Obituary: Sir Clifford Hammett

Kenneth Bain
Thursday 08 July 1999 23:02

THE NATURE and dispensing of colonial justice has been described, retrospectively, in various ways. Ronnie Knox-Mawer's wildly farcical Tales from a Palm Court in 1986 was one. Neither it, nor its imaginative author, could have been further from the personality, style and physical appearance of Knox-Mawer's senior colleague Clifford Hammett.

Knox-Mawer was tall, cadaverous, ascetic; at times self-deprecatory and supposedly prone to Pacific Island courtroom disaster. Hammett was of medium build, ruddy-cheeked and militarish; serious-minded, at times, some said verging on the self- important, and a stickler for procedural probity. Aloof, perhaps with cultivated courtesy. Nothing untoward happened in his court. He hoped.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, these differences, they were judicial bedfellows for more than 20 years in the 1950s and thereafter - first as Puisne Judges in Fiji and then as successive Chief Justices of Tonga.

Hammett's professional career had been drastically affected - and could even have been foreclosed - by the events of the Second World War in the Far East. He had just become a solicitor, aged 22, when the war clouds burst in 1939.

The 1st Punjab Regiment in North Africa a year later may have seemed an aberration. In 1942, he was captured when the Japanese invaded Singapore. He spent three years as a prisoner of war on the Siam Railway. In subtle ways it was to mark him for life. I lived next door to him for a time in Suva; and he never spoke of it.

His wartime experiences had, however, opened Hammett's eyes and mind to a wider world than that of a solicitor in England. His thoughts and early ambitions turned to the Colonial Judicial Service. The biggest post-war vacancy gaps were in Nigeria and it was there that Hammett went in 1946 as a fledgling magistrate.

After six years, he moved to Fiji. He became Senior Magistrate in 1954 and Puisne Judge a year later. He was conjointly Chief Justice of Tonga from 1956 until 1968. There he sat with the otherwise all-Tongan Privy Council, presided over by the Sovereign, to hear appeals on civil cases from the Supreme Court. He served as Chief Justice of Fiji from 1967 to 1972. All this was not improbable, you would think, given that Hammett's initials were C.J.

He was known occasionally to do the unexpected, such as asking a court reporter to read out in open court from her shorthand notes complicated medical evidence and terminology which was already in a deposition. It was fortunate, she said afterwards, that she had done her homework in anticipating the request, which was thus, to her at least, not so unexpected.

Hammett's interests changed to legal drafting. He completed a major revision and consolidation of the laws of Fiji and then, post-independence for Fiji, moved to Barbados as Regional Legal Adviser from 1975 in the office of what was then called the British Development Division in the Caribbean, for 17 years.

During his South Pacific years in Fiji, Hammett's principal recreation was playing bridge. Together with the Colonial Secretary, the Commissioner of Labour and the head of an insurance company, Hammett enjoyed a regular 4pm weekly session at the Fiji Club in Suva. The legal luminaries appearing before him soon came to know and to accept the inevitable court adjournment on Hammett's bridge afternoons. He rejoiced in them. After all, a Chief Justice should always win. And he generally did.

Some years ago, I asked Hammett how he was enjoying retirement. "It is splendid," he replied. "I am making more money working at home than I ever did when I was on the bench. It is because I now have time to look after my investments properly."

Clifford James Hammett, judge: born 8 June 1917; Magistrate, Nigeria 1946-52; called to the Bar, Middle Temple 1948; Senior Magistrate, Fiji 1954, Puisne Judge 1955, Chief Justice 1967-72, Acting Governor General 1971; conjoint Chief Justice of Tonga 1956-68; Kt 1969; Regional Legal Adviser with British Development Division in the Caribbean 1975-92; married 1946 Olive Applebee (four sons, one daughter); died Henham, Essex 28 June 1999.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments