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John Barr Stevenson, 1936 - 2017

By Chris Ryan

Former Izard Weston lawyer John Stevenson, described as an “affable, generous, humane and knowledgeable” man, died on 1 June 2017 aged 80.

John Barr Stevenson was a successful and enterprising lawyer. With a “sharp legal brain”, he was intellectually curious, a great reader and always looked forward to “opening the books”, as he put it, when he came upon a previously unfamiliar area of the law.

Born on 27 December 1936, John Stevenson grew up as the eldest of four brothers, each separated by two years, in idyllic rural surroundings near Porirua. Here, the boys ran, swam, fished and rode horses almost as soon as they could walk. John’s brother Dan Stevenson said they rode horses with no saddle or stirrups until they were 12.

“My father, who had been in the Indian Cavalry after the First World War, insisted on it so you would get your balance right – we had a sheepskin with a girth around it, then you got your saddle for your twelfth birthday. Once John fell from his horse Tahi and broke his ankle – he was more concerned that they had to cut off his new riding boot than with the broken ankle.”

John’s father, John Francis Barr Stevenson, who left New Zealand with the First Main Body in 1914, served at Gallipoli, the Somme and after the war with the British army in India. He was known to many – including his sons – as “the colonel”. A long-time partner at Izard Weston, Mr Stevenson was a fervent believer in the power of education and did his utmost to launch his sons into the world in the best way he could. John Stevenson started school in Porirua, and then was sent to Huntly School as a boarder at the age of seven, and on to Wanganui Collegiate.

In 1956, again through his father’s good offices, John went off to Cambridge University to undertake the three-year under-graduate course. It was a formative experience. After doing his six months’ compulsory military training, he set off to travel from New Zealand overland through Asia to the UK, arriving at Trinity Hall, Cambridge in time for the academic year.  John said he felt overwhelmed at first to be part of a college that traced its origins to the thirteenth century, but soon warmed to the rich heritage and the intellectual inspiration of the place.

While at Cambridge, he joined the University Air Squadron, which was a feeder establishment for the RAF at the time, and put in over 100 hours flying time mostly in de Havilland Chipmunk trainer aircraft.

He finished his degree in 1959 and joined Gray’s Inn as a junior in chambers while completing his London bar exams. On return to Wellington early in 1960 he was admitted to the bar and joined his father’s firm Izard Weston where he was to spend his entire legal career.

He and his brother Dan, younger by four years, enjoyed working closely together at Izard Weston for almost forty years. John told Dan that he loved the law, its intellectual stimulation, and “because you never know what’s coming through the office door”.

He was a general practitioner and enjoyed working with a variety of clients. He did general family law, estates and wills, and commercial work. He also took part in a number of memorable cases including successfully acting for the Wellington Harbour Board during the Wahine inquiry, and for the publisher of Spycatcher: the candid autobiography of a senior intelligence officer written by former MI5 officer Peter Wright in 1987. In the latter case the UK government attempted to halt the book’s publication in New Zealand and Australia and several other jurisdictions. John acted for Independent Newspapers Ltd which had publication rights in New Zealand, succeeding with the defence that the material in the book was already in the public domain.

John also acted in a number of defamation cases and, along with other Izard Weston practitioners, over many years helped to vet major articles in The Dominion newspaper before they were published.

Outside of work John had a myriad of interests, fascinations and activities. A friend Richard Ward speaking at John’s funeral described him this way: “Always welcoming, attentive, kind and considerate; lawyer, historian, farmer, intrepid tramper, camper, skier, horse rider, boatman, fisherman, collector of indigenous artifacts, environmentalist, gardener, cattle drover and stock yard builder, most importantly a teacher and leader…”

He was elsewhere described as a “beautiful human being …  a giver who revelled in seeing those around him achieve, whether learning to drive a boat, catch a fish, write a CV, or to ski – and he asked nothing in return … He was like a human Google – his knowledge of history was second to none … All with a cheeky smile and a twinkle in his eye – a lovely man.”

John’s son Harry, recalling his own childhood, described his father’s lack of self-consciousness when playing “war” with him and his friends. He spoke of bemused neighbours watching a well-to-do Wellington lawyer stealthily creeping along the edge of the bushes armed with a wooden gun, “… attempting to outflank our position in the slip trench he had allowed us to dig in the garden of his stately home’s front lawn…”

John and his wife Gendy Stevenson, who were together for 30 years, bought a lifestyle block at Te Horo on unforgiving sandhill country, and together, along with regional council assistance, restored a boggy weedy area there into a wetland of national significance attracting rare breeding birds.

In 2005 John and Gendy spent a memorable time in Colombia visiting Harry’s wife’s home and family there. “Senor John”, as he was known in Colombia, and Gendy “… danced at every fiesta, drank every shot of aguardiente that was offered to them, and they were an absolute hit.”

Skiing was a great love of John’s and he was still going up the mountain at the age of 76. He played a big part in the planning and building of the Graduates Ski Club at Whakapapa in the 1960s.

John was on the committee of the Wellington Club for a number of years, and was a champion of the move to admit women members at that time.

John Stevenson had been ill for some time with Parkinson’s and eventually succumbed to complications resulting from the disease. He and Gendy had been stalwart members of the Kapiti-Horowhenua branch of Parkinson’s NZ for a number of years. John asked that his brain be gifted to the Centre for Brain Research at the University of Auckland where significant research work into Parkinson’s is going on. Close friends Sir Roderick and Gillian Lady Deane have funded a John Stevenson Research Scholarship for a student to work at the Centre this coming summer.

Younger brother Dan Stevenson says it was a joy to work with John at Izard Weston for so many years. “Not long before he died, as sick as he was, he said to me ‘Thanks for all the fun’.”

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

Last updated on the 30th August 2017