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Gregory James King, 1969 – 2012

By Geoff Adlam

New Zealand was shocked to hear of the death of barrister Greg King on 2 November 2012 at the age of 43. One of the country's best-known criminal lawyers, he was also an important contributor to public understanding and knowledge of the criminal justice system.

Greg King was born in Whanganui on 17 September 1969. His father worked as a shearer and meat packer in the freezing works until the family moved to Turangi in 1975 when his father was employed as a prison guard. He grew up in Turangi where he attended Tongariro High School. He was head prefect in 1987 and in 1988 he represented New Zealand as one of 32 young pavilion hosts at the World Expo in Brisbane, Australia.

After spending eight months in Brisbane, Greg returned to New Zealand and studied law at Otago University. He completed an LLB and was awarded a University of Otago Award in Law in 1992. He was admitted to the bar on 14 May 1993 at Dunedin High Court. Greg then spent three years working with prominent Dunedin barrister Judith Ablett Kerr QC.

photo of Greg King
Greg King.

Greg King moved to Lower Hutt in 1996 to join his financee Catherine Milnes, who had obtained a job with accountants Ernst & Young. He began practice as a barrister sole and his career flourished. In 1996 he became the youngest New Zealand lawyer to appear as lead in a murder trial and over the rest of his career he represented over 50 clients who were charged with murder.

Many of the murder trials he appeared in were of huge public interest. Among the high profile cases Greg King was involved in were an unsuccessful attempt in 2003 to seek leave from the Privy Council to appeal the convictions of Scott Watson who had been convicted of killing Ben Smart and Olivia Hope (with Watson's trial lawyer Mike Antunovic), and a successful application to the Privy Council in 2008 and 2009 for leave to reopen the case of John Barlow, convicted of the murder of Gene and Eugene Thomas.

Another successful application to the Privy Council came in 2005 with his representation of double murderer Bruce Howse. This followed an appeal to the Court of Appeal in 2003, led by Greg King. Antonie Dixon, who had attacked people with a samurai sword in 2003 was also represented by Greg King on appeal, and the outcome was an order for retrial.

His involvement in precedent-making cases was well known to members of the legal profession, but perhaps less appreciated by the public. He successfully argued in 2009 that Auckland liquor shop owner Virender Singh had exercised his rights to defend himself and his shop with a hockey stick against five teenagers. He was also counsel in the first and second ever successful criminal appeals to the Supreme Court. The first of these, R v Timoti [2006] 1 NZLR 323, 21 CRNZ 804, resulted in the overturning of a murder conviction from 1999, with the appeal focusing on the partial defence of provocation. Another Supreme Court success came in R v Wi [2010] 2 NZLR 11, 24 CRNZ 731, which reversed several lower court decisions and held that adducing evidence of a lack of previous convictions was still admissible under the Evidence Act 2006.

While his abilities were well known in the justice sector, Greg King became a household name in 2012 when he successfully represented Feilding farmer Ewen Macdonald, who had been charged with the murder of his brother-in-law Scott Guy. Televised reports from the courtroom showed Greg's passionate and effective advocacy.

Greg worked closely with his mentor Judith Ablett Kerr QC throughout his career. As junior to Ms Ablett Kerr QC he assisted at the appeal of Peter Ellis in 2000. Ellis had spent seven years in prison after being convicted of abusing children at a Christchurch crèche. He also assisted Ms Ablett Kerr in 2009 at the trial of Clayton Weatherston for the murder of Sophie Elliott. Another trial he was involved in with Ms Ablett Kerr was where Dr Vicky Calder was ultimately found not guilty of poisoning with intent.

Over his career he appeared in 11 full criminal appeals in the Supreme Court, three double murder appeals in the Privy Council and as defence counsel in about 350 jury trials and over 200 appeals.

Alongside his court work Greg King received praise for his work in explaining and making the workings of the justice system more accessible. He won the inaugural Barrister of the Year in 2007 at the New Zealand Law Awards – an award which is driven by the votes of clients. He also began a career as television presenter, hosting the innovative programme The Court Report on the now-closed channel TVNZ7. He retired from the programme after hosting 68 episodes, but continued as an Executive Producer.

Earlier this year Greg King was the first lawyer chosen for the prestigious Eisenhower Fellowship. Established in 1953, the fellowship had been awarded to only 16 New Zealanders before Greg King. He used it to spend two months in the United States, where he observed the American prison system and strategies for reducing the prison population.

Within the legal profession Greg King was highly respected. He was always willing to provide support and advice to young lawyers and was a regular presenter at workshops and legal education events for the Law Society's professional development company NZLS CLE Ltd. His involvement in law reform work with the Law Society included assistance with drafting and presenting over 20 submissions to parliamentary select committees. He was a member of the Law Society's Criminal Law Committee from 1999 to 2005 and represented the Law Society on the Rules Committee, the multi-agency Methamphetamine Group and the High and Higher Courts Management Consultative Groups (from 2002 to 2007). He was a Faculty Member for the prestigious NZLS CLE Ltd Litigation Skills Programme, a week-long training programme for trial lawyers.

Greg King was married to Catherine Milnes-King, also a lawyer who began work with him in his practice in 2000, and their two children are Pippa and Millie. Outside the law he had a wide range of interests, including collecting contemporary New Zealand art, horse racing, boxing and sponsorship of the Wainuiomata Lions Rugby League Club.

There were many tributes at the news of his sudden death, from lawyers and also a wide range of New Zealanders. Attorney-General Christopher Finlayson said that although young in years, Greg King had already achieved a huge amount in his career.

"He was a lawyer in the finest traditions of the criminal bar, of the same stature as the likes of Mike Bungay, Kevin Ryan and Roy Stacey. He was a fine advocate and a very nice guy. His early death is very sad and my deepest sympathies go to his family at this time," Mr Finlayson said.

New Zealand Law Society President Jonathan Temm said the New Zealand legal profession was tremendously saddened at the news of Greg's death.

"Throughout his career he represented clients who were often unpopular and he did that with real ability," Mr Temm said.

Mr Temm said Greg King had represented his clients with brilliance and determination.

"He had a rare skill. He was an orator from a kind of bygone age. While he was a great trial lawyer, he was also a wonderful appellate lawyer. One of the things the public didn't see about Greg King was the amount of work he did in the Court of Appeal and in the Supreme Court, and many of the arguments he advanced there were successful. His death leaves a big gap in the first rank in the criminal defence bar in New Zealand."

The President of the Wellington branch of the Law Society, Mark Wilton, said lawyers in the Wellington region were deeply saddened, and Greg King would truly be missed by the local profession.

"Greg was a leading figure in the Lower Hutt Bar and our deepest sympathies and condolences go to Catherine and the girls."

Last updated on the 29th January 2018