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John Livingston Marshall QC CNZM, 1946 - 2015

By Geoff Adlam

John Marshall QC died in Wellington on 14 June 2015. He was aged 68. Mr Marshall was a highly respected advocate and leader of the legal profession, renowned for his calm and inclusive style. He successfully took New Zealand's lawyers through major changes in regulation of the profession and ably led the Transport Accident Investigation Commission in several complex and difficult investigations.

"John Marshall possessed a quiet determination which was tempered by reason and concern for the welfare of others. New Zealand has lost an outstanding lawyer and the legal profession mourns," New Zealand Law Society President Chris Moore says.

John was born on 12 September 1946 in Wellington. His parents were Rt Hon Sir John Ross Marshall and Jesse Margaret Livingston. John had two sisters, Elizabeth and Margaret, and a brother, Allan. His father was a National MP (from 1946 to 1975) who spent 12 years as Deputy Prime Minister and was Prime Minister for most of 1972. His mother was a nurse.

photo of John Marshall QC
John Marshall QC.

John went to school at Wellington College, where he was head prefect in 1964. He studied law at Victoria University of Wellington, graduating LLB in 1969. He was admitted as a barrister and solicitor on 28 February 1969.

His first job in the law was as a law clerk and then a junior solicitor with Perry Wylie Pope & Page in Wellington from 1968 to 1969 when he left to travel overseas. He returned in 1971 and worked as a solicitor with Watts & Patterson for two years before joining Buddle Anderson Kent, which became Buddle Findlay. He became a partner after two years and he stayed there until 1997 apart from a year he took out in 1991 when he worked for Blake Dawson Waldron in Perth and was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the High Court of Australia and of the Supreme Court of Western Australia.

Mr Marshall became a barrister sole in 1998, based in Wellington. His ability to navigate through complex issues and aptitude for litigation meant he appeared in the landmark Takaro Properties Ltd v Rowling [1986] 1 NZLR 22; [1987] 2 NZLR 700 proceedings all the way from the High Court and Court of Appeal (where he appeared with Maurice O'Brien QC) to the Privy Council (where George Barton QC led).

During his career he practised in a wide range of areas covering most fields of civil and commercial litigation, public law, Treaty claims, and fisheries law. He became increasingly involved in arbitration and mediation and he was a member of the panel of arbitrators on the AMINZ Arbitration Appeals Panel.

He said he found the alternative dispute resolution work particularly satisfying: "In the space of a day, one is able to assist in resolving disputes that have been festering, sometime, for years. That enables the parties to move on with their lives and gives them a sense of 'ownership' of the settlement."

He once said his most memorable case was Finnigan v New Zealand Rugby Football Union (No 2) [1985] 2 NZLR 181 in which he appeared as junior counsel with EW (later Sir Ted) Thomas QC and (later Chief Justice Dame) Sian Elias for the plaintiffs who successfully obtained an injunction to stop the All Blacks from touring South Africa.

"It was an amazing case," he later recalled. "I like to think it was one of the factors that eventually led to the breakdown of apartheid in South Africa. Much as I love rugby, it was more important in the context of both the interests of rugby in New Zealand and more particularly the interests of black people in South Africa that the tour was stopped." (LawTalk 684, 2 April 2007, page 22).

All three counsel for the plaintiffs worked on a pro bono basis, and the use of legal skills to benefit the community was to become a key concern during John Marshall's career.

"I think quite often the work you do on a pro bono basis is the most satisfying," he said. As President of the New Zealand Law Society he used his address at the first sitting of the Supreme Court in its new building in February 2010 to praise the profession's "fine tradition" of carrying out pro bono work.

"Whenever you have a charity or a community organisation, you will almost always have a lawyer who is its honorary solicitor or provides it with advice. Many other lawyers are members of school boards of trustees or contribute in other ways to the community.

"Quite apart from the importance of contributing to the community and ensuring that people have access to justice, those who become involved in giving advice at community law centres and otherwise assisting people in need of advice at the grassroots level find this professionally and personally satisfying work." (LawTalk 746, 15 March 2010, page 8).

His commitment to access to justice was there right from the start of his legal career. In the early 1970s along with (now Justice) Rhys Harrison he was a member of a group of young lawyers who set up the first two free legal advice centres in Wellington – at Porirua and Newtown. John Marshall convened the Wellington District Law Society's organising committee for several years and was also one of the voluntary lawyers at the centres.

Involvement with a young family (he was on boards of trustees for Kelburn Normal School and Wellington College) and a busy and growing legal career meant there was a gap in his involvement with lawyers' organisations after the legal advice centres.

That changed in 1995 when he became a Wellington District Law Society Council member through until 2003 when he was elected President. From the beginning he made a mark, impressing with his commitment to high standards of courtesy and respect in all that he did.

"His commitment to, and indeed his love for, all that is noble and good about this profession are obvious to all of us who have come to know him," incoming Wellington President Pamela Davidson said at the WDLS AGM in 2004.

"In the speeches and writing that have marked John's term as President, he has often referred to the courtesy and respect that we owe each other as lawyers and the collegiality and camaraderie that come from being part of a profession that is bound by common values. These sentiments strike a chord with all of us and we have seen them in action in John's conduct of the Presidency in the past year. But that is not surprising, for John as a lawyer and as a person epitomises the ideals that make this a unique and honourable profession."

From Wellington DLS he moved to the New Zealand Law Society. He was one of the national Vice-Presidents in 2004 and 2005 and Treasurer in 2005 and 2006. In 2007 he became the leader of New Zealand's legal profession when he was elected the 27th New Zealand Law Society President.

Mr Marshall said he initially had no ambition to become Law Society President, but that changed as he became more involved.

"Over the last year or so I have felt that it is the right time for me to serve the profession in this way," he said after his election. "I am really looking forward to making a contribution and leading the profession over the next three years."

The year he became Law Society President was also the year he received the highest accolade for his prowess as a barrister. On 14 May 2007 John Marshall became a Queen's Counsel.

His three years as Law Society President coincided with possibly the biggest reform ever to regulation of the legal profession. The Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006, which came into effect on 1 August 2008, resulted in all but one of the 14 district law societies voting to combine their assets with the New Zealand Law Society to form "one society". A greatly strengthened national body replaced the districts, many of which had existed independently and with full regulatory powers for over a century.

The job of the new President was to listen and consult, to explain the new organisation, and then to lead it forwards.

"The change in the way legal services were regulated was radical. Someone who understood the profession and who was able to explain the reasons for the changes and to guide the profession through them was needed. John Marshall was that man," says the current Law Society President Chris Moore.

Executive Director Christine Grice worked very closely with John Marshall during his presidency.

"The changes were significant and brought the profession into the modern world," she says.

"John led the profession in this change. He was also at the helm during the time leading up to and following the Bazley report which criticised some legal aid lawyers. He championed initiatives that led to the changes in the training and experiential requirements of lawyers starting out in practice, including the new CPD scheme.

"John was a natural leader. He had a calm and dignified style of leadership. He was the personification of integrity, stability and decency, with a naturally inclusive style."

One key development was Practising Well, the Law Society's professional and personal support initiative. This arose from growing concern at statistics from overseas and local anecdotal evidence about the high incidence of depression and stress in the legal profession. Along with the Law Society's Women's Consultative Group, John Marshall was a constant advocate for developing supporting resources and measures to provide collegial support and advice.

"I want to see us becoming a more caring profession, where we look out for signs of stress in our colleagues, whether they are our partners, employees, friends or opponents in court. And if we detect that all is not well, we need to have a network of health professionals and mentors to whom we can refer colleagues in need," he wrote on the launch of Practising Well (LawTalk 732, 29 June 2009, page 10).

The New Zealand Law Society's international profile was also enhanced during his time at the Law Society. Mr Marshall was an inaugural Council member of the South Pacific Lawyers' Association and he continued to represent New Zealand on the Association. He made many contacts and friends through his involvement in annual meetings with the Asia/Pacific POLA (Presidents of Law Associations).

Returning to full-time legal practice after his time as President, Mr Marshall stayed in the public eye with his appointment as Chief Commissioner of the Transport Accident Investigation Commission in 2010. He held this role until his retirement because of ill health in March 2015.

During his time as Chief Commissioner he led the Commission through a number of difficult inquiries, including the Easyrider sinking off Stewart Island, the grounding of the Rena on Astrolabe Reef in the Bay of Plenty and the Carterton hot air balloon tragedy.

Now Chief Commissioner, Helen Cull QC was Deputy Chief Commissioner through most of John Marshall's time at the Commission. On his retirement she praised the significant change which had been effected during his tenure.

"Your leadership style is a straight-forward, respectful and quiet one, which gives everyone a chance to express their views and from that, a consensus of approach to some of the difficult problems the Commission has faced. It has provided a strong platform on which the Commission has stood, on issues of public safety and regulatory matters," she said.

Transport Minister Simon Bridges also acknowledged John Marshall's significant contribution to safety in the transport sector and his "outstanding performance" as Chief Commissioner.

"He has been responsible for the leadership of several complex, sensitive and high profile investigations. Under John's leadership, the crucial importance of the Commission's work has become more visible and better understood," Mr Bridges said.

Outside the law Mr Marshall was very active in many community groups. He chaired the Wellington College Old Boys' Association and was a trustee of the Todd Foundation. In his strong connection with the Presbyterian Church he was convenor of the church's main advisory body, The Book of Order and Judicial Committee.

He was a keen sportsman and later sports follower. His greatest love was cricket, which he played until he was over 50 and he was also a Wellington under-20 representative. He also played and followed golf, tennis and rugby, and enjoyed fly-fishing.

His lifetime of leadership and service to the New Zealand legal profession was marked in the 2015 Queen's Birthday Honours when he was made a Companion of the Order of New Zealand "for services to the law".

John and his wife Mary shared many interests. "Family comes first", he said in an interview on his appointment as Law Society President. They had three children, John, Annabel and Clementine.

"John was an outstanding lawyer, with fine judgement and deep wisdom," says Christine Grice. "He was admired by lawyers, judges and the public."

In a statement after Mr Marshall's death, Attorney-General Christopher Finlayson said he was both a highly respected member of the legal profession and a friend.

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Last updated on the 26th July 2018