Removal of Justice Sir Robert Chambers' name from memorial slammed as 'ridiculous'
Tom Furley, Reporter
The widow of a Supreme Court judge is accusing officials of insulting his memory by taking his name off a $300,000 public memorial.
The judge's name has been removed from the large marble plinth. Photo: RNZ/Tom Furley
Justice Sir Robert Chambers died suddenly five years ago, aged 59, and the government at the time announced a garden would be built at the Auckland High Court in his memory.
The memorial, including a large marble plinth with his name on it was unveiled in March for the court's 150th anniversary but a short time later was fenced off and shrouded in tarpaulins.
The garden included an extended lawn, benches, a low engraved wall, and a large marble plinth with his name on it. The garden cost the taxpayer $298,164.38 not including GST.
When the covers finally came off at the weekend the marble had been replaced and the judge's name was gone.
'How is that a memorial to a great judge?'
Lady Deborah Chambers QC said she never campaigned for a memorial for her late husband but when the Ministry of Justice offered it she accepted.
With her family she chose one design from three different options and after it was finished in February, it was unveiled to positive feedback.
However not long afterwards the memorial was closed off again and covered up for four months.
"I understood what happened Mr Bridgeman [the Secretary of Justice] asked for his bureaucrats to find out how much it would cost to change it and take the writing away in regards to Rob and that was misinterpreted and instead of giving him a quote they just went ahead and changed it.
"It wasn't even a definitive decision it was just chaos at the Ministry of Justice."
Now the plinth stands exposed without any engraving or a plaque and the garden makes no mention of the man it was made for.
"It's a memorial to a great judge and that's what they said they were doing. There's now no mention of his name, I mean how ridiculous is that?"
"I actually think it's insulting. They've said well this will be a lovely for the family because we'll have this lovely memorial that will remind you of Rob and so on. Well the whole thing's been destroyed as far as I'm concerned"
"Everyone knows it was there because all of the legal community was at the 150th celebration of the High Court and now everybody knows it's gone. How is that a memorial to a great judge?"
She said the moral thing would be to restore it to the agreed design and how it was built in the first place.
'It looks like a headstone'
Documents show just days before the completed garden was to be opened top court officials contacted the Ministry to say that the Chief Justice, Dame Sian Elias wanted to discuss the memorial with the Ministry's chief executive, Secretary of Justice Andrew Bridgeman.
In a letter later that month, Dame Sian asked Mr Bridgeman to remove the plinth from the garden memorial saying it was "inappropriate."
"It is a large funerary monument which is out of place on such an important public site and in such a prominent position. It looks like a headstone. It is of a scale that appropriates the space and, indeed, the historic courthouse."
She went on to say it would be "wrong to leave the plinth in place" and her concerns were shared by the judges.
Dame Sian declined to comment further to RNZ.
A 'misunderstanding' with the ministry
In response to the Chief Justice, Mr Bridgeman said he had agreed to screen the plinth off while he considered the matter but decided the plinth would stay.
"The design was approved by the Chief High Court Judge, Justice Venning, and developed in consultation with Justice Chambers' widow, Lady Chambers," he replied.
However he said changes were being made because of an error.
"Owing to a misunderstanding with the builder, the marble surfacing of the plinth was removed and destroyed shortly after the site was screened off. Given this turn of events we will replace the plinth facing with a darker marble and will add a small commemorative plaque and a bench seat."
Court officials also sent Mr Bridgeman a letter from a concerned lawyer at the request of the Chief Justice so Mr Bridgeman was "aware of the level of concern within the profession regarding the memorial garden"
He replied later that evening.
"The High Court Chief Judge signed off on this, so I'm relaxed which way you want to play it. We will pretty much do what you want as we have no view on this."
The ministry maintained the original screening of the plinth was not because of Mr Bridgeman's instruction.
"To clarify, the memorial had already been screened off to repair the defects in the marble," the ministry told RNZ upon releasing the documents.
Correspondence with contractors released under the OIA show landscape architect Patrick Corfe identified a list of faults with the garden, including on the the plinth, days before the first unveiling.
He later wrote in an email "The project suffered from an initial lack of momentum and both expanded and contracted over time, with associated design changes. The complexity of site and sensitivity continued to affect the project throughout."
In mid-March the remedy was expected to take three to four weeks but Mr Corfe was told to put them on hold "pending decision from the Ministry as to the scope of the plinth alterations".
In response to Lady Deborah's concern, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson said in a statement that the "memorial garden as a whole" commemorated the life of Sir Robert Chambers.
"The Ministry acknowledges the importance of the memorial garden to Lady Chambers and her family, and is available to discuss the memorial garden with her."
Justice Minister to seek answers
Justice Minister Andrew Little said he was "puzzled" to learn the name was no longer part of the memorial.
"That commitment having been made and money spent on it I think what we need to do now is make sure Sir Robert Chambers and his memory has been properly respected and that the family has been properly respected as well.
"Of course you would expect his name would be inscribed in whatever thing is there."
He said he would be seeking answers from officials in the next few days.
"So much has happened and in fact so much has gone wrong, it's got way out of control, the family is entitled to some answers about it.
"It is meant to be a memorial to Sir Robert Chambers and the best I can do is now make some enquiries to find out exactly what has happened and what has gone wrong and how quickly it can be put right."