Wilfrid Joseph Sim was born in Dunedin on 3 November 1890, the son of William Alexander Sim and his wife, Frances Mary Walters. His father was a solicitor and later became a judge of the Court of Arbitration and the Supreme Court of New Zealand. Wilfrid’s education began at Arthur Street School, Dunedin. In 1902 he went to Otago Boys’ High School, where he remained until 1905. He then moved to Wanganui Collegiate School for four years, playing for the First XI and the First XV, which he captained, and becoming a prefect. In 1910 he enrolled as a law student at Victoria College, where he played rugby and cricket and graduated LLB in 1913. He was an associate to his father in 1910–11 and was then employed as clerk in the office of Findlay, Dalziell and Company. By September 1914 he was a partner in the firm.
On the outbreak of the First World War Sim enlisted in the army. He became a lance corporal in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, which in 1914 occupied German Samoa. For several months from January 1915 he was part of the civil administration, serving as commissioner of police and Crown prosecutor. He then took commissioned rank with a regular Scottish regiment, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, with whom he spent 18 months in Macedonia during the Salonika campaign. He received the Military Cross and the Médaille d’honneur (from the French government) for gallantry in action. He was discharged in 1919.
On his return to New Zealand in May 1919, and after some disappointment over the hesitation of his former senior partner, Sir John Findlay, to resume the partnership, Sim went into practice in Christchurch, becoming a partner in Duncan, Cotterill and Company in June 1920. In the following 20 years he was engaged in a wide variety of cases, mostly involving questions of law, although he also conducted many jury cases, an experience that influenced him to advocate the principle of absolute liability in motor collision cases. The main focus of his practice at the Bar was commercial and revenue law. He frequently appeared as counsel in the Supreme Court and in the Court of Appeal: in 1955 he appeared for the first time, and successfully, before the Privy Council in London. He was also counsel before many committees and commissions of inquiry and acted as adviser to the Wheat Purchase Board and to the Wheat Committee from their inception. On 31 March 1921, in Christchurch, Sim married Hazel Dashwood Hill. From 1939, when he was appointed King’s counsel, the family lived in Wellington.
Sim’s father, Sir William Sim, had written two standard legal texts: The Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act , 1908 (1910) and, with Sir Robert Stout, The practice of the Supreme Court & Court of Appeal of New Zealand (1892). Wilfrid Sim became solely responsible for successive editions of both texts for almost 50 years, during which they became the only authority on matters of procedure in the higher courts. The editorial work became a grind but Sim persevered, to some extent out of a deep sense of professional duty. Although ideologically in favour of free competition, he fiercely defended the monopoly that his textbooks came to acquire, even to the point of asserting that he owned the copyright in the Code of Civil Procedure on which his textbook was a commentary.
Sim played a prominent part in the cause of law reform. His paper to the Fourth Dominion Legal Conference in Dunedin in 1936 on ‘Law reform in New Zealand’ called for the establishment of a permanent committee with weight and learning to make recommendations to the government on issues where law reform was seen to be in the public interest. He was one of the first representatives appointed by the New Zealand Law Society on the rules committee of the Supreme Court when it was established in 1930, and continued as a member until his retirement in 1952. He also represented the Law Society on the Law Revision Committee when it was set up in 1937.
The omens seemed right for Sim’s appointment as chief justice of New Zealand on the death of Sir Humphrey O’Leary in 1953. But it was not to be. Sim gave no public expression of disappointment, but his feelings are apparent in a diary record of the phone call from the prime minister, Sidney Holland, with the unfavourable news: he writes Holland off as ‘an incredible humbug’ and Clifton Webb, the attorney general, he judges ‘rather worse’.
Outside his legal career and interests, Sim served on the Christchurch City Council from 1925 to 1927 and was a member of several council committees. A keen supporter of the New Zealand National Party, he became its president for seven years from 1944, and was knighted for political services in 1951. He was a director for some years of the Mount Cook Tourist Company of New Zealand and the Wellington Publishing Company. He served on the New Zealand committee of Dr Barnardo’s Homes and was a trustee of the Wanganui Collegiate School. Sim remained a keen sportsman throughout his life. After commencing practice in Christchurch he had continued to play rugby and cricket, and for most of his life he was an ardent golfer, often recording the shots, good and bad, in his diary. In his Christchurch days he was a member, and for some years president, of the Richmond Hill Golf Club.
Wilfrid Sim was a man of strong views, not only in politics but also in private conduct. There was the mark of solidity about him – in his stature and in the determination that he showed in work, in play, and in his legal writings. His written opinions and legal argument were always thorough, albeit somewhat unimaginative. He had a deep sense of duty and self-discipline and unswerving religious convictions. He governed himself by Robert Browning’s description of the man who ‘never turned his back but marched breast forward’.
Wilfred Sim died at Wellington on 5 November 1974, survived by a son and a daughter. He was buried beside his wife (who had died in 1950) in the historic Christ Church cemetery at Taita. For many years he had chaired the preservation society that administered the cemetery and church.