David Stanley Smith was born in Dunedin on 11 February 1888, the first child of John Gibson Smith, a Presbyterian minister, and his wife, Ann Gibb. His primary education began in Dunedin, but was completed at the Middle School, Invercargill, where his father had become the minister of the First Presbyterian Church. After a period as a pupil at Southland Boys’ High School, David Smith moved with his family to Wellington in 1903 and completed his secondary education at Wellington College the following year.
In 1905 he enrolled for the LLB degree at Victoria College and studied full time for the next two years. In 1907 he was employed as a clerk with Findlay, Dalziell and Company, continuing his studies part-time; he graduated in 1909. Smith took a large part in student life, particularly in debating, tennis, hockey and athletics, and became president of the students’ association.
Shortly after his admission on 4 March 1910 as a barrister and solicitor, Smith was offered a partnership with D. M. Findlay, who had started in practice on his own. However, there was insufficient work for two partners, and in 1912 Smith left to join C. B. Morison as an employed assistant. At the same time he continued his law studies as an extramural student for an LLM, graduating at the end of that year. The association with Morison proved to be successful, and when Morison became a King’s counsel (while retaining the right to practise as a solicitor), he offered Smith a partnership. Both men were enthusiastic and assiduous workers, but Smith was more methodical and efficient and did not share Morison’s impatience with detail. The partnership gave Smith an entrée to Maori land law practice, in which the firm specialised, as well as to company law, on which Morison was a leading exponent.
On the outbreak of the First World War, Smith’s professional and personal responsibilities prevented his enlisting for overseas service immediately, as he wanted to do. As the eldest of a family of seven children he was expected, in view of his father’s ill health, to undertake responsibility for his mother and her dependent children. The law practice was short staffed, making it difficult for Smith to leave the ageing Morison on his own.
Smith married Eva Jane Cumming on 23 November 1915 in Auckland, and their daughter was born in October 1916, but only a few months later Eva died while undergoing abdominal surgery. Because of Morison’s ill health Smith was given leave to keep the practice afloat. He had enlisted in December 1916, but it was not until July 1918 that (with the rank of sergeant) he left New Zealand with the 40th Reinforcements on the troopship Tahiti. He did not see active service: having succumbed to a shipboard influenza epidemic en route to Britain, he spent a long period convalescing in England. He returned to New Zealand in September 1919 and set out to re-establish the firm. He married Margaret Elizabeth Gibbs at Wellington on 25 January 1923; they were to have one son.
Smith’s main areas of legal work were Maori land law, appearances before parliamentary committees, and general civil litigation. He never allowed his legal practice to absorb his entire energies. Even before he had gone overseas he had assisted in establishing the New Zealand Returned Soldiers’ Association and had drafted its constitution. On his return he became the chairman of the executive committee and represented the association before a commission established to determine the kind of war pensions appeal board that should be established. He also immersed himself in international affairs, having been closely associated with the Round Table group set up in 1909 to study imperial affairs; he continued as its secretary after the war. Smith also joined the Institute of Pacific Relations and the Institute of International Relations. As a rare honour he was designated, on the nomination of the United States government, as an American non-national member of an international peace commission provided for in the 1914 treaty between Peru and the United States. That commission was never convened, but the designation was a signal recognition of his reputation as an internationalist.
Smith’s appointment as a judge of the Supreme Court of New Zealand on 26 April 1928 could hardly be described as long awaited. His practice had not been particularly wide ranging, nor had he appeared frequently as counsel in the Court of Appeal. But he had shown outstanding qualities as counsel for Maori claimants before the royal commission that sat under the chairmanship of Sir William Sim in 1927 to inquire into the confiscation of Maori land. Partly as a result of Smith’s submissions, the commission found that the wars in Taranaki and Waikato were unjustified. His handling of the brief made a deep impression, and was widely believed to be the reason for the offer of a judicial appointment.
Smith quickly proved himself to be an excellent judge: patient, considerate, thoughtful and efficient. He took a broad view of the judicial function, seeing it in philosophical terms as a profoundly important aspect of the body politic. During the depression he would have agreed to a voluntary reduction in judicial salaries, notwithstanding the constitutional arguments that were advanced against such a reduction as being inconsistent with judicial independence; the majority of his fellow judges thought otherwise. He was also in a minority in his support for a Court of Appeal whose members were appointed for the purpose from among the judges of the Supreme Court.
While a judge he was appointed to take part in two commissions of inquiry: in 1934, on the administration of the Native Department (which led to the resignation of the minister, Apirana Ngata); and in 1945, on the liquor licensing industry.
Smith was knighted in January 1948 and resigned from the Bench on 31 May. Apart from a brief reappointment as a judge on 8 July 1949, he thereafter devoted himself to public affairs. He was chairman of the Board of Trade from 1950 to 1959.
Smith had a lifelong commitment to university education. He was a member of the Victoria University College Council from 1939 to 1945, when he became chancellor of the University of New Zealand. During his tenure that was no mere honorific office. He played a leading role in a critical examination of the university system, and was an eloquent supporter of proposals for the establishment of a university grants committee, a university research committee, and a curriculum committee. He strongly favoured the devolution of academic functions to the constituent university colleges, leading to the ultimate dissolution of the University of New Zealand in 1961.
As chancellor he delivered many addresses on university education, showing a strong liberal stance and a deep concern for the value of tertiary education in the life of the community. He retained a long association with the WEA from its foundation in 1915, and was an examiner in law for the University of New Zealand from 1920 to 1927. For his contribution to university education, honorary doctorates were conferred on him by the Universities of Oxford (1948) and New Zealand (1961). He was a member of the Board of the United States Educational Foundation in New Zealand, and in 1956 was a member of a New Zealand delegation that visited universities in the Soviet Union.
Smith also devoted himself to various philanthropic causes: he was a longtime supporter of the New Zealand Crippled Children Society, becoming its first president (1935–39); served as an executive member of the New Zealand Alliance for the Abolition of the Liquor Trade (1921–22); and was the first president of Heritage (1942–54).
David Smith was humane and thoughtful, fired by high ideals and deeply sensitive to the wider philosophical implications of legal and judicial work. He had a broad sympathy for Maori and their aspirations. After Margaret Smith’s death in 1954 he lived on his own, but with the help of a housekeeper was able to continue to offer hospitality to friends and family alike. He was a vivid raconteur, an excellent host, widely read and of broad interests. David Smith died at Wellington on 29 December 1982, survived by his daughter and son.