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Douglas Alexander Wilson, 1952 – 1990

Douglas Alexander Wilson died at Wellington on 14 September 1990 at the age of 38 years.

Born in Wainuiomata, he was brought up in Borneo and the Cook Islands as well as New Zealand and completed his secondary schooling at Waitaki Boys’ High School. He graduated in law with first class honours from Victoria University of Wellington at the end of 1975 and, for a year or so, worked for McIlroy Cochrane & Co in Wellington.

Then, in 1977, he took up employment with the Department of Lands and Survey as a National Park Ranger at Tongariro National Park. He received formal training and extensive practical experience in administration, management, staff training and leadership with particular responsibilities for search and rescue work, for the operation of the Whakapapa Ambulance Service and for the Whakapapa Ski Patrol.

In 1981 he was granted leave of absence for a year to participate in the Dingle/Hillary “Traverse of the Himalaya” Expedition as leader of the support party. There he was responsible over a period of 11 months for organising logistic support for a party of eight during a 5,000 km trek which extended across three countries and necessitated his dealing with three bureaucracies. Here, even more vividly than at Tongariro National Park, emerged the remarkable organisational skills which were later to become so notable a feature of his practising career in the law. In due course he and his wife Ann Louise Mitcalfe, wrote a book about the expedition entitled Himalaya: Trekking from Sikkim to Pakistan which was published by Hodder & Stoughton in New Zealand, the United Kingdom and India.

The book is as revealing as it is entertaining. More than just a travel book, it speaks eloquently of the beauty and hostility of the roof of the world – and of the delight which Doug and Ann shared in outdoor life.

Returning to New Zealand in November 1981, Doug came to Chapman Tripp as a solicitor on the litigation side. He became a partner in the firm – by then Chapman Tripp Sheffield Young – on 1 October 1985, over four years before he found, in November 1989, that he was ill and probably mortally so.

But, just as he packed into his 38 years a list of achievements which few of us could muster in 76, so did he put together during his short practising life a remarkable record of service to his firm, to its clients, and to the profession. He was a good lawyer, and a superb organiser of case, adept in marshalling and controlling the paperwork, the exhibits, the evidence, the witnesses in as number of vastly complex and difficult civil cases and inquiries. His mastery of the facts of a case was a revelation to others involved in it – he believed, as an advocate, in knowing the facts better than did anyone else. And he drove himself constantly to self-improvement.

In the wider context of the New Zealand profession, many will remember the travelling seminar which he and Terence Arnold presented on the preparation of a plaintiff’s case in the District Court. His finest monument, however, must be the New Zealand Law Society’s residential Litigation Skills course which offers a splendid example of what can be done by a professional body, in enhancing the skills and standards of its members to the public benefit.

Doug, in 1984, attended such a course run by the National Institute for Trial Advocacy in Denver, Colorado. He spoke afterwards about it in Canada with Terence Arnold, himself familiar with the training method used, and they agreed that such a course would be valuable in New Zealand. There, one suspects, most of us would have left it.

Terence returned to New Zealand four months later to find Doug in full flight – bullying, cajoling, persuading, and totally determined to see it happen. That it did happen, that it continued, that it has grown in strength and stature, and that the Society operates a Scholarship Trust to help meet the cost of attendance in appropriate cases – these things are the product of a team effort by many eminent and selfless people. But it was Doug who drove it all into being.

Much the same might be said of the New Zealand edition of Mauet: Fundamentals of Trial Techniques. Someone remarked that it would be a good idea, and Doug thought so too. Again the work is the product of a team effort by many distinguished lawyers. Again, however, it was Doug’s determination and tenacity which furnished the initial driving force.

These are the shining examples, but there were many other achievements as well. It is right to say that, in his chosen fields and after so short a time, Douglas Wilson has left our profession better than he found it. Given more time, he would have gone to the top.

None of us who knew him will easily forget the calmness, resolution and complete absence of self-pity with which he met his illness. We offer our heartfelt sympathy to Ann, to Alexander (not yet three) and to the other members of his family.

By Tim Blennerhassett. 

This obituary was published in LawTalk 337, 10 October 1990, page 5.

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Last updated on the 11th May 2012