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Alister FitzGerald Macalister QSM, 1922 - 2017

By Chris Ryan

Alister Macalister, who died on 25 January 2017 aged 94, spent all his practising career at Wellington law firm Macalister Mazengarb. He is particularly remembered for his participation in several high-profile inquiries including that of the Erebus disaster.

Alister Macalister was born on 20 October 1922 and grew up in Wadestown. He went to school at Wellesley College, then based on The Terrace near the Wellington Club, and was head prefect. He excelled at games and, unusually for the time, studied shorthand and typing as well as Latin, French and history among other subjects.

The law often seems to run in families and did so in this case. Alister’s father was Sir Robert Macalister, mayor of Wellington in the early 1950s and a leading light at Macalister Mazengarb. His grandfather on his mother’s side was William FitzGerald, a partner in Chapman and Fitzgerald, predecessor of Chapman Tripp.

Royal Navy service in submarines

Alister left school at the end of 1939 and began studying law at Victoria University. However, the Second World War intervened and in 1940 he was conscripted into the army. He underwent basic military training but at some point, apparently at his own request, he was permitted to transfer to the Royal Navy and set off for the UK where he joined the submarine service. He was one of the few Kiwis who served in submarines with the Royal Navy during the war. He told his son John that on VE day he took the surrender of four u-boats in Norway. “I was unarmed – I really hoped the u-boat captains knew that the Germans had surrendered!” he said.

After VE day Alister transferred to the Pacific and was in Australia when Japan surrendered. He was on board a submarine when it joined celebrations in Melbourne, apparently the only time a submarine had sailed up the Yarra River to the heart of Melbourne.

Back in New Zealand following the war, he picked up his legal studies at Victoria. As a returned serviceman he was exempted from some degree requirements. He said he was particularly grateful to be credited with a pass in Latin, then a requirement of a law degree.

He was admitted to the bar on 18 February 1949 and joined his father’s firm of Macalister Mazengarb Parkin and Rose, where he had already been working for some time as a law clerk. He soon met his future wife Shirley Cotter, then working at the Lower Hutt magistrate's court. They were married in 1955, and went on to have five sons. Alister and Shirley initially settled in Thorndon but with the beginnings of construction of the Wellington motorway they moved to Wadestown in 1964.

High-profile inquiries

Alister’s practice at Macalister Mazengarb largely concerned family trusts, wills, property and the like. However, his career was noted by several high-profile inquiries into air or marine accidents. The first of these was the inquiry into the crash of a National Airways Corporation DC-3 into the Kaimai range in 1963 with the loss of 23 lives. Robin Buxton, friend and previously a Macalister Mazengarb partner, says Alister’s job was defending the air crew against blame from management.

“For the Kaimai inquiry the pilots’ organisation looked around for someone who understood navigation and guiding vessels whether ships or planes and Alister fitted the bill,” he said.

As a result of his success in this case Alister became the long-term legal adviser to the Airline Pilots’ Association and also to mariners’ organisations. Among a number of inquiries he worked on over the years were those concerning the loss of the interisland ferry Wahine in 1968, the Erebus air disaster of 1979, and the sinking of the Soviet luxury liner Mikhail Lermentov in Tory Channel in 1986. In each case he was successful.

“The fundamental issues in the Erebus inquiry were all related to navigation and to the briefing the air crew had received – Alister with his navy background was the ideal person for that, something that a barrister was not going to master overnight,” said Robin Buxton.

Alister was honorary solicitor to the New Zealand Company of Master Mariners and was a member of its Wellington branch for many years. He represented many ships’ masters at various inquiries.

He retired from the partnership at Macalister Mazengarb in 1987 at the age of 65. He soon realised that retirement did not suit him and cast around for something worthwhile to do, finding it in the Police Complaints Authority where he became an investigator. He eventually became chief investigator for the authority and dealt with a number of difficult and gruesome cases including the Aramoana shooting of 1990.

More time for yachting

Alister had always been a keen yachtsman and after he retired for the second time in 1992 had the time to put more of his boundless energies into sailing. He had bought a 39-foot Camelot model yacht Nirvana in 1972, on board which the Macalister family enjoyed many holidays sailing in Queen Charlotte Sound, Nelson and the Bay of Islands. In succeeding years he also raced around the Pacific, to Fiji and New Caledonia and other islands, and circumnavigated the South Island a couple of times. Robin Buxton sailed with Alister on several Cook Strait races, and also sailed from Wellington to the Chatham Islands and back in the 1980s.

Alister was active in the Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club, served as its commodore from 1972 to 1975 and was a life member.

Queen’s Service Medal

He was closely involved with the Henderson Trust, the successor to the ‘Mayor of Thorndon Blind Kiddies Appeal’, that raised funds for visually impaired children until the mid-1980s. Alister drew up the trust deed of the Henderson Trust Fund in 1984 and continued to serve the appeal and the trust fund for over 50 years. He was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal in 2013 for services to the blind.

Ian McAulay, former president of New Zealand Airline Pilots Association, writing recently on the New Zealand Company of Master Mariners website, praised Alister’s work with airline pilots… “He gave of himself in a big way to airline pilots over many years and was dominant during the Erebus enquiry and after… His services were invaluable and he handled complicated matters with a cool calm that acquired sensible conclusions. Goodbye, dear friend. You set a standard that I will never forget.”

Robin Buxton says Alister was a very straight and straight-forward man. “You always knew where you were with Alister. In my experience, even in stressful occasions in the office or yachting, there was never a cross word. He was generous with his time, on the yacht or in his practice. He never became involved in legal politics. His arguments were always well-reasoned and his judgements sound. He was always looking for practical solutions to any problem and he usually found one.”

This was first published in the March 2017 issue of Council Brief, the monthly newsletter of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Law Society.

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Last updated on the 1st March 2017