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Attorney-General (New Zealand)


Attorney-General (New Zealand)

This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
New Zealand

The Attorney-General is a political and legal officer in New Zealand. The Attorney-General is simultaneously a ministerial position and the chief law officer of the Crown, and has responsibility for supervising New Zealand law and advising the government on legal matters. The current Attorney-General is Chris Finlayson.

Responsibilities and powers

The Attorney-General has two main areas of official responsibility. Firstly, the Attorney-General has ministerial jurisdiction over the Crown Law Office, the Parliamentary Counsel Office, and the Serious Fraud Office. Secondly, the Attorney-General is the principal law officer of the Crown, responsible for supervising the state's administration of the law and for providing legal advice to the government. In the latter role (but strictly not in the former), the Attorney-General is assisted by the Solicitor-General, a non-partisan official. This is to reduce the extent to which the Attorney-General's actions on behalf of the state (as opposed to the government) can be influenced by their political allegiance.

A more complete description of the Attorney-General's powers can be found in the 2004 ministerial briefing prepared by the Crown Law Office, which the Attorney-General supervises.

The position of Attorney-General is distinct from that of Minister of Justice, although the two posts are sometimes held by the same person, e.g. Martyn Finlay 1972–1975.

At present, there is no statutory basis which establishes the office of Attorney-General, although the position is referenced by a number of other legal documents, such as the Constitution Act 1986.

The Attorney-General usually has a legal background.


The post of Attorney-General has existed since the separation of New Zealand as a distinct Crown Colony from New South Wales. Because of the dual nature of the role, however, it has sometimes been filled by politicians and sometimes by jurists — not all Attorneys-General have been cabinet ministers.

The table below is an incomplete listing of New Zealand politicians who have sat in Cabinet as Attorney-General since 1856. It does not show non-political attorneys-general. There were two previous Attorneys-General before responsible government was introduced in New Zealand in 1856: Francis Fisher who held office for less than one year in 1841, and William Swainson who held office until 7 May 1856. It is also interesting to note that Peter Wilkinson was the half-brother of his successor, Jim McLay.

Name Premier / Prime Minister Served Took Office Left Office Party
1 Frederick Whitaker Sewell 7 May 1856 20 May 1856 None
2 William Fox (himself) 20 May 1856 2 June 1856 None
Frederick Whitaker, 2nd time Stafford 2 June 1856 12 July 1861 None
William Fox, 2nd time (himself) 12 July 1861 2 August 1861 None
3 Henry Sewell William Fox 2 August 1861 6 August 1862 None
4 Thomas Gillies Domett 6 August 1862 23 August 1862 None
Henry Sewell, 2nd time Domett 23 August 1862 1 January 1863 None
Frederick Whitaker, 3rd time Domett, (himself) 1 January 1863 24 November 1864 None
Henry Sewell, 3rd time Weld 24 November 1864 16 October 1865 None
5 James Prendergast Edward Stafford 16 October 1865 1 September 1876 None
Frederick Whitaker, 4th time Atkinson 1 September 1876 13 October 1877 None
6 Robert Stout Grey 13 March 1878 25 June 1879 None
Frederick Whitaker, 5th time (himself) 21 April 1882 25 September 1883 None
7 Edward Connolly Atkinson, Harry 25 September 1883 16 August 1884 None
Robert Stout, 2nd time (himself) 16 August 1884 28 August 1884 None
Robert Stout, 3rd time (himself) 3 September 1884 8 October 1887 None
Frederick Whitaker, 6th time Atkinson 11 October 1887 24 January 1891 None
8 Patrick Buckley Ballance, Seddon 24 January 1891 20 December 1895 Liberal
9 Albert Pitt Seddon, Hall-Jones, Ward 22 June 1903 18 November 1906 Liberal
10 John Findlay Ward 23 November 1906 26 December 1911 Liberal
11 Alexander Herdman Massey 10 July 1912 4 February 1918 Reform
12 Francis Bell Massey, (himself), Coates 4 February 1918 18 January 1926 Reform
13 William Downie Stewart, Jr. Coates 18 January 1926 24 May 1926 Reform
14 Frank Rolleston Coates 24 May 1926 26 November 1928 Reform
15 Thomas Sidey Forbes 10 December 1928 22 September 1931 United
William Downie Stewart, Jr., 2nd time Forbes 22 September 1931 28 January 1933 Reform
16 George Forbes (himself) 28 January 1933 6 December 1935 United
17 Rex Mason Savage, Fraser 6 December 1935 13 December 1949 Labour
18 Clifton Webb Holland 13 December 1949 26 November 1954 National
19 Jack Marshall Holland, Holyoake 26 November 1954 12 December 1957 National
Rex Mason, 2nd time Nash 12 December 1957 12 December 1960 Labour
20 Ralph Hanan Holyoake 12 December 1960 24 July 1969 National
Jack Marshall, 2nd time Holyoake 22 December 1969 2 February 1971 National
21 Dan Riddiford Holyoake 2 February 1971 9 February 1972 None
Roy Jack Marshall 9 February 1972 8 December 1972 National
22 Martyn Finlay Kirk, Rowling 8 December 1972 12 December 1975 Labour
23 Peter Wilkinson Muldoon 12 December 1975 13 December 1978 National
24 Jim McLay Muldoon 13 December 1978 26 July 1984 National
25 Geoffrey Palmer Lange 26 July 1984 4 August 1989 Labour
26 David Lange Palmer, Moore 4 August 1989 2 November 1990 Labour
27 Paul East Bolger 2 November 1990 5 December? 1997 National
28 Doug Graham Bolger, Shipley 5 December? 1997 5 December 1999 National
29 Margaret Wilson Clark 5 December 1999 28 February 2005 Labour
30 Michael Cullen Clark 28 February 2005 19 October 2005 Labour
31 David Parker Clark 19 October 2005 20 March 2006 Labour
Michael Cullen, 2nd time Clark 21 March 2006 19 November 2008 Labour
32 Chris Finlayson Key 19 November 2008 Incumbent National

External links

  • Ministerial Briefing describing the role of the Attorney-General
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