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Focus on ... legal practice in Thames/Coromandel

07 June 2019 - By Craig Stephen

Gold is gone but there's plenty of diamonds in an area of contrasts

A view of the Thames Coromandel Coast

It is an area that developed with gold mining and, despite the lack of blue collar industries these days, tourism, housing and health keep the near two dozen lawyers based in Thames-Coromandel busy.

One of those lawyers, Michael Ussher, has been in the district since 2007 and his firm now has offices in Whitianga and Whangamata.

“It is typical provincial New Zealand. There is an incredible mix of work, in a relatively challenging environment, with an elderly population and very little industry on the eastern seaboard except for tourism and hospitality. The population generally has higher equity and lower incomes which presents some interesting challenges. There’s also a lot of property turnover, relating to people with young families having baches, and when those families grow up they move on. The population can be transitory,” he says.

“It’s certainly a beautiful place to work and if you like the beach and the outdoors, it’s ideal.”

Thames law firm Miller Poulgrain has a connection with the local community going back to the days of gold mining that brought thousands of eager diggers and associated workers, and in fact the firm is currently celebrating the 150th anniversary of the firm it owes its existence to.

A partner, Rodney Poulgrain, says with Thames in the grip of gold fever at that time there was an obvious need for law firms, which is where McDonald and Miller came in.

Rodney Poulgrain
Rodney Poulgrain

“It was a very bustling place back then with a bigger population than Auckland, and then I understand things went pretty quiet and the town all but went bankrupt in the depression days. But from that it built up other industries such as dairy farming, fishing, forestry and in more recent times the Toyota car assembly plant.”

Miller Poulgrain attends to the gamut of legal services the area needs.

“We are a general practice, so we have got to be prepared to pretty much do everything that comes in the door but conveyancing, elder law and estates would account for a lot of what we do. I guess it’s not too different from a lot of other provincial towns in New Zealand.”

Mr Poulgrain is born and bred in Thames but studied in Auckland and had his first job at Rudd Garland & Horrocks in the city before returning to the family firm in 1983. His great grandfather John William Poulgrain was employed by McDonald and Miller in 1871 as an articled clerk – and later was the managing clerk – and worked for over 60 years in the practice. Rodney Poulgrain is the fourth generation of his family in the firm. John William Poulgrain’s son Cecil Horace became a partner in 1921 and the firm then changed its name to Miller & Poulgrain.

Burgers to the Bar

Michael Ussher was working for a large law firm in Auckland when he and his family decided to make the move out.

Initially, however, continuing in the law on the peninsula wasn’t his main priority.

“When I came down here I set up a burger bar and ended up running that for three years. Hospitality was hard work with a young family, and people, when they found out that I was a lawyer, urged me to get back into practice.

“So I did go back into the law and enjoyed the challenge of general practice in a small town. Initially, I just had a home office but it got busier and busier so we have gone from just me to three lawyers, two legal executives, a receptionist and a trust account administrator trading from two inner city commercial premises.”

Mr Ussher’s wife, Natasha, is also a lawyer at the firm and they are in the process of hiring a junior lawyer. But that means the usual problems of getting staff in rural areas.

“I don’t think we are unique in struggling to attract and retain young lawyers here wanting to practise general law. But we enjoy giving back to the profession by employing young lawyers and introducing them to the law.

“We provide and are involved in lots of community-type assistance. Often we can be like a community law centre where people drop in asking about simple issues. There are also a number of elder law and estate issues due to the ageing population here,” he says.

“Our common challenge involves getting people to seek advice before they act. Low wages often means high resilience and self reliance so seeking legal advice is often not sought until it’s too late.”

He notes that due to those low wages it is hard to get blue collar workers in to do a range of work, beyond hospitality. Families, he says, might be attracted by pretty beaches, cafes and retail, but the real carrot has to be jobs and good incomes.

Return to the tipuna

Robyn Leach is a family law practitioner who has been based in Thames for the past four years, having moved down from South Auckland where she was raised.

Robyn Leach
Robyn Leach

She made the relatively short move to Thames due to family and iwi connections – she affiliates to Ngāti Maru.

“This is my home really, this is where my iwi is. I have a nine-year-old and a ten-year-old and so I wanted to be where I had an iwi connection and a place where my boys could grow. This is where my tipuna came from – my English ancestors came over on the Tainui steamship and my Māori ancestors came over on the Tainui waka to Thames, so that is my connection with here. I have tūrangawaewae here and in Tāmaki Makaurau because we are part of the iwi collective there also.”

Her home is round the corner from her practice, a bungalow which is off the main roads.

“I wanted to work in a building that wasn’t on the main street. I’ve chosen a private space for people to come to and a more homely, comfortable environment so it’s less wieldy for people to turn up and speak to a lawyer.

“I have mediation space that is inviting and has plenty of break-out spaces out the front or the back, or across the road at the park. We can work a whole day of mediation and make it successful. I have worked at large law firms and it can be an intimidating environment and that puts people off.”

She says while there is a more relaxed and rural attitude in Thames and throughout the peninsula, the same issues and problems apply.

“Up in Whangārei (where she also worked) there was a real issue with P and other drug use. But those issues are here too and there are people who are struggling with poverty, drugs and violence.”

It’s all here

Rodney Poulgrain – whose wife Sally is an enrolled solicitor at the firm – says Thames is ideally located and offers everything to families.

“Thames has been a great place for us to bring up a family. There’s lots of sporting and cultural clubs and activities, so it’s pretty much all here for us, it’s all accessible and we enjoy being relatively close to Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga and in close proximity to the bush and the beaches, so it’s not a bad place to be.”

And for Robyn Leach the lack of congestion and constant travelling is a major boon.

“If I leave something at work it’s about 45 seconds to go back there. I do not have the travel and the stress and the time management issues of being based in Auckland. That became very problematic.

“When I first came here I was involved in a High Court matter relating to property, and I did six months or so of travelling to and from Auckland every day and it was just horrendous. Five hours of travel from Thames to Auckland is just unreasonable but it also reminded me of why I left.”

Robyn says that such travel is becoming obsolete, however, due to the way that the courts, especially in family law, are moving.

“The courts are moving towards telephone conferences and without-notice applications going into drop boxes; those changes in technology are actually allowing the practice of law in a place like this to be more achievable because the distance and some of the difficulties are being removed.

“The beaches are beautiful and the parks are beautiful and the access is so much easier. The lifestyle is better here and with family law being inherently stressful anything that eases that stress can’t be bad. There’ll still be tissues on the meeting table but if I’m feeling less stressed then the situation will be easier to deal with and my provision of legal services to the client will be enhanced.”

The home is the office

Penelope Ridings is a barrister with 30 years’ experience as an international lawyer and focuses on public international law, oceans and fisheries, and international trade and investment law.

Penelope Ridings
Penelope Ridings

Similar to Robyn Leach she is typical of the lawyer without a high street office, and who largely doesn’t need one due to the nature of her work.

Dr Ridings has been based in the north of the peninsula – about an hour north of Thames – since 2015 after moving out of Wellington.

The move was based largely on lifestyle, moving to a property she and her husband had bought “some years ago” and developed. She took early retirement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and moved up to the house where her husband was already living, in order to develop an international legal practice.

“It is absolutely the right move. It’s a lovely little place. We live in Whangapoua which is on the other side of Coromandel township, and it’s even smaller than Coromandel Town and very beautiful.

“Particularly with my specialisation, as much of what I do is opinion writing, I can do all of that at home. I have my home office set up and I am online all the time so I don’t actually need to be in the city except to attend meetings. Networking can be a bit of an issue which is partly why I make the effort to arrange meetings in Wellington and Auckland and attend conferences.”

While much of her work can be done in her office within her home, there are occasions when she needs to meet clients in Wellington or overseas, flying out of Auckland, “about two and a half hours away on a good day without much traffic” and an extra hour in the morning and evening when the traffic backs up.

“I try to combine meetings when I’m in Wellington so I make more of each trip.

“I enjoy it very much and it really suits me and the kind of international work that I do.”

Auckland v Waikato

It is not entirely clear why Thames-Coromandel became part of the Auckland branch of the Law Society, but it can be presumed that it was because the original Auckland province, which existed until 1876, covered a large swathe of land down to a line stretching from the Whanganui River to the Mahia Peninsula.

Portrait of a Profession: The Centennial book of the New Zealand Law Society suggests (on page 236) that, in the early days of the legal profession in New Zealand, in the absence of an extensive overland transport system, a “good steam-boat service” connected coastal towns in the Bay of Plenty, including Thames, with Auckland. “For this reason the coastal areas of the Bay of Plenty were included in the Northern Judicial District and therefore within the Auckland District Law Society,” wrote DB Gordon.

Rodney Poulgrain says while the local legal fraternity is within the Auckland branch of the Law Society, various factors mean there is an equally strong connection with Hamilton and the wider Waikato region, one being that the Thames-Coromandel district is within the Waikato Regional Council.

A rock off the coast of Coromandel

“We used to attend meetings with South Auckland practitioners on an annual basis and there certainly was some collegiality shared with solicitors from Papakura, Pukekohe, as well as Paeroa and Te Aroha. Those meetings, for some reason, haven’t happened for some years now, and it would be fair to say that we don’t have any direct social dealings with the Hamilton practitioners either. We always have been on the border of both so we have had to kind of be self-sufficient.”

According to the 2013 Census, 26,178 people live in the Thames-Coromandel District. This is projected to have risen to 29,700 by 2018. Thames is the only settlement with a population of more than 5,000.

Of those, 4,149 identify as Māori, or 16.6% of the district’s population, which is 1.7% higher than the national average. Asian people (2.6%) and Pacific peoples (1.6%) are the next most populous ethnic groups. Only 16% of the population were born overseas, much lower than the national average of 25.2%.

It is also an ageing population with the proportion of people aged 65 and over making up 27% of the total population which is nearly twice the national average. This is projected to reach 40% by 2045.

Famous people from the area include model and actress Kylie Bax, Welsh rugby international Sonny Parker, Black Sticks international Lloyd Stephenson, Shakespearean actor Bruce Purchase, Air Chief Marshall Sir Keith Park and medical scientist Sir Graham Liggins.

The five industries people in the area are most likely to work in are: health care; accommodation and food services; construction; professional, scientific and technical; and admin and support services.

Gold was discovered in the 1860s and soon attracted thousands of gold-diggers. One mine alone yielded ten tons of gold in one year, paying out dividends amounting to £600,000.

As would be expected Thames has the largest number of lawyers with 16, followed by Whangamata 5, Whitianga 3, Coromandel 1 and Tairua 1.

Sources: Statistics New Zealand, Thames-Coromandel District Council, New Zealand Law Society and Victoria University.

Last updated on the 16th September 2019