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Lawyer-free beginnings on road to judgeship

17 October 2019 - By Jock Anderson

Finger-picking folk guitarist, skier, rose grower and former Appeal Court judge Raynor Asher QC says sentencing was never easy for him.

“My first sentencing remains a memorable moment. It was a methamphetamine sentencing of a woman with young children.

“I was obliged to send her to prison and I felt uncomfortable. It was not an easy task. I never found sentencing particularly easy.”

NameRaynor John (Raynor) Asher QC
BornAuckland
Age 70
Entry to lawGraduated BA and LLB (Hons) from Auckland University in 1972 and LLM from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1974. Admitted in 1972.
WorkplaceBarrister in Richmond Chambers, Auckland.

Speciality area

Arbitration and Mediation.

Raynor recently retired at 70 after serving more than 14 years as a judge of the High Court, including more than three years on the Court of Appeal, and has joined Auckland’s Richmond Chambers.

Previously a partner in Kensington Swan, he went to the independent bar in 1986, was made a Queen’s Counsel in 1992 and appointed a High Court Judge in 2005.

He was appointed chairman of the self-regulatory New Zealand Media Council – formerly the Press Council – in June, replacing former High Court Judge Sir John Hansen.

Raynor Asher

“I’ve gone back to being a barrister and do everything barristers do except appear in court,” Raynor says.

The only lawyer in his family, Raynor’s father John, known as Jock, was the founding professor of German at Auckland University and head of the German department from 1958 to 1986. His mother, Monica, was a language teacher, a specialist in French, and ultimately senior mistress at Auckland Girls Grammar School.

“Dad was a fourth generation New Zealander of Scottish descent. A wonderful linguist who fell in love with the German language at the inauspicious time of 1938/39.

“After the war he got his Doctorate in German at Basle in Switzerland, came back and started the first German department in New Zealand and also started the Goethe Society.

“He was a scholar of middle high German, which is the German of the 14th century when they had the great flowering of wonderful German epics – all the epics Wagner is based on. That was his speciality.”

William Asher arrived in Dunedin in 1859, a penniless assisted immigrant from Scotland who ultimately employed more than 1,000 men in his sawmills on Stewart Island and Southland. His son Rev John Asher became Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand in 1919.

Raynor’s parents met in their first year at university and married, aged 20 and 19, because his father was about to go up for conscription to the war.

He has a younger brother, Gavin, and a sister, Innes, who is professor of paediatrics at Auckland University, and a spokesperson for Child Poverty Action. “Innes is younger than me but I have always treated her as my older sister.”

Married to Chrissy, the couple had three children. “Sadly my eldest son Johnny died eight years ago, aged 30. Alexander is a director of an education software start-up, in London now, where most of their customers are, and Kate is a school teacher in Auckland.

Good year for the roses

“I am a proud and dedicated, although not necessarily very skilful, rose grower and have 165 rose bushes.

“I love them dearly. They are mainly tea and floribunda. I bought a house in 1980 that had a small rose garden. I was absolutely delighted in spring to find all these magnificent flowers emerging and I fell in love with them.

“At the time some other friends had bought houses with rose gardens, so we started having rose parties where we celebrated roses and would show off each other’s roses.

“My favourite is called Papa Meilland, named after the great French rose inventor, who invented this rose about 1946.

“It is a deep burgundy coloured rose with very thick luscious beautifully textured petals. And a scent that is really spectacular. If you take a deep breath you hear bells ringing. It is that sort of quality.

“I don’t exhibit but have friendly competitions with friends. My interest in roses is in delighting in them and having lots of them around and enjoying their fragrance in spring. It’s the pleasure of having them.

“Roses are very kind things. They don’t require too much work. They require some dedicated days in mid-winter when you prune them, regular fertilizing, adequate water in summer and a few sprays through the spring and early summer.

“I have lots of other passions, probably too many.”

Two of those are music and skiing.

“I am a very keen Ruapehu skier and also get to the South Island whenever I can. I have been in various ski clubs and done some amateur racing. I now try to hang out with my children – who are good skiers - on the mountain.

“I used to do a lot of windsurfing but not so much these days. I’m a fairly orthodox New Zealander and played rugby at school. I am a great Blues supporter, despite all the challenges that entails, and have had a season ticket this year, watched them, and they generally won."

Folk music

“My musical background is I was in a folk duo and played and sang around all the folk clubs of Auckland in late 1960s and early 1970s when folk music was the big thing.

“Before that I played in a bluegrass type band. I have an acoustic background in American music, mainly with an old-time country type vent.

“Guitarist is too portentous a word to describe what I do. I play the acoustic guitar – I’m basically a finger picker - and have three beautiful guitars of the great makes.

“My number one is a 1950 Gibson Jumbo – a round shouldered standard steel stringed guitar - and I have a Martin D28 for our holiday home.

“After retiring from the Bench, I bought myself a new guitar for my office as a retirement present to myself. It’s a Taylor Builders Edition Grand Pacific 717e.

“Taylor sells more top-end acoustic guitars than any other guitar maker in the world. They are a cutting edge design. This one has an extraordinary resonance although at this stage it lacks the weary charm of my old Gibson Jumbo.

“My great musical heroes are bluegrass players Doc Watson and Tony Rice, who at his best was like Ralph Stanley.

“When the singer songwriters came along in the late 1960s, I liked the acoustic finger picking style of James Taylor and Paul Simon. I could spend hours talking about the sort of music I listen to and play.

“I listen to a lot of modern singer songwriters from the US and England, and to a lot of earlier country stars who played the more traditional style of country music such as Merle Haggard, George Jones, Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris.

“I am a huge fan of Dolly Parton, Gillian Welch, who is a more modern singer, Nanci Griffith, Patty Griffin, Waylon Jennings, the Wailin’ Jennys, and Hank Williams is a great hero.

“I also pay homage to Bob Dylan. And I like the blues. I have done a blues trip round Mississippi with my friend and former judge John Hansen. We did a two-week blues pilgrimage round Mississippi and North Carolina. I love Howlin’ Wolf, BB King, Muddy Waters, and JJ Cale. In New Zealand I follow Marlon Williams.

“I’d love to play the guitar like Willie Nelson but find him a bit too stylised for me. He is a great singer. His incredible delay, that extravagant delay and then the sudden flurry of notes. I like it, I admire it. But after a couple of songs I’m ready to move on.”

Studying at Berkeley

“I studied in the US, have a long-standing love of the US, love the music of the US and enjoy going back there. Skiing at Squaw Valley and Jackson Hole are my favourites.

“Like 99% of New Zealanders of my age who are lucky enough to be able to afford it I have a passion for the Mediterranean and like getting over there every couple of years.

“I love Croatia very much and have a strong family association there. My step grandfather was a Croatian and I was very close to him. But travelling is not one of my great passions and I don’t particular like leaving New Zealand.

“I had a fabulous scholarship which enabled me to choose my law school - any place in the United States. I chose Berkeley, because it had at the time – 1973 – a very good law school.

“It was also the world capital of radical student thinking. I was interested in seeing what that was like. The third reason was that of all the very good law schools in the US it had by far the best ski field nearby – Squaw Valley.

“I wasn’t a very good skier back then, so I saw this as an opportunity while studying to become a competent skier.

“I’m an avid reader and always have been. I love the great Russian writers - Tolstoy, Dostoevsky,  Sholokhov. And the traditional English greats such as Charlotte Bronte - I regard Jane Eyre as the perfect novel.

“I read a lot of post-World War 2 English writers – John Fowles, Pat Barker, Melvin Bragg.

“I am a passionate Tolkien fan and have read Lord of the Rings multiple times but don’t purport to have anything like the knowledge of David Harvey.”

District Court Judge Harvey was the international mastermind champion in 1981 answering questions on Lord of the Rings.

“I read a lot more non-fiction these days. My all-time favourite historical author, all of whose books I have read, is Robert Massie, an American historian and biographer who devoted much of his career studying the House of Romanov, Russia’s royal family.

“I like American movies and have an eclectic, shallow taste in films. I’m a fan of Clint Eastwood as a director and actor. His film Mule is excellent. I think his Unforgiven was the greatest western ever.

“I love the comedies of the 1950s. My all-time favourite movie is Some Like It Hot. I’m a fan of all Billy Wilder movies. I love Jack Lemon, love The Apartment, love Martin Scorcese movies and Ridley Scott. I go to movies as a form of escapism.

“Television is not my scene, I have never been attracted to it and I don’t like crime dramas. Some new Netflix series are good, such as The Bodyguard and The Sinner.

“Another one of my minor passions is dogs and I have a beautiful white German Shepherd called Mischka, and two stroppy cats, Ned and Molly. They are SPCA refugees and are wonderful cats.

“Dinner guests would be Bob Dylan, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth 1 and Cicero. I’d have to be reasonably conservative because I think Bronte would be quite picky.

“I would offer New Zealand green-lipped mussels as the entrée in an Italian bucanti sauce. A choice of New Zealand hapuka or rack of lamb, and for dessert I would offer them my wife’s beautiful apple pie.

“To drink would be my friend Jim Vuletic’s Providence Bordeaux style wine, and Waiheke Obsidian Chardonnay.”

Love of a good argument

“My attraction to law came from sitting around the dinner table with my parents, who always liked a good argument.

“I liked a good argument too and would sometime put forward a proposition just to get a good argument going. I was into debate, argument and verbal contest at an early age.

“In form one my headmaster asked what I was going to be and I immediately and unhesitatingly said ‘a lawyer’.”

“I was always attracted to the idea of the power of words. Lawyers use words as well as analysis - they are the tools that they use. I also love combat with words and have always enjoyed that.

“What doubled my enthusiasm as I became more mature and understood the law better, was the power of the law and what it can do.

“It can do bad things but has a huge power to do good, to help people resolve problems. It gives order and lubrication to transactions and provides an ordered way of resolving disputes in a principled way.

“I generally find those principles, evolved over the centuries, work for good. They are designed to be fair and the principles of the law are designed against precepts of decency and fairness.

“I would like to think that the courts are a bit better understood now and a bit better appreciated than they might have been 40 years ago.

“I am a great believer and advocate for access for the media in courts, even though on occasions when I was acting for people I would try and shut you (journalists) out - that was my job.

“I passionately believe in the importance of the access of media to the court and in good reporting of what happens in court. It’s essential to our democracy that what happens in courts is publicised.

“There is less coverage now because the media don’t have the money to have journalists sitting in court all day to get a real grasp of a case, understand the issues and grasp the finer points. Those days are largely gone except in the super-big trials.

“Having cameras in courts in trials in which the public have an interest is a positive thing.

“I would like to think there is a better understanding now of what courts do. But I would like to see civics taught in schools so that students are taught how our constitution works and how our laws work and how courts work. It is a very great shame that is not taught in schools.

“I don’t sense any growing antipathy or disrespect for the courts, if anything I would like to think it is going the other way. I believe in judges speaking up and judges are now more frequently, and that’s a good thing.

“In practise I was basically a commercial civil litigator.

“One of the highlights for me, which combined with my passion for skiing at Ruapehu, was that after volcanic ash had ruined the ski season for Ruapehu and insurance had refused to cover them for their losses, I persuaded the courts of New Zealand that snow was property and fell within the policy.

“It was a fun argument and a good case to win. It went on appeal and the judgment was upheld.

“If I had more talent I would have liked to have been a folk musician but I would have needed a lot more talent because there’s no point in doing it unless you are really, really good.

“But the truth is there is nothing I would rather do than being a lawyer. Everything else is a mile behind.”

Last updated on the 21st October 2019