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Denis McGrath CBE, 1910-1986

By Tim Blennerhassett

Denis McGrath died at Wellington on 14 June 1986, just before his 76th birthday.

Born in 1910, he was the eldest of three sons of John Joseph McGrath, one of many West Coasters who made their mark in the capital and of whom memorable tales are still told.

Denis suffered ill-health as a youngster and surprised his friends with the effervescent vigour which characterised his working life and was quenched only in his last sad years. Educated at St Patrick's College, he graduated LLB from Victoria University College in 1932 and joined his father in partnership in 1933 under the firm name JJ & Denis McGrath.

The great depression was at its worst, and Denis told me that they didn't go down to the office in January as there was nothing to do.

As the practice regained momentum it was dislocated again by the 1939-45 war in which Denis' service included a period with the Security Intelligence Bureau. He had some hilarious reminiscences of that, but some serious ones too. 

In 1944 he married Margaret Fraser, and they had four children — John (the eldest) and Gordon (the youngest), both of whom followed their father and grandfather into the law, and Caroline and Helen. He was devoted to his wife and children, and they to him.

JJ McGrath died in 1946 and Denis carried on alone for five years with a distinguished succession of qualified clerks including Roy Stacey, Bernard Cullinane, George Barton and Gordon Orr. I succeeded Gordon in 1950 and was Denis' partner for 20 years from 1951 — we opened our doors under the new firm name on the same day as did the merged ANZ Bank and enjoyed reminding the bank of that fact as oc­casion arose.

During those years we were augmented by Keith Robinson and later by John McGrath. We had, with hindsight, no idea of the monetary value of our services, and we had great fun.

When I decided to accept an invita­tion to join another firm it was characteristic of our partnership, and of Denis, that there was a common resolve to show how that kind of thing could be done well.

Two episodes of my first day in the office remain vividly with me. First, Denis threw me his car keys and sent me off to the annual meeting of an outlying Licensing Committee which had sweeping powers under the 1908 Act and was thought likely to refuse, or at least to adjourn, the renewal of the client's publican's licence until something was done about the premises. "Whatever undertakings they want, just give them," said Denis "and if there's anything wrong with the papers, ask for a Certificate of Waiver and you'll get it."

All at sea, I asked about the Com­mittee's authority to grant such a cer­tificate. Denis grinned irresistably.

"There isn't any — but they don't know either." Fortunately the Chair­man, AA McLachlan SM, observed my jelly-like state, granted my applica­tion instantly, and gave two seasoned campaigners in Perry Shorland and David Perry a hard time instead. 

At the end of the day a would-be client came in, nominally for a drink. He was the managing director of a company which was powerful in the licensed trade. Denis had evolved a novel variant of the "No remittance" import licence and had enabled his hotel clients to steal a huge march on their competitors by breaking over­night the drought in spirits which had prevailed since the war. This little ses­sion was my first taste of the fabled McGrath hospitality, and it was riotously funny. But Denis declined to act. The fruits of his innovative think­ing belonged to his own loyal clients.

He had a wide family and commer­cial practice, by no means confined to the trade, but liquor law was certainly a field in which he excelled. He acted for many years for Ballins Breweries Ltd of which he was a director, and he was for Ballins, and the late Roy Christie for New Zealand Breweries, in the complex exchange of assets and long-term trading arrangements set up in 1958.

Each separately told me afterwards of the personal joy and professional satisfaction which he had derived from working with the other in that difficult matter.

The last to claim profundity as a lawyer, Denis was an astute and effec­tive one with a firm grasp of principle, absolute integrity, deceptively strong negotiating skills, a wide knowledge of human nature, and a marvellous ability to dissolve tension with a lightning sal­ly designed to bring parties in confrontation to their senses.

He worked very hard for his profes­sion and for his city. First elected to the Council of Wellington District Law Society in 1957, he served that Society with his customary blend of enthusiasm and wisdom until 1966 when he was its President. 

In 1968 he found himself propelled into the New Zealand Presidency where his three-year term spanned the assertion of con­trol over contributory mortgage management by means of the nominee company system as well as the centenary of the Society in 1969. But his greatest gift to the profession was in 1961 and was its building.

To the powers of advocacy of HRC Wild QC (as Sir Richard then was) were added Denis' political skills, and they took a major role in a campaign which overcame opposition, assuaged doubt, cajoled a reluctant profession and secured for the Society the Waring Taylor Street property which it owns today.

Denis was first elected to the Wellington City Council in 1947, called a halt in 1956, rejoined the fray in 1959 and was deputy-mayor from 1962 to 1965. He represented the city on the Council of Victoria University. He chaired with outstanding skill some difficult committees and commanded, as in his Law Society work, the affec­tion and loyalty of his officers.

At the request of Government he chaired Committees of Enquiry into equal pay for women and into industrial issues affecting airlines. His services to the profession and to the community were recognised by the award of a CBE in 1972.

Now he has gone. His widow — whose unremitting care we have so greatly admired — and his family will keep his memory green. There are tangible memorials: practitioners will think of him as they visit the Law Society building, and citizens as they traverse the footbridge which bears his name and straddles the motorway by the Bolton Street cemetery. 

And while any of us continues, as I do, to refer to a suspect undertaking as an Irishman's verbal assurance (not worth the paper it's written on); or to admonish staff struggling with multiple offers to be off with the old love before being on with the new; or to reproach clients, on whose behalf a hard-won compromise has been negotiated, for settling a very promising dispute; or to opine, with respect to a grateful client, that the answer to the question "How can I ever thank you?" has never been in doubt since the Phoenicians invented money; or to regale claimants, for whom there is not enough in the pot to satisfy them all, with the West Coast ditty:

"Two bottles of beer between the four of us —
Praise be to God there aren't any more of us";

the sense of fun and the warm generous spirit will still be among us.

This was first published in the August 1986 issue of Council Brief, the monthly newsletter of the Wellington District Law Society.

Last updated on the 7th October 2016