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Helen Kelly, 1964 - 2016

By Nick Butcher

They say only the good die young and former Council of Trade Union president Helen Kelly is testament to that song by Billy Joel.

Helen Kelly died on 14 October 2016 aged 52 and will be remembered for standing up for workers’ rights all over the country, but one of the least known facts about the unions’ most powerful voice in recent years was that she had a Bachelor of Laws degree.

Nigel Hampton QC who was acting for the Miners Union during the Royal Commission on the Pike River Mine explosion met Helen Kelly about five years ago.

Photo of Helen Kelly

That report into what led to the deaths of 29 miners came out in 2012.

Helen Kelly was the Council of Trade Unions president and was making submissions on behalf of the unions.

“In 2014 I met Helen again when she was mounting a campaign to reduce serious injury and death in the forestry industry and just by a chance email I said if I can help, let me know,” he says.

He says Ms Kelly wasted no time in taking up his offer.

“Within a day there was a box of files on my front door step. That was Helen: she had an enthusiasm and vigour about her that was really quite infectious and if she engaged with you, you could quite easily get drawn into her cause and I did,” he says.

Mr Hampton reviewed the files which pointed at many of the deaths that had occurred in the forestry industry as being preventable.

It was a conclusion that Nigel Hampton QC agreed with after reading the reports.

“The material in the file was sufficient in Helen’s view that a proper investigation had not been carried out and I formed the same view immediately after reading the material she had prepared,” he says.

And last year the Council of Trade Unions won two private prosecutions against two separate logging companies in relation to the work place deaths of two employees.

Both cases, which the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment did not want to prosecute, were led by Mr Hampton pro bono.

There are many cases involving ordinary workers that Helen Kelly fought for.

She was not the sort of person who would back down and Mr Hampton says the charges being dropped against the former chief executive of Pike River Mine, Peter Whittall in return for a $3.41 million insurance pay-out to the families of the 29 men killed in the disaster was another example of her unbridled determination.

She wouldn’t accept what she considered blood money over justice.

The High Court dismissed an application for judicial review in November 2015 and even though Ms Kelly was slowly succumbing to lung cancer, behind the scenes she continued to support the action taken by Anna Osborne (whose husband Milton Osborne was killed in the explosion) and Sonya Rockhouse (whose son Ben Rockhouse was killed in the explosion).

The case is now before the Court of Appeal.  

“Helen was very keen to appeal the decision and the CTU backed it. It was argued about two months ago and we are awaiting a decision. I was very hopeful the decision would come out before Helen’s death because it was something that was very dear to her,” Mr Hampton says.

Mr Hampton says the causes she espoused, including health and safety in the forestry industry, were both human and humane.

“She had a great deal of empathy for those that had lost fathers, sons, husbands and was prepared to give a great deal of herself for what she saw and I see as justice for those people.

"Having said that, she didn’t operate on emotion. It was her legal training that helped make her a very clear and analytical thinker,” he says.

That’s something many people were perhaps unaware of. Helen Kelly had been chipping away at a law degree having studied some papers in the 1990s, and she gained a Bachelor of Laws in 2006 from the University of Victoria.

“When preparing for those cases whether it was Pike River or Forestry, she could sit down with you and not only discuss the evidential intricacies and what was and what wasn’t admissible, she would understand that and she understood fully the principles that were behind health and safety legislation or judicial review so you would have with her a discussion that you would not normally have with a trade unionist, but rather a lawyer,” he says.

Mr Hampton says although Ms Kelly was not admitted as a barrister and solicitor and did not practise law, she had all of the qualities you would expect to find in a good lawyer.

“I think its testament to her that she could hold down an important job and the range of work that went with it and meanwhile managed to find time to finish a law degree, she was quite remarkable,” he says.

Peter Cranney is a Wellington employment lawyer and had been friends with Helen Kelly for about 40-years.

“I knew her father. She grew up in a union house, a unionist from the beginning, an internationalist, she travelled on behalf of the CTU to the International Labour Organisation conference and fought arguments there, she was a voice for the rights of refugees to work too and that wasn’t necessarily all that popular amongst unions,” he says.

Helen Kelly has a legal bloodline as she was also related to the former Chief Justice, Sir Thomas Eichelbaum.

“Her wider family were originally refugees who fled Nazi Germany,” he says.

Mr Cranney says her involvement in legal matters started well before the forestry prosecutions and the Pike River Enquiry.

“She was heavily involved in equal pay employment disputes such as Terranova, the sleepover litigation (for disability support workers) and also litigation with meat companies owned by Talley’s.

"She really saw the legal work as being an aspect of the Council of Trade Unions movement. She saw it as important and useful to bring arguments into the open. A lot of people don’t know how instrumental she was. She was horrified by the Pike River situation where charges were dropped against the former CEO in return for the $3.41 million insurance pay out,” he says.

Mr Cranney says Helen Kelly was at the Court of Appeal hearing about two months ago along with himself and Nigel Hampton QC. She also attended the High Court judicial review last year.

“She was in these court cases with an empty yoghurt container in front of her and sick from the chemotherapy she was receiving. She had a bossy streak, so determined she was. Most of what we achieved in court wouldn’t have happened without her giving direction,” he says.

Returning to the forestry private prosecutions, Mr Cranney says it all started with a road trip to Whakatane and Tokoroa to meet families who had lost people to industry accidents.

“They were quite suspicious of us at first because they didn’t know what we were up to. We wanted to find out what happened to their family members and in the end they became some of our closest mates,” he says.

He says when Nigel Hampton QC came on board, he never charged a cent for all of the work he did.

“Many of these families affected by deaths in the forestry industry and Pike River Mine have been at Helen’s home where her body lies, to show their gratitude,” he says.

“She was the right person at the right time in history saying the sort of things she was saying.

"When we were in Tokoroa, after a long day we were about to go and grab some dinner and Helen told me, 'I need you to go and talk with this Ukrainian woman who was sacked from her supermarket job.'

"That lady who was building a life in her adopted country was one of the first people who sent me a text message on the day Helen died to say how sad she was and grateful for her support during a tough time. People from everywhere would turn to Helen, it became quite problematic in a way because she was not very good at saying no to people,” he says with a laugh.

While Helen Kelly possessed a law degree, Mr Cranney doesn’t think she aspired to become a practising lawyer.

“I doubt it. She wasn’t big time into status. She would’ve been a good lawyer and did consider it a couple of times as something she might do if she left the Council of Trade Unions. When she got sick she told me she wanted to come and work in my office. She only came in a couple of times,” Mr Cranney says with a chuckle.

Helen Kelly wasn’t deeply serious all the time as her work would otherwise suggest.

“She was great fun. Many of these cases we worked on involved reading some really sad facts. She would keep us all going. She had tremendous energy. She wasn’t someone that drained energy from others even when she was dying, she provided energy.

"She wasn’t a moaner or a groaner and kept working right up until she died, she didn’t really stop, even when she resigned from the CTU she just carried on with the same issues,” he says.

Ms Kelly is perhaps an immortalised inspiration for people who are terminally ill to never give up on what they love most – living.

“She was so open about her illness and talked about it in the media. It was good because people who were in similar situations could feel like they were not on their own, she broke down barriers and had a lot of contact with people who were as unwell as her,” he says.

Mr Cranney says Helen Kelly never drew a sharp dividing line between what was work and what wasn’t and while many people succumb to lung cancer quickly, perhaps her drive and passion for what she did was what kept her alive for 18 months after being diagnosed with the fatal illness.

“She found it difficult of course. Sometimes she couldn’t walk but we all just adjusted ourselves to her situation. I’m still overcome by it because she has become one of the most talked about people in the country because she looked outward not inward during her illness, so unique, just a really good person,” he says.

Another lawyer, Fleur Fitzsimons, is a solicitor for the Public Service Association and was at law school with Helen Kelly.

“It was clear at law school that she had an incisive legal mind and a real intellectual curiosity and depth. She would have made an incredible practitioner. She just had that right balance of being a really strong advocate, a nose for injustice or unfairness accompanied with this genuine understanding of legal reasoning. She was also just so kind,” she says.

Ms Fitzsimons remembers Helen Kelly as fiercely committed.

“I was possibly a little less committed at the time and Helen was very good at sharing notes. If I occasionally missed a lecture, she was very generous in providing very detailed and excellent notes,” she says.

Ms Fitzsimons says there would be all sorts of cross references, adding that Helen Kelly lifted the spirit of many difficult law classes.

“She had this incredible skill that lawyers need, to be able to distill large amounts of information into facts. I remember when we won the sleepover case. She was so excited and rang us to congratulate everyone who worked on it. There was also the 90-day work trial case. She would put us lawyers onto all the people that were affected, just an incredible person to have known and worked with,” she says.

Helen Kelly was only 52 years old yet her reach, influence and impact on people would suggest she lived much longer.

There have been many tributes paid to her over the past week from all corners of the country including that from the Council of Trade Unions president, Richard Wagstaff.

“Helen lived her commitment to fairness and justice every day. She was generous, creative, innovative, inspired and determined. She dreamed big and worked hard – and we’re a better country for her achievements,” he says.

Pike River Families spokesman Bernie Monk says all of the families were saddened by her death.

“When Pike River happened, she was on our doorstep the first day. And she never left our doorstep," he says.

WorkSafe New Zealand chief executive, Gordon MacDonald says she was committed and passionate about health and safety.

“She was a constant presence, sometimes a critic and sometimes a supporter but without a doubt always intent on making life healthier and safer for people at work,” he says.

And watch this space because her legacy is about to spread into the next generation as her son Dylan is studying law at the University of Auckland, an interest Peter Cranney and Nigel Hampton QC say was derived from the many legal cases involving ordinary New Zealanders he witnessed his mother being so heavily involved in.

So perhaps he will finish where his mother who held that hard-earned law degree started and one day be admitted and practise law.

A public farewell and celebration of Helen Kelly's life will be held on Friday, 28 October 2016 at the Michael Fowler Centre, in Wellington.

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Last updated on the 20th October 2016