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The value of friendship in law: Three lawyers from the class of ’64 reminisce

04 October 2019 - By Nick Butcher

Collegiality and friendship in the legal community is important in a profession that is becoming increasingly digital.

Perhaps the best people to ask about the value of human connection between old colleagues are ‘old colleagues’.

John Upton QC, Sir David Carruthers and Geoff Thompson all graduated from the University of Victoria in the class of 1964. They’ve all had very different careers. Sir David was the Chief District Court Judge, Geoff Thompson was President of the National Party, and an MP for Horowhenua, as well as a practising lawyer, and John Upton QC continues to practice as a barrister.

The class of 1964
Class of 1964 at a reunion at Government House in Wellington

Those university days have led to a friendship that has endured for over 50 years. They all travelled different paths through the law, but as Nick Butcher discovered, they’re a tight unit and still great mates after all these years.

I was somewhat nervous about having coffee with a Queen’s Counsel, a Knight and a former Member of Parliament. However, what I did find was three very normal men, who enjoy ribbing each other, something you can get away with when you’ve been friends for five decades.

“Here’s Uppy in his flash suit. Look at you”, Sir David Carruthers says pointing to John Upton QC who still practises law and was dropping into the swanky La Cloche café in central Wellington.

Sir David and Geoff Thompson were dressed more casual in sweaters. Their plans for the day were, perhaps, a bit more relaxed than appearing in court.

“We all met at university and were involved in the usual sorts of activities such as the law faculty club,” says Mr Upton.

“Are we going to talk about what we got up to at university?” says Sir David.

“War stories?” I say.

“We haven’t got enough time,” says Mr Thompson.

Studying law in their day

Back in the 1960s, the basic law degree took five years to complete and Victoria University classes were held in the old brick Hunter Building, unlike nowadays where they are held at the restored Old Government Buildings. It included two years full-time study with the rest part-time while working in an office as a law clerk. Some classes were held during the day while others were after work. Often, their lecturers were practising lawyers too.

“It was just part of the deal. The firm you worked for encouraged you to study. They regarded you as an asset. They’d give you time off to study for your end of year exams, they were different times,” says Mr Thompson, who worked for the Public Trust in those days.

One of the law school surprises at the time was the compulsory study of Roman law.

“We wondered why on earth we had to learn this, however it was an introduction to a legal system. It did relate to the law of equity and property. But really it just felt like an exercise in mind training in that it got you familiar with ideas,” says Mr Upton.

The study of Roman law replaced a previous requirement of compulsory Latin, as part of the degree.

The reunion at Government House

These former university friends never expected to have kept in contact for 50 years, and an even bigger reunion was something very special.

Recently, the class of 1964, which also included prominent lawyers and judges such as, Sir Ken Keith who was the first New Zealander to be elected to the International Court of Justice, Sir Douglas Kidd and Bill Falconer, held a reunion at Government House. One of the class of ’64, Sir David Gascoigne, is married to the Governor-General, Dame Patsy Reddy and lives there. Sir Anand Satyanand is also part of the group, although he was not from ’64 and actually attended Auckland University.

John Upton QC says he was given honorary membership some years ago, but that’s another story.

“He’s our honorary patron pursuant to our non-existent rule book.”

“We had a special dinner in the state dining room, toasted to absent friends, a toast to the class of ‘64 and we had a few speeches by various members,” Mr Upton says.

“We all have a friendship that’s endured over that time and become richer and more precious. We’ve lost a few classmates in recent years which is why we really treasure these reunions,” he says.

Back in 1964, the class of 35 students had only one woman studying law. In contrast, today, 60% of graduates from law school are women. They remembered that there was one Samoan student, one Fijian, and some Colombo Plan students, who were students from underdeveloped countries that had gained Government-assisted funding from a body made up of countries that met in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Who started these reunions?

“I think it was organic,” says Sir David laughing.

It turns out it had its beginnings in 1994 at Sir David’s house. John Shaw, who was also part of the class of ’64, worked for a liquor company at the time so they figured there might be the possibility of a discount on refreshments for the event.

There were also reunions held at upmarket Bellamys, an eating institution in the Beehive.

“Sir Douglas Kidd, a lawyer, an MP and Speaker of the House of Representatives, pressed the right buttons to make that happen,” says John Upton QC.

These days, people are professionally connected through online sites such as LinkedIn or socially through Facebook. But these lawyers are a bit more traditional and simply picked up the telephone.

“One of the intriguing things to me was the fact that we would all meet every five years and just pick up things where we left off. You’d resume your conversations,” John Upton says.

Geoff Thompson says while they all moved in different directions after law school, the common thread was ’64.

“Roger Clark for example. He’s involved in leading class actions with respect of the death penalty in the United States. He also represented Samoa before the United Nations in a major case at The Hague,” Sir David says.

Absent friends

Not everyone was at the reunion because time has caught up and some have died. And one member of the class of ’64 was struck off the roll of barristers and solicitors.

“We don’t know where he’s gone. He shall remain nameless but he was struck off for defalcations and eventually went to jail. We’ve not seen him in years and don’t know whether he is even still alive. He turned up to one reunion a long time ago after he was released from jail. You’d have thought that nothing had happened to him as he was as large as life, but then he vanished,” Mr Upton says.

The lawyers all agree that access to justice is one of the most challenging issues for the justice system in New Zealand. They also say climate change is something that needs to be taken very seriously by all generations.

John Upton plants a lot of trees in Hawke’s Bay, where he has a property.

“It’s not for me to benefit but for my children and grandchildren. We’ve got about 220 different species of trees. That includes about 20 different species of gum tree or more commonly called eucalyptus. We’re very into wetland development too,” he says.

We returned to talking about law again and this time observations about past judges.

“Looking back when we all started there were judges of the Supreme Court – before it became the High Court – who we thought were incredibly old. But they were probably only in their 40s or 50s,” says Mr Upton.

He remembers some of the names of judges he appeared before back in the old days such as Sir Harold Barrowclough, Sir Douglas Hutchison, and Sir Alec Haslam.

Sir David Carruthers and Geoff Thompson add that an ideal place to sharpen up on legal skills was to attend court and watch other lawyers in action. Mr Thompson says many lawyers have turned into successful commercial leaders, such as Barry Dineen and Lindsay Ferguson, who were both part of the class of ’64.

“Barry Dineen worked for Shell Oil in New Zealand, Nigeria, and the United Kingdom. He actually played cricket for Nigeria against Ghana back in his day,” John Upton says.

And ending on the subject of sport, Sir David, Geoff and John, all predict that the All Blacks will win the Rugby World Cup for a third time in succession. Whether their prediction is correct is something we will all have to wait a little longer to find out.

Last updated on the 4th October 2019