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Ten Questions: Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC

12 April 2016

Well-known and respected across the profession, Sir Geoffrey Palmer has held just about every important office there is in New Zealand's and the international legal system.

Admitted as a solicitor in 1965 and a barrister in 1966, Mr Palmer has been Attorney-General, Minister of Justice, Leader of the House, and Prime Minster. He's been President of the Law Commission, a multi-jurisdictional law professor (holding four honorary doctorates), is a member of the NZLS Rule of Law Committee and was chair of a highly sensitive United Nations inquiry. Mr Palmer's latest honorary title is Master of the Bench of the Middle Temple.

Why did you choose law as a career?

When I was seven my mother said I had the gift of "the gab".  So, she said, I should become a lawyer. It never occurred to me ever to question that judgment later. To be a lawyer was always my aim. I was sorry she never lived to see me achieve it.

Do you still feel that way?

Yes, the law has given me far more than I have ever given it. One can enjoy many different careers in the law and I have enjoyed them all -solicitor, barrister, law professor, Member of Parliament, Minister, Attorney-General, President of the Law Commission, chair of a UN inquiry into the Gaza flotilla incident of 2010, Master of the Bench, Middle Temple.

What advice would you give to someone considering studying law?

Sir Geoffrey Palmer
Well-known and respected across the profession.

Find out by investigation whether law really is what you want to do. Some people hate the study of the law and only flourish when in practice. The law is demanding. It requires a particular sort of intellectual neurosis to be good at it.

I always feel sorry for lawyers who find they do not enjoy what they do. Like anything else if you are going to be any good you must have a passion for it. I have never been bored at any stage of my legal career, but I have reinvented myself several times. The thing about law is that it offers almost an infinity of different career possibilities.

What is the one thing that has given you the most satisfaction in your career?

Lecturing Professor Guido Calabresi's torts class at Yale Law School on the virtues of doing away with personal injury negligence law when I was Prime Minister of New Zealand. My son Matthew (now Palmer J) was a member of the class.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced as a lawyer?

Producing an outcome to the UN Inquiry on the Gaza Flotilla Incident that was objective, impartial and fair and did not make a bad situation worse.  I am now working on a big challenge of producing a draft written, codified Constitution for New Zealand that I believe is needed.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing New Zealand lawyers?

Ensuring that the practice of law remains a profession and does not become a business. Access to justice has become a serious social problem and many people just cannot afford the professional help they need to cope with what are often serious problems.

What do you enjoy doing outside lawyering?

I like gardening, mowing the lawn, playing a little golf very badly, and going to Nelson. I am a prolific reader of "The New York Times" "The New Yorker", "The New York Review of Books," "The Guardian" and "The Daily Telegraph." I mourn the decline of newspapers in New Zealand.

What music do you listen to?

My wife and I subscribe to the New Zealand Symphony series in Wellington and the Wellington Orchestra. We go to a lot of concerts and are avid theatre goers. Wellington is nearly as good as New York in regard to cultural attractions.

My favourite piece of music is Beethoven's Seventh Symphony that my wife studied at University and introduced me to. I also like "The Trumpet Voluntary."

What are you reading at the moment?

Jenny Hocking's "Gough Whitlam-His Time" (Revised ed., Miegunyah Press, South Carlton, 2014). I worked for the Whitlam Government and was in Canberra on the day of the dismissal in 1975, a constitutional event that shocks me still.

The best movie and TV shows I've seen?

My wife Margaret and I attend many movies. The best I have seen lately was Brooklyn and I loved Mahana. Television is wasteland. But I admire "Borgen."

It is the most realistic dramatisation of politics that I have seen.

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Last updated on the 12th April 2016