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Arguments with teachers shaped bureaucrat-bashing barrister

18 April 2019 - By Craig Stephen

Barrister and sports fanatic Gary Gotlieb admits to being a pretty nefarious character in his youth ... and he hasn’t changed a great deal at the age of 74 as he begins to wind down his long career.

The larger than life character confesses to having “pissed off” a fair number of people in his career, but his devotion to the vulnerable has gained his respect from many, including one unlikely source – judges.

And his feisty personality was partly shaped by being told he had to argue with his teachers.

Gary Gotlieb

Gary got into law because the headmaster at his school, Cashmere High School in Christchurch, was Terry McCombs, the Labour Party’s Minister of Education between 1947 and 1949 who had returned to the frontline of teaching.

“He got my parents in and said ‘what’s Gary going to do?’ and they said ‘oh, well, we don’t know’ and he told them that I should be a lawyer. But they pointed out that no one in the family had ever gone to university never mind been a lawyer. But he felt I would be able to make it in the profession.”

Gary, who became deputy head boy at the school, received some rather unusual advice, which would stand him in good stead. “It was a real turning point in my life going to that school because we were encouraged to argue with the teachers. They said ‘don’t accept that what we say is correct’ - you had to debate with them, certainly when you got to the higher part of the school.”

Looking older than he actually was, Gary would often drink with his teachers at the local pub after he went home and changed out of his school uniform. “I don’t think you can do that now, can you?!” he says wryly.

“Terry defintely steered me in the direction of the legal profession. He was a dynamic, principled principal and all these really good teachers came to our school because they wanted to be trained under Terry McCombs.”

Some of his teachers, Gary says, were involved in surf life-saving and that’s how he became involved in the sport - and is still involved in at the age of 74. He continues to win titles, in his age goup, at both surf life-surfing and ocean swimming.  

“I was a school swimming champ from the fifth year onwards and was a water polo and life surfing rep for Canterbury, a university blue at water polo, and I am still a good swimmer. I was in the pool this morning and I’m not in the slow lane yet, in fact, I was in the second fastest lane. Sport keeps you young.”

Trouble on the ship

Rather than go straight into law Gary went overseas for about a year travelling by ship. He went with his family “but I had a fair bit of independence” to Europe in the early 1960s. “It opened my eyes a fair bit,” he says, adding that he a good few adventures.

“I got beaten up on a ship going from Southampton to the States by these bloody awful Americans because they didn’t like me looking at a southern girl. A Welsh rugby player came to my aid and laid a few of them out. He broke one lad’s ribs with a bear hug. But I laid a couple of them out too. That Welsh boyo was a very handy ally to have on that ship. They were all locked up but I wasn’t because everyone knew I didn’t start it.”

Gary returned to New Zealand, but as his parents had moved to Auckland from Christchurch he followed them there, with the law still some way away as he worked as a builder’s labourer, in a freezing works and laying bitumen on new roads.

“Those jobs made me realise how skilled working people are but also how hard they worked. And they got paid so little. It made me realise ‘Christ I better become a lawyer’ and follow what Terry McCombs had suggested.

“I have a great respect for the working man because they work really hard and are under-estimated and that’s why I have always been a great believer in lawyers helping people who have less opportunities than us.”

He did his law degree at Auckland University where the Dean at the time was the renowned Jack Northey. “There were some really great lecturers and some of them were mates of mine and we would drink together afterwards.”

After graduating, Gary took another detour, working initially in market research in advertising and would form a company with Aussie Malcolm, the National Party MP and Cabinet minister, and Graham Vaughan, a professor of psychology.

“It was going pretty well and then a good mate of mine, Anand Satyanand, said to me ‘you really ought to get into the law, Gary’ and David Harvey, later a District Court Judge, asked me to join him at an Otahu firm called Driver Wadsworth.

“On the Sunday before I was due to start with them, David Harvey had a motorcycle accident and was injured, and I had to go straight to court to take over from him. I had no idea what I was doing, but took a whole load of files down and I was like a duck taking to water. I had no fear, I was just a cheeky bugger – back to my old Christchurch days when we were taught to argue with the teachers and I carried that on at university arguing with the lecturers.”  

In his first year out of university, he was involved in a murder trial and a rape trial.

Fighting the bureaurcrats

“And I still keep the buggers honest,” he says and points me in the direction of a New Zealand Herald opinion piece he wrote in January this year entitled ‘We have to stand up to council bureaucrats because elected members do not’. This was in reference to his involvement in the fight against the closure of Auckland’s famous Tepid Baths and opposition to a helicopter landing on a boat shed on the popular Sentinel Beach.  

“As a lawyer you have an obligation to do other things to help people because you have these skills. It takes a lot of time but it is rewarding. You have the social contract that’s an obligation as a lawyer and a lot of them aren’t doing it. It’s not all about bringing in the bills.

“With the Tepid Baths I fought the bureaurcrats to a standstill and I’ve had battles all my life. But it’s not for my benefit, it’s for others because it’s for the greater good and that is one of the biggest achievements you can have as a lawyer.”

Gary also says he “kicked things around and changed things” in his role, at various times, as Auckland District Law Society President, New Zealand Criminal Bar Association President, and Vice-President of the New Zealand Law Society. “I don’t let things stay as they are.”

Gary points to his involvement with three wrongly convicted Pacific Island girls as one his proudest achievements.

The teenagers, Lucy Akatere, Tania Vini and McCushla Fuataha, each served seven months in prison after being convicted of the aggravated robbery of a 16-year-old girl in a shopping mall in 1999. 

In October 2001 the Court of Appeal quashed the trio's convictions and in 2006 they were awarded compensation. 

Gary represented the girls in their fight for justice and believed they had been "mucked around" because they were young and Polynesian. 

“I fought that fight hard and managed to get the Crown to accept that the wrong people had been lifted and convicted even though the police officers involved never got into trouble and I got some compensation for them. We showed them they were completely wrong, they were looking for girls that were a different age and size and it was a case of the first girls they could find, make the evidence fit and we had a very tough battle. The Court of Appeal firmly apologised on behalf of the state in dismissing the charges against them. You don’t get that very often.”

He also represented the former Rugby League player Tawera Nikau in his successful fight to have his assault conviction quashed.

Unpopular but respected

“I have been extremely lucky to have had some very good clients and great results. I’ve really enjoyed practising in the law and on occasions I have not made myself particularly popular because I don’t take bullshit from anyone, including judges.

“I’m lucky to have a job that I enjoy and that I can use my passion towards, and I think although I might have pissed a few judges off, the reality is they respect me very much.

“More importantly, it’s what the clients think of me and I’d be very sure that they are absolutely appreciative of my energy and commitment to make sure they achieve the best possible result in dealing with the legal process in a way they can understand and accept. 

“I have had the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life. For many of these people it’s the worst thing that will ever happen to them and you have to try and understand them to help them and not pre-judge them.”

Gary says he wouldn’t have been able to do what he has done without the support of his wife of 45 years, Judith.  

“You can’t deal with the pressure without someone you can confide in and take advice from,” he says. “My children all talk to me and show genuine affection. Without a sound family base it can be very difficult. I am fortunate indeed.” 

They have three children – Aaron (41), Lisa (34), and Greta (32). Aaron works in retail in Wellington, Lisa is an accountant in Hong Kong and has two children, and Greta works in IT in Auckland.

Sport and politics

As well as his surf life-saving exploits, Gary has competed in various triathlons and Ironman events, competing in nine world championships with immense success in his age groups. He has also won medals in open water swimming including the national title for his age and is still involved in that sport.

Gary Gotlieb 2

“I’ve done hundreds of ocean races here and overseas, and medalled in the world champs so I’ve had a great career in the water. Swimming is wonderful, and you’ve got to discipline yourself, because it makes you a better lawyer. It makes you fit and you’re also mixing with different types of people not just people who work in the law.”

His opposition to the Springbok tour and the actions of the nation’s rugby administrators led him to giving up that sport in protest.

As well as the protests of the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand, a group of lawyers, including Ted Thomas QC, Paddy Finnigan, Phil Recordon, Sian Elias and Rodney Hansen QC, fought through the courts, and stopped the proposed 1985 All Blacks tour of South Africa. Finnigan v New Zealand Rugby Football Union

He says that in 1999, five years after the first post-apartheid South African government was intalled, he went to Cape Town to compete in a coast-to-coast marathon.

“I wore the black and white New Zealand triathlon uniform and before the start of the race all these top black athletes - some of them the best in the world - came up to me and thanked me on behalf of all South Africans for what the people of New Zealand had done (in protesting against the ’81 tour and the Finnigan case) and they taught me all these handshakes and all these other extraordinary things. And these white South African guys came up to me after the race and said they had never seen that before.

“And as I ran in that race I was cheered all the way ‘go Kiwi, go Kiwi’. I was back in the field, of course, but the South Africans were so grateful for what we did and it made me very happy for what the people of this country did to oppose apartheid.”

Inspiration for TV law shows  

Gary enjoys going to the opera, and, like many lawyers profiled in this feature, is a big fan of Leonard Cohen and has seen him on his tours to New Zealand. He also says he is “not a bad singer” himself when he has a few drinks in him, signing John Denver tracks “and other old stuff”.

Due to the time he has to spend reading legal documents and other law stuff he barely has time to read for pleasure.

He was the legal advisor on the New Zealand-made Street Legal law television programmes which he says was based on his career. And a former New Zealand lawyer who moved to Australia became a screenwriter and also wrote a law show that was also loosely based on him. “But the sex scenes in that show had nothing to do with me.”

“I suppose I’ve always been a bit larger than life, that’s probably what’s pissed a lot of people off. So what? That’s your personality, that’s the way I’ve been. I am what I am. A lot of people are pissed off because I have said no.

“When I was at university I was made the students’ association president and I would not let any elected student representative talk at my council meetings unless they could prove to me that they had read the minutes. And everyone then came to the meeting prepared. After that the meetings, which tended to finish about 2am, finished in time so we were able to go to the bar before it closed.”

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Last updated on the 18th April 2019