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Richard Peterson, 1940 - 2018

By Chris Ryan

Richard Peterson, who died on 12 January 2018 aged 77, was a well-regarded Wellington solicitor, a talented musician and sportsman who represented New Zealand in the sport of fencing.

Richard was born in 1940, the eldest of two boys and grew up in the family home in Khandallah where he lived most of his life.

Richard was ambitious and believed that hard work was the only pathway to success. His father, Basil Peterson, was the youngest of six children. He began and ended his career at the Wellington City Council where he started as office boy and worked his way up to the position of Town Clerk. Richard’s mother, Ruth, was a strong and tenacious woman of Scots/Irish ancestry. Her original ambition had been to be one of the first New Zealand women to study medicine, but her aspirations had been thwarted by Richard’s grand-father who made her settle for a degree in home science.

Richard started at Khandallah School aged five, and three years later went across town to Scots College. For his secondary education he boarded at Nelson College with his brother, John.

Richard came from a musical household – his mother was an excellent pianist and his father took his clarinet with him to Europe when he served in the First World War, joining a musical group that entertained the New Zealand troops.  Richard took piano lessons from age six and benefited from the strong musical curriculum at Nelson College where much of his spare time as a boarder was spent practising or perform-ing.  As the school pianist he accompanied soloists and choirs at the annual concert and in music competitions and performed piano concertos with the school orchestra.  

As there was a spare bassoon at Nelson College that no-one else wanted to play, Richard tried his hand at that. He recalled that the bassoon had been neglect-ed, with several of its keys replaced with teaspoon handles.  When he returned to the school for a reunion 30 years later he played it again and found it was still in the same state.

Richard had perfect pitch. His children recall practising the piano as children, while Richard called out sight-reading correct-ions from his chair in the next room. He was always more of a fan of Beethoven than the Beatles.  Richard’s wife, Hilary, used to lament that her marriage to Richard had meant that she had missed much of the popular music of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Richard’s son John recalls that, while his father never took his kids to a pantomime, he did take them  to opera and symphony orchestra concerts from a young age.

Studying law at Victoria University

Finishing school, Richard went to study law at Victoria University. Why the law? Richard explained that while he was at school he was an avid reader of detective stories such as Perry Mason, and the biographies of English legal luminaries such as Edward Marshall Hall and Sir Patrick Hastings at the criminal bar, “… and I decided, for no reason other than the court room dramas portrayed in such books, to be a lawyer, knowing nothing about what in fact lawyering entailed”.

Whatever his original motivation, Richard became more interested in the creative complexity of commercial law than the drama and endless argument of litigation.  He finished his LLB in 1961 and was admitted as a solicitor in 1962 and as a barrister the following year. In 1963 he also completed a master’s degree in law, preferring to do so by sitting and passing examinations rather than by writing a thesis, saying that he preferred the discipline of having to describe what the law was rather than speculate in a theoretical dissertation on what the law might be.

Over the summer before entering university Richard worked as a clerk with Atkinson Dale Ellingham & Jenkins. James Dale, one of the partners, was a friend of the family and the origin of Richard’s unusual middle name “Dale”. It was James Dale’s sons who had helped Richard’s father to level the section on which the family home in Khandallah was built. Three of four Dale boys subsequently died in the Second World World War.

While still at university he joined Chapman Tripp as a law clerk and went on to spend 20 years there as solicitor and partner. He joined Scott Morrison Hardie-Boys Morrison & Co in 1977 and spent some 22 years with that firm and its successors before joining John Harkness in Harkness & Peterson Law for about 10 years. He then formed Peterson Law Ltd with John Hoggard in about 2009. In 2014 Peterson Law Limited was merged with Morrison Kent, a successor of Scott Hardie-Boys Morrison & Co, and Richard retired in 2015 aged 75 years, after 58 years in the legal profession.

Disciplined work habits

Speaking at Richard’s funeral, Richard Laurenson, a friend and former partner with Richard at Scott Morrison Dunphy, said Richard was a very intelligent man who was disciplined in his work habits.

“He … developed an expertise and wide reputation in his work which was first founded on estate planning work attracted to Chapman Tripp by its association with a substantial life insurer; [this] developed into an expertise in trusts and taxation law; and then later, and when the practice of commercial law became in New Zealand a recognisable separate field of law, an expert commercial lawyer.

“All these areas of law involved in some part the protection of assets and the minimisation of tax liability whether that be income tax or some other, and in the estate planning days, included death duty … If he had a particular speciality, it was in the law and application of trusts.

“He was innovative, original, and creative in his approach to any legal problem and … how the law could best be applied to meet the requirements of his clients …

“He had a rigorous work regime; he did not attend morning tea and did not linger for small talk when he was at work. He always enjoyed and fully participated in the conviviality of the firm when it was the right time for that, but however bibulous might have been the night before, the next day that was forgotten and back to work for him …

“Richard was fiercely loyal to his clients; and fiercely loyal to his own legal opinions. He regarded mediation and other alternative dispute resolutions to be a soft practice of law because it did not require the rigour of proper legal analysis.

“Richard backed his own legal opinion when he progressed to the Privy Council his objection to an assessment issued by the Commissioner of Inland Revenue against tax losses claimed on the financing of the production of two films, the Utu and The Lie of the Land litigation. With the help of two fine counsel he obtained a 3/2 majority decision in his favour in the Privy Council.

“Richard was very proud of this result: persons he consid-ered more faint-hearted in similar, but not the same positions, had settled with the Commissioner.”

Richard’s determination to take this case all the way to London (after losing in the High Court and Court of Appeal) was perhaps the most tangible demonstration of his belief that a lawyer should have the courage to stand behind their own opinion.

A passion for fencing

Away from the law, Richard Peterson’s other great passion was the sport of fencing. He won 13 national fencing titles over a period of 25 years, and fought in two Commonwealth Games in Jamaica in 1966 and Edinburgh in 1970, and was selected by New Zealand Fencing to compete in the 1976 Montreal Olympics after he won two Oceanic Zone Sabre titles.

Richard joined the Victoria University swords club in 1958, where he was coached by fellow lawyers Tony Ellis (QC) later Justice Ellis, Chris Beeby and others. Percy Temple, a fellow fencer at that time, said the sport of fencing was perfectly suited to Richard’s intellect and temperament.

“He was very analytical – not necessarily superfast but he would beat you by stealth – and [he was] very competitive  …

“When Richard pulled off a particular move …  he always got this particularly gleeful expression of triumph. It wasn’t so much schadenfreude – there was never a malicious bone in Richard’s body – but just sheer satisfaction and total delight that a move or a bout had gone according to his plan.”

Keith Mann, another fellow fencer, said that “Richard was one of those rare competitors who not only listened to advice and tried to put it into effect, but he had that rare aptitude to analyse and take advantage of his opponent’s weaknesses.”

Richard became involved in administering fencing at club, provincial and national level. He was president of the New Zealand Amateur Fencing Association for a number of years, later became a life member and was patron of Fencing New Zealand. He was also a representative on the New Zealand Olympic Committee for both Fencing and Pentathlon at the time of the Moscow games where significant pressure was put on athletes to boycott those games.

Percy Temple: “On one level he was tuned in to the politics of the sporting world, well-connected and always ready to use his energy and extensive networks for the betterment of fencing. And at the other end of the scale, he was an excellent coach who willingly gave his time to develop and nurture the next generation in the sport he loved.”

Fencing in the firm

If fencing played a huge part in Richard Peterson’s life, it also overflowed into his legal work. Richard Laurenson said that any discussion with Richard, whether it was on a legal problem or having a few drinks on a Friday night, could end up as if a figurative fencing bout.

“He would take a front foot stance to you and chip and nick and prod and poke you in his argument whilst edging closer to you as if waiting for your guard to fall, then to execute a final lunge.”

Richard Laurenson also recalled Richard’s bow and flourish of his right hand when he met you and ushered you to a space, and his attempts to skewer a lift button or pedestrian crossing button with his brolly.

Richard was energised by fencing and found that his co-competitors became life-long friends. Reflecting on his fencing career at his seventieth birthday he said: “I still fence and enjoy demonstrating to younger fencers that a solid technique coupled with a reasonable sense of distance and timing can still defeat the determination and speed of youth.”

While travelling to Europe for his OE in 1963 on board MS Fairsea Richard met Hilary Taylor, the niece of a friend of his mother’s. They met once or twice in London and then again on the corner of Brandon Street and Lambton Quay a few years later and eventually married. They had three children, Stephen, John and Elizabeth. Hilary died in 2007.

Hilary was a tremendous support to Richard throughout his career, as he was to her. They shared the values of hard work, loyalty and the importance of community. When Hilary identified the need to set up a day care-centre to support people with dementia (and their families) to stay in their homes and communities, Richard worked in the background establishing the charitable trusts and providing ongoing support. This work began after Hilary and Richard’s own experience in caring for Richard’s mother. The Marsden Club was established as the first centre of its kind in New Zealand and Hilary received a QSM for her community work.

John Peterson, who followed his father into the law, said that Richard went to great efforts to provide his children with the moral and financial support they needed to pursue their ambitions. but that while he motivated his children, “he never imposed roles on them. They were always free to become exactly who they wanted to be.

If Richard was ambitious, hard-working and aggressive at looking after the interests of his clients, he was not someone who sought recognition for his achievements, Richard Lauren-son said. “Richard never sought the glittering prizes in the law; instead he considered his service was by getting on with work in the background. This carried over to his committee and charitable work which he quietly got on with and which included the work he did with Hilary in establishing and sustaining the Marsden and Chelsea Clubs for people with dementia; his work on the New Zealand Olympic and Commonwealth Games Association as representative for the sports of fencing and modern pentathlon; and the Khandallah Lawn Bowling Club ñ a sport he took up in his later years.”

Richard is survived by his three children: Stephen, a director of a New Zealand energy company, John who is a tax policy adviser in Paris and Elizabeth who is a senior lecturer in psychology in Auckland.

Richard will be remembered as a brilliant lawyer, talented musician, a champion fencer and a man of intelligence and integrity who would never back down from the things he really cared about.

This was first published in the March 2018 issue of Council Brief, the monthly newsletter of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Law Society.

Last updated on the 6th March 2018