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Feisty teen brushed off ‘not for the ladies’ advice to rise to QC

04 April 2019 - By Tracey Cormack

As a self-confessed impatient and strong-willed teenager newly-appointed Queen's Counsel Vivienne Crawshaw brushed off her Godfather's jibe about women in the legal profession to start her studies at the age of 16.

Vivienne graduated with an LLB(Hons) from the University of Auckland in 1988 and she specialises in family law with a particular focus on relationship property matters and cases involving children.

“Well, I was like many lawyers - not a scientist nor a mathematician. I went to Epsom Girls’ Grammar School which was a pretty conservative school - and I was good at English - I won speech competitions.”

While good at languages, she was not good enough to be an official translator for the French Embassy. Because of her writing skills she thought she might be a journalist, however, her father suggested that would be a job that would entail her having to get up early to attend a house fire – so he poured cold water on that one.

Youngest law student

“I was very keen to leave school, I was young for my year and stupidly impatient to leave school - and generally impatient in fact. I left school at 16 - against the advice of my German teacher. He said to me, ‘Is that wise?’ Probably not – but I didn’t care. I have always been impatient,” Vivienne says.

Viv Crawshaw

“So, off I went to university at 16 which was completely mad - and did a first year Bachelor of Arts – and then I met up with a friend at university from Epsom Girls’ and she said she was doing a law intermediate year. ‘What’s that?’ I asked.”

The friend suggested that Vivienne could apply for law too, as she was already enrolled in two English papers and they would fit in with law. She then applied to law school and did well enough in her first year to get accepted into law school.

“I had absolutely no ambition to be a lawyer – I thought ‘if she’s doing it I will give it a go’.” Vivienne’s friend went on to become a chef.

After being accepted into law school she discussed the decision with her Godfather who was her father’s best friend and the only lawyer she knew.

“He said, ‘I don’t think law is for the ladies dear.’

“Being quite feisty at the time I thought, ‘well, we’ll see about that’.”

“In my first year I had been doing subjects like sociology and anthropology, but I felt these subjects were like trying to hold jelly – the subjects were amorphous. I started doing law and in contrast, law was something tangible and logical to work with. I really loved it straight away. I liked the writing, the logical approach and the concepts and it was much easier to manage than BA subjects.”

Vivienne was shocked when was asked to do honours when she was 17. “I thought they had made a mistake when they asked me.”

The academic side of law was particularly enjoyable for Vivienne. At the time she was going out with a senior scholar in law. He was “incredibly academic” Vivienne says, and a good influence. This got her thinking about not only what the law is, but also what the law should be doing and how it was developing. She realised it was about critical analysis.

Cocky and rude

Once out of law school Vivienne applied for a number of big firm jobs and was offered 11 out of the 12 positions she applied for. One of the offers was at Meredith Connell but by that stage “I was a bit cocky and rude probably – I told them that I had heard the working conditions there were dreadful”. She admits turning that role down is one of her regrets, as it would have been a “fantastic experience” working for the Crown.

Vivienne took a job at McElroy Morrison (now McElroys). She was keen to get into court and McElroy Morrison was a bit different from the big firms – as the firm had inherited a few litigators who were still doing some criminal law, so there was still the option of getting into court.

In her first year she ran an “inordinate number” of hearings – they were all tiny “crash and bash” cases, but she was up on her feet making submissions, cross-examining and regards it as a fantastic experience.  McElroy Morrison offered her all the benefits of a large firm, and the opportunity to get into court, something most of her friends from law school could not do.

Another advantage was that she had all her letters proofread and red-penned (brutally) with corrections by Mike Ring QC – “It was great – I learned so much. I made sure to get them right – It was a tough place to learn my craft.”

Mike Ring also watched Vivienne during a hearing once and later tore a strip of her because she didn’t cross-examine well enough.

“I learned very quickly, that that was not how to do it.”

She was only 22 at the time as she had taken two years off before graduation to travel to Europe to “make myself older for the time I graduated”.

To Vivienne law is about justice and the poor and dispossessed who often can’t get access to legal representation. While at law school she was involved with community law centres.

Inspirational people

She was, and still is, influenced by Andrew Becroft, the Children’s Commissioner and former Principal Youth Court Judge. Andrew Becroft started the Māngere Community Law Office together with Johnny Moses.

“Those guys were heroes to me,” says Vivienne.

This interest eventually led to a job at the Grey Lynn Neighbourhood Law Office – which she describes as a baptism of fire – and many interesting cases.

She has also been enormously influenced by senior women, particularly Anne Hinton J, Antonia Fisher QC, Deborah Chambers QC, and the many women judges who continue to raise the bar in their successes. Her other friends in the law, Judge Antony Mahon, Judge Emma Parsons, Usha Patel, Simon Mitchell, Gabrielle Wagner, Steve McCarthy, Lynda Kearns, Robyn Von Keisenberg, retired Judge John Adams and many others are a great source of inspiration too. “You are always learning from other lawyers – the way they think, a different take on issues. I have always admired the skills of countless other lawyers and I continue to do so.”

One interesting case was a representative action on behalf of Housing New Zealand tenants who had a rent hike imposed on them.

“We ran a case on behalf of 16 tenants initially - and later 60 tenants. Housing NZ had stuffed up their rent reviews. It was a class action case. I don’t know how I had the gumption to take this case on but is was so much fun.”

They were ultimately successful for the first 16 tenants – but for the 60,000 others the government passed retrospective legislation to stop her case, so Vivienne and her legal team went to see David Baragwanath QC to get a legal opinion.

At the time Vivienne was heavily pregnant with her second child.

David Baragwanath provided a lengthy opinion and agreed that, “yes, it is retrospective legislation and yes it’s dreadful and yes it’s contrary to NZBORA – but he didn’t think the court would strike it down – because it’s not so deleterious in terms of its impact on people that the court would strike it down”.

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Vivienne with her four daughters, from left, Grace, Ruth, Bonnie, and Bridget

Flushing out a rat

One proud moment concerned a relationship property case about 10 years ago. It involved a mother of two children and who had little money. Her client’s former husband was a famous New Zealander with deep pockets and fancy lawyers.

“Applications were coming in left, right and centre. There were applications to strike out, security for costs, the whole shebang. The opposing party had said that there was no money as he owed a large sum of money to someone else and this debt had to be repaid and sent off to a Swiss bank account. The person who was owed the money had also prepared an affidavit confirming the money was owed.”

However, Vivienne considered that it was unlikely that this debt was owed. When the case finally came to court the opposing client was unrepresented and living offshore.

“I did a softly, softly, catchy monkey approach – cross-examining him gently. He had made an offer of $200,000 the night before court.

“I smelled a rat.”

Following her long and gentle cross-examination, Vivienne looked him in the eye and said: “There was never any loan outstanding was there?”

He paused and said, “No, I made it up.”

The judge was so furious that he flew out of the room and called for an early adjournment.

“I still have a vision of the judge’s gown swinging in an angry fashion out of the door.

“We ended up getting about $700,000. It was a really great result – it was my most fantastic case as we were completely up against it.”

Vivienne says this was a great boost as such cases, representing someone with little financial backing, can be hard. “They don’t have a lot of money and often not much emotional strength and it is really easy to get ground down. It’s hard work – this was one of those cases where you just think ‘this is worth it’. That was an amazing case.”

Another incredible case was the Supreme Court relocation case Kacem v Bashir.

“It was so exciting to be in the Supreme Court, but at the same time terrifying. Colin Pidgeon, now a QC, who was my opposition, was so amazing. I spent ages on my submissions and I thought they were pretty good.

I thought Colin’s submissions didn’t take the case much further than they had in the Court of Appeal, but when he got on his feet he suddenly whipped himself into a fervour and my heart sank. I could see that I had totally underestimated what he might do in his oral submissions.

“Luckily, we were still successful, but it was a really good lesson. He taught me to never underestimate your opponent or to be complacent – at the same time Colin was a thoroughly professional and personable counsel to appear against.”

Life outside the law

Vivienne has four children, Grace (27), Bridget (25), Ruth (21), Bonnie (19), and three step sons Thomas (20), Timothy (19) and Jack (10). She loves doing family things with Sunday night dinners a particular joy. She says this entails very loud conversations as they are all “very opinionated” and quick to tell her if she is not towing the line when listening to their views.

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She rides an electric bike to work every day and, if she has time, does some gardening.

Vivienne and her partner, Brian Lunt, enjoy tramping and have walked most of the great walks including the Milford, the Hollyford, the Queen Charlotte, the Kepler, the Heaphy, the Routeburn and even took offspring and their boyfriends to walk Mt Blanc in 2018 (below), a challenging walk in many respects, but “absolutely divine in terms of beauty and delicious food”.

She grew up in a very musical household and her mother was a part-time piano teacher as well as being a librarian. Until recently Vivienne sang in a gospel choir. She also plays the guitar and piano (badly), she says.

Vivienne must always have a book on the go and one lined up in the wings, reading at least a book a fortnight. With good quality fiction the requirement, at the moment Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight is her companion. She shares notes about books with her friends, and her favourite authors include Paulette Giles, Ann Patchett, Kate Atkinson and Maurice Gee.

Round the dinner table

“It would always be dearest friends and family – that would be my most wonderful dinner party and I do that all the time.”

If she invited famous people they would be Maurice Gee and Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Ruth Bader Ginsberg, “but I might get tongue-tied”.

“Ruth is so bloody inspiring – she came from effectively nowhere in terms of not being able to ge a job as an attorney after law school, even though she was top of her year. She is very inspiring. She is a dogged, determined woman and so fair.

“Maurice Gee’s novels contain, in my opinion, an unsurpassed understanding of New Zealand society as it developed from early last century – his quiet acknowledgment of our class structures, his depictions of those from loving families who turn bad, others who are the unsung heroes. He is one of my heroes. I heard a friend say; ‘If I could just touch his jacket’. I understood what she meant.

“And it would be amazing to have dinner with Te Whiti O Rongomai. He was a very important chief and one of the leaders in the Parihaka movement (the non-violent resistance to the confiscation of Māori land in Taranaki). He is our very own Ghandi – I was inspired by him in the 1980s once I found out about him through Dick Scott’s Ask that Mountain. Why is this not taught routinely in schools?”

Also making the guest list would be writer Simone de Beauvoir – “she would be interesting in a world-weary-slightly-sarcastic sort of way,” and Jacinda Ardern. “She is a wonderful embodiment of what it means to be strong and fair and compassionate and resolute – that is what I aspire to.”

Having taken a trip to the Chianti region of Italy last year, Vivienne is now an expert at sofrito, a sauce used throughout Latin America. With that she would serve a green salad – and probably her Mum’s apple crumble and vanilla ice-cream.

The wine would be Astrolabe Sauvignon Blanc and a Chianti - Fornaci Chianti Colli 2016.

Daughters and the law

None of her daughters have followed her path into the law. Vivienne admits that they all told her that they hadn’t found the thought of working in law inspiring.

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Vivienne with her secretary Lyn McMath

She says she is lucky to have fallen into law. When she applied for law school in the early 80s, there were only a few women lawyers in practice. “When I had children there seemed to be very few women that were managing both legal careers and children. It was an issue – what do you do when you have a child? Do you stop when you have children?”

She is also eternally grateful that her husband had a modest income, so luckily, there was a financial imperative to keep working, otherwise it would have been, “madness to keep working – I was always rushing around all the time – always available for children – but it was crazy times managing four children and a career.

“I remember running around the local swimming pool – baby under my arm, a two-year-old running around the pool and two girls having swimming lessons – absolute madness.

“But now I am so grateful – it meant also that I didn’t have so much guilt – so I’m glad I did. I think the girls are glad also that I have been that role model.”

Last updated on the 4th April 2019