Robert Noble Jones was born at Belfast, Ireland, on 1 August 1864, the son of Robert Jones, a painter, and his wife, Eliza Rae. Brought to New Zealand as an infant, he was educated in public schools in Auckland and Gisborne. He was admitted as a solicitor in 1890 and a barrister in 1899. On 22 May 1890, at Gisborne, he married Martha Thompstone Lowndes; they had four sons and four daughters, two of whom died in infancy.
Jones became involved in many aspects of community life and gained sufficient standing to be elected a Gisborne borough councillor, serving from 1900 to 1903. He actively supported the Liberal party and was instrumental in James Carroll’s successful campaign for the Waiapu seat in 1893. In a small-town North Island law practice, Jones included Native Land Court litigation among his work, leading to a familiarity with the intricacies of Maori land administration and an acquaintance with Maori traditions and customs. This experience, aided by Carroll’s gratitude, bore fruit in his appointment on 1 July 1903 as judge of the Native Land Court for the Tairawhiti district, and of the Native Appellate and Native Land Validation Courts; he was also president of the Tai-Rawhiti District Maori Land Council. Four days later, he became district land registrar, registrar of deeds, and examiner of titles for the lands and deeds registration district of Poverty Bay. He was made chief judge of the Native Land Court on 14 August 1919.
Although clearly harbouring bureaucratic ambitions, Jones could still find against the Crown in Maori land claims. He chaired the 1920 Native Land Claims Commission, the first major twentieth century inquiry into Maori land grievances. It found substantially in favour of the claimants; for example, that Te Whakatohea did not deserve to lose all their good land by confiscation, while for the Kemp purchase of Canterbury the commission recommended £354,000 compensation to Ngai Tahu.
Jones was appointed under-secretary of the Native Department in January 1922 as part of Native Minister Gordon Coates’s initiatives to separate it from the Department of Justice. He was responsible for Coates’s land administration programme, which aimed to make Maori land-holding economic and included consolidation of titles, rates relief, and provision of development capital. In 1933 he assumed the positions of East Coast commissioner and native trustee when the trustee’s office was amalgamated with the department. It was not unknown for Native Land Court judges to hold simultaneously a multiplicity of public service offices, and there was a potential conflict between Jones’s role as judge and the political objectives of governments.
Apirana Ngata, native minister from 1928, enjoyed good relations with Jones, whom he described as ‘tactful and resourceful’, able to ‘oil the machinery. He works the Public Service Commissioner, and quietly influences the office staffs'. He even thought Jones would make a good administrator for Samoa.
However, administration of Ngata’s Maori land reform measures exposed Jones’s deficiencies. In 1932 and 1933 the auditor general found that the Native Department kept no adequate records of the Maori land development schemes. Eventually staff shortages, about which Jones would do nothing, were so great that the chief clerk went over his head to the public service commissioner. An investigative commission in 1934 condemned many aspects of the schemes and the Native Department’s administration of them. It found Judge F. O. V. Acheson’s work in the far north had been hindered by indecision and opposition from Ngata and Jones. Contrary to Ngata’s assessment, the commission thought that Jones ‘was out of his element and ineffective as the Under-Secretary’. His new departmental structure in 1932 had left no-one fully in charge in the various regions. Further, Jones and his chief clerk ‘were not sufficiently experienced administrators for the new work and were too compliant’ with Ngata’s direct ministerial interference.
Ngata resigned as a result of the commission’s findings. Jones had been replaced as under-secretary and native trustee on 28 November 1933, and was retired as East Coast commissioner on 31 March 1934, but retained the chief judgeship until 1 October 1939. Martha Jones had died in 1928, and two of their sons had been killed in the First World War. On 29 July 1939 Jones married Patricia Robertson Young at Wellington. He died on 29 June 1942 at his Eastbourne home, survived by his second wife, three daughters and a son.