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Focus on legal practice in the Hutt Valley

02 August 2019 - By Craig Stephen

It’s only a wee trip to the capital, but the Hutt has its own identity

Given the proximity to its neighbour it’s understandable that, in many ways, the Hutt Valley is intrinsically linked to Wellington. But, despite the 20-minute drive to the capital, Lower Hutt and Upper Hutt have distinct legal communities, often dealing with issues and situations more in common with many suburban and rural areas around the country than the capital.

View over the Hutt Valley from the Wainuiomata Hill

Melanie Baker of Melanie Baker Law has been working out of the Hutt Valley for more than 30 years, and is now based in a tower block that overlooks the Queensgate mega mall, which is receptive to plenty of noise from an extremely busy intersection.

Ms Baker specialises in family, criminal and general law. She says the Hutt has its own character with some well-established practices and practitioners. “We serve quite a unique community, it’s not part of Wellington, we’ve got places like Wainuiomata, Stokes Valley, Upper Hutt, Petone, Naenae, Taita, so quite a distinct set of communities,” she says.

“People don’t want to travel into the city with all the issues of parking and petrol, they want to see their own lawyer. They like to have a lawyer who is part of the community and I’ve been part of the community for a long time, and involved in school boards, an iwi radio station and Waiwhetu marae.

“I think a lot of people who practise here stay because of the community connection, and it is a good place to live. There are a lot of diverse communities because people are spreading out from Wellington for housing so you get a lot of different ethnicities, and while house prices have gone up overall there is still some affordability in places like Wainuiomata and Upper Hutt.

“There’s quite a lot of redevelopment in the Valley – we now have the events centre, there’s a hotel being built on Queen’s Drive which will presumably host conferences and there’s plenty of other retail and industrial developments.”

Branch offices no more

Dave Robinson is a partner at Gibson Sheat and is in his 50th year as a lawyer, starting out at Bell Gully in Wellington before moving out to the Hutt due to a burning desire to build a house.

Dave Robinson
Dave Robinson

He has been with Gibson Sheat since 1987 and says the trend in the legal profession in the 1950s up to about the mid-60s was for Wellington firms to open up branch offices in the Hutt. Bell Gully was among the first, establishing Agar Keesing & Co (now Keesing McLeod), as did Craig Morgan & Co, Rainey Collins and Macalister Mazengarb.

“But gradually, from about the late 1960s, these firms became separate from their parent firms in the city. And eventually the trend went the other way, with Gibson Sheat opening a branch in Wellington in 1999. There’s been some Hutt lawyers, either as sole practitioners or starting up their own firms with others, who’ve opted to work in Wellington,” he says.

“In the Hutt and Masterton [where the firm also has an office] you have to be all things to all people, but in Wellington it’s much more commercially focused. Our litigation team is over there because they want to be close to the major courts that they deal in. The whole focus of opening in Wellington was to concentrate on commercial work.”

But Mr Robinson also notes that with technological advances, location is not as crucial as it once was.

“The thing about how we practise today, using the internet extensively, is that people don’t care where you sit as long they get the service. Quite a number of my clients have moved to Auckland but we still work for them. You can do a transaction for any part of the country now.”

Gaining court experience

As with most non city areas, the Hutt Valley has trouble attracting lawyers with a few years’ experience under their belt. Dave Robinson says many lawyers with some experience then move overseas. “And when they come back they’ve largely been working for big companies on substantial projects and tend to want to work for the major players in town.”

“That’s a feature of the Hutt legal profession – actually getting people on board. When I talk to some of the other lawyers round here, they’re all facing some of the same problems in terms of hiring people with three to five years’ experience. We cast our net around the country as well, and most of our applications come from people outside of Wellington.”

Joshua Pietras
Joshua Pietras

One of those much-wanted lawyers with 3-5 years’ experience is Joshua Pietras, who has been a solicitor for four years, the first two of those spent at a large corporate firm in Wellington. But he decided he wanted to do court work and felt he could achieve that outside the city.

“I felt that being in a small to medium-sized firm there would be more of a chance to cut my teeth on particular files and get more court time. So I expected to be thrown in at the deep end as the work is less reliant on the partners in bringing in the work and the juniors get to do a lot more of the hands-on stuff,” he says.

Mr Pietras, who was working in banking and finance law in central Wellington, says he wouldn’t get those opportunities at the large city firm as cases tend to be large affairs dealing with lots of money. He does general litigation with ARL Lawyers in Lower Hutt.

“Practising in Lower Hutt is the best-kept secret. On one level it’s only 15 minutes away from Wellington, if you avoid rush hour, but at the same time it’s the sixth largest city in New Zealand, there’s a lot of small to medium sized businesses out here – so for that reason you get a lot of variety with litigation.

“A lot of the work in Wellington tends to be government-focused or large corporates but you don’t really get to feel the stuff of life. In fact, a lot of our clients come from Wellington as there’s not many firms in Wellington dealing in general practice litigation.

“In the capital a lot of the big firm work comes from a panel so a firm will get on the panel for, say a bank or an insurance company, and they get guaranteed work from that whereas we will get word of mouth referrals and have long-standing clients.”

Mr Pietras is mainly doing civil litigation and employment, but does some criminal work and acts as duty lawyer at Porirua District Court once a fortnight.

“Even though we don’t do a lot of criminal work, it was an opportunity to get in court on a frequent basis and just get used to thinking on my feet and responding to the judge’s questions.”

Up the road in Upper Hutt

Shane Robinson – who is unrelated to his Lower Hutt namesake – is based in Upper Hutt where he has practised since 1994, and his practice, Paino & Robinson, is a largely general practice that has cut back on its lower level legal aid criminal law activity due to changes to legal aid and the closure of the local courthouse.

Shane Robinson
Shane Robinson

“The court closing has had an impact on the practitioners in Upper Hutt who were doing criminal and family work. Back in the day the firm would have had a lot more legal aid cases. I’m not saying we’ve given up on that, but we don’t pursue it, because it is just not economic but also Legal Aid Services don’t pay for travel; it becomes less economic and that becomes an access to justice issue for people in Upper Hutt.

“The firm’s partners still undertake more serious criminal legal aid work and the firm has a staff solicitor who regularly appears in the Hutt Valley District Court on criminal matters.

“Another issue is when someone is arrested they are taken into remand in Wellington, and so they are initially processed there, and that’s another access to justice issue as people don’t always have a means of getting home.”

Shane Robinson says the smaller of the two Hutt cities retains an identity of its own but that is being undermined by increasing centralisation in many aspects of business and life.

“Upper Hutt has a sort of provincial feel to it, it’s a satellite town, and a lot of people commute. There’s not a lot of industry here anymore, it’s sort of redefining itself; there’s a lot of residential development because there’s been some land that has opened up in recent years so there’s a few more subdivisions.

“It has its own unique demographic but there has been a lot of centralisation, such as the courts, but in many governmental ways too. So Upper Hutt and Lower Hutt have, in a number of ways, almost merged in terms of the provision of services. For example, if you want to get a driver’s licence you have to go to Lower Hutt. So that centralisation of government services has changed Upper Hutt to an extent.”

While Upper Hutt is significantly smaller than its neighbour in terms of population, Mr Robinson says the hills surrounding it means his city has a different feel. “There’s a lot of space and it’s great for the outdoors, mountain biking, hiking, and Wairarapa is just over the hill.”

And the closeness to the Wairarapa towns means Paino & Robinson can sometimes be working on the other side of the Rimutakas. “We do some amount of work there and we have a number of Wairarapa-based clients. I think people in the Wairarapa can on occasion struggle to get a lawyer, particularly in family law. Typically, we are involved in relationship property work and occasionally criminal cases in the Wairarapa. That road has improved a lot in recent years so it’s easier to get over there now.”

Coordination required at branch level

But while many things are able to be done in the Hutt, with the District Court in the centre of Lower Hutt serving the entire area, there are certain matters that require a train trip or drive to the capital.

Melanie Baker
Melanie Baker

“We don’t have jury trials here so they are dealt with in the Wellington courts, and long family causes go to Wellington as well,” says Melanie Baker.

Ms Baker says there are annual dinners for all practitioners in the Valley and lawyers tend to help each other when required. But no lawyer in the Hutt now serves on the council of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Law Society and Ms Baker says with two spaces vacant on the council she would like to see one practitioner from the Hutt and one from Porirua putting their hand up.

In the LawPoints newsletter of 24 January 2019, Ms Baker and Louise Sziranyi, a partner at Thomas Dewar Sziranyi Letts, noted the courthouse had a number of issues, including insufficient interview rooms, as well as cell meeting rooms, and only one AVL suite.

With the closure of the Upper Hutt courthouse in 2012, and the increase in population, there is now greater pressure on the courthouse in Lower Hutt.

“Since the Upper Hutt courthouse was closed, the District Court in Lower Hutt has absorbed all its work, and I think it needs to be more functional for the modern delivery of justice,” says Ms Baker.

“There are a whole load of issues affecting the Hutt Valley, such as the courthouse, that would benefit from some sort of coordination with the Wellington branch. That would be where a local lawyer on the branch council would be useful. When a judge retires it would be good to have someone organise a farewell dinner or who could organise events for the local practitioners.”

Petone Wharf

The Ministry of Justice told the Law Society that preliminary planning for the possible redevelopment of the Lower Hutt District Court has been completed, but the work has not progressed further at this stage.

There are 128 lawyers in Lower Hutt, including Petone, and 19 in Upper Hutt.

The population of Lower Hutt is 98,238 according to the 2013 Census. Of those, 15,879 are Māori (17.1% of the total population), followed by Asian (11.7%) and Pacific people (11%). The percentage of people born overseas is 23.7%, slightly lower than the national rate.

The main industries in Lower Hutt are health care and social assistance; manufacturing; and retail and construction.

The population of Upper Hutt is 40,179 according to the 2013 Census, of which 14% are Māori, 6% Asian and 4.9% Pacific. A total of 20.7% of residents were born overseas.

Its main industries are public administration and safety; retail; education and training; and manufacturing.

Famous Hutt people include businessman Bob Jones, singers Brooke Fraser and Frankie Stevens, sex workers’ advocate Catherine Healy, rugby players Tana Umaga, Piri Weepu and Cory Jane, cricketers Ewen Chatfield and Ross Taylor, runner Nick Willis and plastic surgery pioneer Cecily Pickerill.

Notable firsts achieved in the Hutt Valley include Petone being the site of the first formal settlement of the New Zealand Company in 1840; some parts of the valley being home to a concentrated industrial base in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; and after the war, Lower Hutt was at the forefront of the Modern Movement architecture in New Zealand.

Sources: New Zealand Law Society, Statistics New Zealand, Lower Hutt City Council, Wikipedia.

Last updated on the 16th September 2019