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Peters joins long line of lawyers to be nation’s leader

21 June 2018 - By Craig Stephen

With Winston Peters taking on the role of leading the nation as acting Prime Minister while Jacinda Arden takes maternity leave, we look at the list of seven people who were lawyers and also top dog.

Winston Peters

Frederick Whitaker  

Premier 30 Octopber 1863 - 24 November 1864 and 21 April 1882 - 25 September 1883

Frederick Whitaker was admitted in January 1839 and settled in the Bay of Islands to practise, where he was appointed county judge. He later resumed as a solicitor, generally in partnership with Theophilus Heale.

He had advanced views on electoral reform, but the reputation of the two-time premier was tarnished by his involvement in land speculation and confiscation.

In May 1853 he was appointed to the first Legislative Council set up under the new constitution.

As premier Mr Whitaker believed that to uphold ‘civilisation and progress’ European settlers must have easy access to Māori land, urging ruthless pursuit of war, and large-scale confiscations of Māori land.

Governor George Grey, outraged by the extent of the confiscations, exploited a financial crisis to topple Whitaker's ministry in late 1864.

Sir Robert Stout

Premier 16 August 1884 – 28 August 1884 and 3 September 1884 – 8 October 1887.

Sir Robert, who came from the Shetland Islands, was called to the New Zealand Bar in 1871. He became a partner in the firm of Stout, Mondy and Sim. As a barrister Sir Robert was well-known for his appearances before the Court of Appeal, and became celebrated for his abilities as a 'pleader' and his effectiveness in working on the emotions of juries.

In 1879 Stout left Cabinet and Parliament altogether to focus on his law practice. He returned to Parliament in the 1884 election and just a month later passed a vote of no-confidence in Harry Atkinson, and succeeded him. He didn’t last long, however.

Sir Robert Stout was Chief Justice from 1899 to 1926 and served on the senate of the University of New Zealand for 36 years, playing a leading role in founding Victoria University College.

Sir Francis Henry Dillon Bell

Prime Minister 14–30 May 1925

Sir Francis was PM for only 16 days, but he held two distinctions – being the first PM to be born in New Zealand, and the last to come from the Legislative Council.

The longest-serving New Zealand Law Society President, Sir Francis was a renowned jurist, one of the country’s first King's Counsel, Crown solicitor, and Attorney-General.

He was called to the English bar in 1874 and returned to Wellington in 1875 where he became a senior partner in his own firm in 1886, which became Bell, Gully, MacKenzie and Evans.

As well as his very brief spell as Prime Minister, which he took on on the understanding that it was a temporary leadership, Sir Francis was acting prime minister four times.

Jack Marshall

Prime Minnister 7 February – 8 December 1972

‘Gentleman Jack’ Marshall was PM for just 10 months but was the long-time deputy to Keith Holyoake and a Cabinet Minister for two decades.

Returning to Wellington after serving in World War II, John ‘Jack’ Marshall set up practice as a barrister. Within a few weeks of his return he was sought out for the National Party nomination for the marginal seat of Mt Victoria.

He entered Parliament in 1946 and from 1949 to 1972, with the exception of three years in opposition, was in every National Cabinet. The range of portfolios he held was probably exceeded only by Sir Joseph Ward: health, justice, customs, industries and commerce, overseas trade, immigration and labour.

Mr Marshall remained National leader after Labour’s 1972 victory but was rolled by Robert Muldoon in 1974 and soon after left Parliament.

David Lange

Prime Minister 26 July 1984 – 8 August 1989

David Lange took over Allan Nixon’s law practice in Auckland in the early 70s. He became a criminal defence counsel, known for his very effective pleas in mitigation.

As Minister of Foreign Affairs, David Lange championed Labour’s anti-nuclear policy. He enhanced his international reputation with a masterful performance in the televised Oxford Union debate in March 1985 arguing that “nuclear weapons are morally indefensible”.

Under Mr Lange, Labour made gay sex legal, gave te reo Māori official status, let the Waitangi Tribunal consider historical claims, removed subsidies, tore down tariff barriers, reformed local government, trimmed and restructured the public service and sold state assets.

The government is also known, however, for the introduction of ‘Rogernomics’. After losing control of Cabinet, Mr Lange resigned in August 1989.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer

Prime Minister 8 August 1989 – 4 September 1990

The batton was passed on to Sir Geoffrey, at the time Deputy Prime Minister. “What I got from Lange was a hospital pass,” he later said.

Sir Geoffrey fell after MPs made a leadership change just weeks from the 1990 election, which Labour lost.

While he held the top political job for 13 months, his major achievements were  passing the New Zealand Constitution Act 1986 and laying the groundwork for the Resource Management Act. He was a strong advocate for MMP.

Sir Geoffrey returned to academia and established Chen Palmer & Partners. In 2005 he became President of the Law Commission.

Winston Peters

Acting Prime Minister, 21 June 2018 to unknown

Winston Peters, who worked as a lawyer at Russell McVeagh between 1974 and 1978, entered Parliament in 1978 for and was later the MP for Tauranga.

In 1993, Mr Peters and others broke from National to form New Zealand First.

He was Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer from 1996-1998.

From 2005-2008, Mr Peters was Minister of Foreign Affairs and New Zealand Aid in the New Zealand First confidence and supply arrangement with the Labour Government. 

He has gained a reputation for his tenacious pursuit of fairness and accountability, highlighted by victories in a number of political exposes.

In October last year he announced that New Zealand First would form a coalition with Labour.

William Downie Stewart Jnr was acting Prime Minister for a brief period in 1926, taking over the wheel from Gordon Coates.

He was educated at Otago Boys' High School from 1888 to 1894 and at the University of Otago. On the death of his father William Downie Stewart Snr in 1898 he was employed as a law clerk in his legal firm. He became a partner on graduating LLB in 1900.

Downie Stewart held the positions of Minister of Internal Affairs 1921-1923, Minister of Customs 1921-1928, Minister of Industry and Commerce 1923-1928 and Minister of Finance 1926-1928. He was also Attorney-General in 1926.

In addition, Henry Sewell, New Zealand’s first Premier (1856) trained as a solicitor but didn’t practise as one in New Zealand. Alfred Domett (Premier 1862-1863) qualified as a solicitor as did Sir William Fox (Premier 1869-72 and 1873) but neither practised.

Thanks to historian Michael Bassett for his assistance in providing some additional information.

Last updated on the 16th September 2019