John Lochiel Robson was born at Halcombe, near Feilding, on 4 June 1909, the son of John Templeton Robson and his wife, Margaret Catherine O’Brien. His father was a teacher, as was his mother before her marriage. After attending Ashhurst School and then Wairoa District High School in Hawke’s Bay from 1921 to 1924, he joined the public service at the age of 15 as a cadet in the Public Trust Office, Wairoa.
Robson worked in the Public Trust Office in Wellington from 1927 to 1929, and in Christchurch from 1929 to 1937. In 1931 he graduated LLB and in 1932 LLM at Canterbury College. Subsequently, he studied at the University of London, obtaining a PhD in law in 1939. He returned to the New Zealand public service, at first in the Public Trust Office, Wellington. From 1944 he was on the staff of the Public Service Commissioner (later the Public Service Commission), working as an assistant inspector and then superintendent of staff training. From 1951 he was in the Department of Justice as assistant secretary, deputy secretary, and, from 1960, secretary for justice.
Robson’s tenure as permanent head coincided closely with the term of office of J. R. Hanan as minister of justice (1960–69). While accepting as basic a minister’s right to have his own policies loyally carried out, Robson’s concept of the senior public servant’s function was an activist one. He saw his role as one of taking the initiative and that of the minister as telling him what the public would not stand. This worked admirably with Hanan, and the two worked harmoniously to an exceptional degree. The result was a decade of achievement in penal administration and policy and in law reform probably without equal in New Zealand.
Essentially, Robson built on the progressive penal policy inaugurated by his predecessor, S. T. Barnett. But unlike the flamboyant and confrontational Barnett, Robson pursued a careful approach, preferring consultation and compromise. He had a well-developed instinct for how far to press against the politically possible, and when to do so. Progressive policies had to be sold to the public and Robson was adept at securing the support of the churches and the goodwill of the press. This skill was used effectively in the campaign to abolish capital punishment for murder, which was successful in 1961 against what initially seemed overwhelming odds, and in introducing alternatives to imprisonment, notably periodic detention in 1962. He and Hanan were willing to use trade-offs to advance their goals. Thus they helped secure acceptance of liberal penal policies by building a sophisticated (critics called it inhumane) maximum security prison at Paremoremo, and by legislation in 1963 for compensating victims for injuries caused through crime.
Robson was aware that neither government measures nor penal policies have much impact on the amount of crime, or on reoffending, and was convinced of the futility as well as the inhumanity of traditional punitive responses. He contended that offenders should be treated with respect for their human dignity and that significant reduction in offending could come only from changes within society itself. However, like many at the time, Robson seemed to lack perception of the underlying nature and causes of the problem of Maori offending. Characteristically, Robson supported the marriage guidance movement and developed the prison chaplaincy, upholding the independence of chaplains. One of his few clashes with Hanan, an issue over which he was prepared to resign, concerned chaplains’ rights to oppose publicly the Vietnam War.
Robson’s other great interest was administrative law. His concern was to see state power balanced and controlled by giving private citizens effective remedies against abuses, the high-handed use of power, or the simple mistakes and insensitivities of bureaucrats. He did much towards reforming the system of administrative tribunals, but it was more important to him to achieve greater fairness in the ordinary operations of the executive. Robson saw the possibilities for New Zealand of the Scandinavian institution of the ombudsman. He probably had a behind-the-scenes influence in the New Zealand National Party’s 1960 election promise to set up a citizens’ appeal authority; this crystallised in the 1962 legislation creating an ombudsman.
A notable achievement was the Indecent Publications Act 1963. Robson developed proposals for this by his usual method of wide consultation. Its centrepiece was the creation of a specialist judicial body, the Indecent Publications Tribunal, to judge material submitted to it. Initially controversial, this legislation came to be widely praised both in New Zealand and overseas for its practical and liberal character.
His approach was pragmatic, with a belief in checks and balances – ‘the right balance’ was a favourite phrase. He was impressed by the Asian emphasis on duties and responsibilities rather than rights. However, he could be charged with looking at things unduly from the perspective of the status quo. Sometimes, he saw as radical reform what others might regard as tinkering. As an administrator Robson was approachable, worked well with his staff and usually got the best out of them. He was willing to give younger officers a good deal of head. However, the Justice Department was a disparate organisation and his concentration on penal policy and administration led to the comparative neglect of other divisions.
After his retirement in 1970 Robson was appointed a visiting fellow at Victoria University of Wellington. He set up the Institute of Criminology there and was its director from 1972 to 1980. His role in forming the institute and establishing the subject of criminology firmly as a university discipline was crucial. However, he found difficulty in adjusting to the very different working environment and relationships at a university in the 1970s. There was, moreover, a clash between his stress on teaching and historical research and the more immediate and pragmatic needs of his former department and others who were providing much of the finance for the institute. His second retirement may have been something of a relief to both sides.
Robson had been a founding member of the New Zealand Institute of Public Administration in 1936 and its president in 1954–55. He played a large part in setting up an administrative staff college, incorporated in 1957, as a partnership between the public and the private sector. He represented New Zealand at a number of United Nations seminars and conferences on human rights and on crime and the treatment of offenders. He was made a CBE in 1968, and in 1969 received an honorary doctorate in law from the University of Otago. In 1968 Robson reluctantly accepted the chair of the Social and Cultural Committee within the framework of the National Development Conference. In his view its report ‘never really lost the status of an unwanted child’. Subsequently, he became a member of the Social Development Council and was chair from 1974 to 1979. He found both experiences dispiriting because of government reluctance to approve any proposals that involved much spending. He was chair of the National Marriage Guidance Council of New Zealand, a member of the New Zealand Press Council from 1972 to 1984, and patron of the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand from 1981 to 1987. His autobiography, Sacred cows and rogue elephants , was published in 1987.
Robson’s personal views on standards in the arts were somewhat conservative – he expressed distaste at a university performance of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata , a play he considered unfit for young women students – and his beliefs are best described as Christian humanitarianism. His opposition to capital punishment, and his promotion of the reformation of offenders, were deep and personal. His part in abolishing the death penalty brought him greater satisfaction than anything else in his career.
Robson had married Katharine Enid Hoby at Wellington on 18 December 1942. He died at Wellington on 17 September 1993, survived by his wife and their two sons and two daughters.