to the Bar in 1887, practising in partnership with F. G. Dalziell at Palmerston. There, on 26 April 1890, Findlay married Josephine Emily Arkle; they were to have three sons. In 1893 he gained his LLD, and briefly lectured in political economy at the University of Otago. He joined Sir Robert Stout in a partnership in Wellington from 1894 until 1899, when Stout was appointed chief justice, and then re-entered partnership with Dalziell until 1914.
Meanwhile, John Findlay became involved in politics. In 1902 he contested a Wellington seat as a Liberal candidate. Although unsuccessful, he continued his association with the Liberal party and in 1905 wrote much of their election manifesto. On 23 November 1906 Sir Joseph Ward appointed him to the Legislative Council to fill the vacant office of attorney general. He held this position until 1911, and that of colonial secretary (later minister of internal affairs) until 1909. He was also minister of justice from 1909 to 1911. In 1907, in his capacity as attorney general, he was responsible for regulations creating the office in New Zealand of King's counsel and was himself among the first to be appointed.
Because there were no other members of cabinet in the Legislative Council, Findlay was appointed leader in 1906 and he remained in this position until 1911. Despite his lack of parliamentary or political experience, these years in the Council were marked by a high level of debate. Findlay contended that when he was leader, the Council was no mere revising or correcting chamber: 17 important bills originated there and 36 measures sent to the Council for revision were amended. In sponsoring, initiating or speaking on numerous and diverse bills, he revealed his wide knowledge, some of which had apparently been gained through reading for up to 17 hours a day in his youth. In many speeches he fluently espoused his liberal humanitarian philosophy.
Findlay's legal background was reflected in his attempts to reform the judicial system and, in particular, to separate the Court of Appeal from the Supreme Court. He also advocated a reformatory-based penal system founded on the indeterminate sentence.
In 1911 Findlay accompanied Ward to the Imperial Conference in London, where his thoughts on imperial federation and his legal skills were welcomed. While there, he was appointed KCMG in the coronation honours of King George V. On his return, in November that year, he resigned from the Legislative Council to contest the Parnell electorate for the House of Representatives. His aim was to perform a 'more useful service', as he believed that 'the people's chamber is the place where the real fight must take place for reform'. But his style lacked the personal touch that appealed to voters and he lost the election. He stood again as a Liberal candidate in 1917 in a by-election for Hawke's Bay, and this time was successful, serving until he retired in 1919. He was opposed to free market economics and advocated a system of state paternalism.
Findlay, who wore a thick moustache and his silver hair combed back, was renowned as a courteous, eloquent and learned man with strong humanitarian principles. He lectured on political, social and economic matters and financially supported the establishment of Victoria College in Wellington in 1899. He was a member of its council for 10 years, becoming chairman in 1906, and was also on the board of governors for Wellington College. He was for many years president of a Wellington Shakespeare club. He was chairman of the board of directors of the New Zealand Times Company. His humanitarian philosophy of life is recorded in a collection of lectures published in 1908, entitled Humbugs and homilies. In 1912 he published The Imperial Conference of 1911 from within. He also wrote many articles for journals, particularly the Citizen (the official journal of the Forward Movement).
John Findlay died in Horsted Keynes, East Sussex, England, on 7 December 1929, survived by his wife, Josephine, and two sons. One son, Ian Calcutt Findlay, had been killed in action during the First World War. Findlay was a brilliant scholar and a distinguished lawyer. Educated and cultured, his ornate and often powerful speeches to Parliament were informed and learned. His rich oratory, however, only served to underscore his lack of popular appeal. This was the impediment to his becoming a force in New Zealand politics.