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Cheese on toast and convict wine sharpen QC’s taste for crime

07 February 2019 - By Jock Anderson

Teased by his teenage daughters for being a “cheese on toast” Ashburton boy, Christchurch-based barrister James Rapley says the fresh letters QC after his name take a bit of getting used to.

James was one of latest group of practitioners elevated to Queen’s Counsel rank shortly before the end of 2018.

“It’s a huge honour and privilege to be awarded silk,” says James. “I am delighted and so grateful. I have been walking around with a grin from ear to ear. I am realising the enormity of it and can’t wait to take on this new role.”

NameJames Richard (James) Rapley QC
BornChristchurch, raised in Ashburton.
Age52
Entry to lawGraduated LLB from Canterbury University in 1989 and LLM (Hons) from Auckland University in 1999.  Admitted in 1990.
WorkplaceBarrister in Bridgeside Chambers, Christchurch.
Specialist areaCriminal law.

The announcement of his appointment came shortly after he attended the 100th anniversary of the ending of WW1 and the celebration of the liberation of French town Le Quesnoy by the New Zealand Division – their last major action in the closing days of the war.

“I took my 75-year old Mum, Jackie, over there. My grandfather was a soldier at Le Quesnoy. It was an amazing trip.

“Mum and Dad were salt of the earth working class. Dad Richard was an electrician and worked for the Ashburton power board. He was one of those hard-working guys who never take a sick day, honest and kind.

James Rapley

“My Mum worked at the PSIS (Public Service Investment Society). With sisters Amanda and Annabelle we grew up in Netherby, in Ashburton. Working class and a solid family. Our parents were determined their children would be educated, go to university and do well, and so we did.

“There were no other lawyers in the family before me. Mum and Dad never went to university, neither did their parents. I was the first to go. My sister Amanda has a law degree and works for IRD and my younger sister Annabelle has a degree in psychology – a masters in industrial psychology.”

James is a former president of the Canterbury Criminal Bar Association, has written and been published extensively on criminal issues – including money laundering – and has served on various New Zealand Law Society committees and related bodies.

From Ashburton to New York

His attraction to law stemmed from a love of history – but he initially intended to study medicine.

“I went to the United States in 1984 as an American Field Service exchange student. To Buffalo, New York, Niagara Falls and the Great Lakes.

“I went from Ashburton where we didn’t have McDonald’s and the most exotic food was fish and chips or Chinese takeaways. And went to live with a Polish-American family in New York State.

“It was a wonderful opportunity in a different world, and has been highly influential on me. Both my daughters have done AFS exchanges, but to France.”

“I was away for a year and when I came back I worked 12 hours a day for six months in Hank Murney’s RX Plastics factory in Ashburton.

“That gave me the opportunity to earn some money and work as much as I wanted. It enabled me to buy a little Mini and have money to go to university the following year.

“Because I had done the exchange I had not done physics and could not get into medicine, so decided to do history with law as a filler.

“I always loved history and still do. I also did political science. Law was similar to history in many ways.

“I loved the middle ages, Middle East, military history, American history. I was able to go to university and discover all these classes and topics on subject matters I just loved. I was in heaven and I could read up on various topics, write essays on them and didn’t feel the work was onerous or a burden.

“Law presented itself when a friend recommended I do it, so I did, and happened to do well in it so decided to do a double degree BA and LLB. In the end I finished LLB and did BA subjects for fun.”

The French influence

“I love the mountains, summer or winter. Skiing in winter and summer its mountain bike riding. Both have dominated my life. I’m an avid rugby watcher, played at university and in Auckland for a while but I was too small.

“Growing up in Ashburton we went to Mt Hutt. Mum and Dad put us on the bus and we would go up there. Then we discovered Tekapo. Tekapo is our favourite place and we go to a lot.

“Our girls have grown up skiing there, we know the locals, and now have a holiday home there. I’m lucky to say we have skied overseas as well, in Canada, Europe and Japan. On huge mountains and lots of powder.

“Both daughters have been field scholars. Our youngest Lucia (17) is in Brittany in France at the moment for five months on exchange. She has done very well and got a Ministry of Education scholarship.

“Siena (19) has just finished her first year at university. She also got a Ministry of Education scholarship to do an AFS exchange because both of them speak French and it was a scholarship to improve the language. She went to Geneva in Switzerland two years ago.

“I did French at Ashburton College. But as a 15-year-old in Ashburton learning French I thought it was all pointless and stupid and certainly didn’t do very well - just scraped through school certificate.

“When I was older and doing my OE and travelling in France I lived in Paris for a month or two and realised I wished I had paid more attention.

“I did a French course and have been learning French ever since. I was determined to get my girls learning French. I love France. We started with them at an early age and they now speak very good French.

“I speak it okay but make lots of mistakes. They tease me mercilessly. They watch movies in French, there’s a lot of French happening in the house and we have a lot of French friends.”

Family at work

James’ wife Tuula works part-time with him in chambers doing his accounts, typing and administration. “We’re lucky she is doing that because she has an understanding of what I’m doing and can see why I may be stressed or struggling if I’ve got a difficult case on.

“It also means we can spend time together, which often you wouldn’t. I’m really fortunate to have a wife who understands the pressures of my work.

“I don’t play any instruments and am not really musical. I listen to lots of different music, and a lot of French music. French pop songs, rappers.

“I like American rock band Journey and Tom Petty is an old favourite of mine. Tuula loves dancing - she is a very good dancer. We do Latin American dancing and do a lot of dancing together. Music that can be danced to is always a favourite in our house.

“I find it hard work to pick up a book after reading all day in my job. I’m forcing myself to read a bit at the end of the day to calm myself down.

“I would love to say I read Dostoyevsky or Balzac but I’m probably more Jack Reacher. I read biographies and historical novels. And people like Robert Fisk and British military historian Sir Antony Beavor.

“Over the summer I need a good week to wind down, and start reading some good stuff. I discovered a good author called Paul Cleave, from Christchurch, who writes crime novels set in Christchurch. He is right up there with Jo Nesbo or Stieg Larsson. I like Scandinavian crime novels but I have to be careful because sometimes it starts to sound too much like work.

Crash (Paul Haggis’s 2004 racial and social drama) is a favourite movie, along with Heat (Michael Mann’s 1995 crime drama starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino).

“On TV it’s Games of Thrones, and I love British or Scandinavian crime dramas … Line of Duty … and the French crime series La Foret.

“Our absolute favourite holiday spot is our place in Tekapo, I love that and getting out in the open. I often go for a wander with Murphy the dog, who chases the rabbits.

“Murphy is a Bichon Frise poodle cross and a bit of a mummy’s boy. The girls take him body boarding, put him on their board, and he loves it. We have had a few goldfish over time with the kids but they don’t last long.

“When we are not travelling the Mackenzie country we love travelling overseas and France is our favourite.

“I drive a BMW 320 diesel and before that a 4x4 Toyota Prado. I’m not really a car person, I’d rather spend time on my mountain bike.

“Dinner guests would include the Obamas, Justin Trudeau – because my eldest daughter loves him and would make for interesting political debate, Jon Stewart from TheDaily Show, Eddy Izzard, Russell Brand, Winston Churchill, Alexander Hamilton [one of the Founders of the United States and, among other things, founder of the New York Post], Voltaire, and Robespierre.

“I’m not a great cook … cheese on toast! My girls say I’m still an Ashburton boy with the cheese on toast. But we’d turn on some salmon from Twizel, salad, fresh new potatoes, and a couple of good red wines, like Coleraine Te Mata.

“I’m happy with a good Australian red. I discovered an Australian red called 19 Crimes, and Jim Barry Cover Drive. I’m very much a red wine man.”

19 Crimes wine labels feature stories of real folk who were transported by the English to Australia, sometimes for relatively petty offending.

New letters after his name

“Being appointed Queen’s Counsel is a huge moment in my career, and it takes a bit of getting used to.

“I went from university to Brandon Brookfield as it was then and loved it. I was lucky to work with Ray Parmenter. A good bloke - he was so enthusiastic and took me along to court as a junior.

“It awakened a desire to become an advocate. I then moved to a small firm and accidentally stumbled into the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) after applying for a job there in 1992 when Charles Sturt was running it.”

James served several years as a prosecutor for the SFO. “I was the young prosecutor by some significant years. I juniored with QCs. That’s when I saw these barristers in action and decided I wanted to do what they were doing, to be one of them.

“I was in Auckland, single and having a great time. But it showed me the possibilities of what could be done career-wise.

“I was fortunate enough to come down and work for the Crown in Christchurch at Raymond Donnelly for five years. One jury trial after another and quite exhausting. A bit like working in A & E.

“Brent Stanaway, now retired as Crown Solicitor, was my boss, along with Mark Zerifeh, the current Crown Solicitor. They took me under their wing and trained me up.

“I had great experience, and when I talked to Jonathan Eaton QC and said I’m thinking about becoming a barrister - because it’s always been my goal - he said come and join us at Bridgeside Chambers.

“It was a big step in those days, with very young children, being self-employed. I was worried about it but never looked back.

“It was a big decision to leave the Crown, take off my white suit and get off the white horse and put on a black suit and get on a black horse.

“In those days Tuula would tell the girls that Daddy would fight the baddies, and that’s what he was doing.

“I remember after I went out on my own we drove past the prison and Tuula told the girls that’s where Daddy goes sometimes to see clients, he helps people. And they said ‘Why would he want to do that?’ Out of the mouths of babes.”

Having reached what is regarded as the pinnacle of a court advocate’s career James isn’t contemplating a career change anytime soon, but says if he did he would probably like to be a history professor.

“I love teaching. I’ve done part-time teaching at Canterbury University for 15 years and six years at the University of the South Pacific in Vanuatu. Teaching is positive and rewarding.

“Now and again I think I would like to be a ski guide or ski instructor but given the number of bones I have broken skiing and mountain biking my family would be seriously concerned about that.”

Last updated on the 7th February 2019