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Leslie Herrick Atkins QSO QC, 1948 - 2016

By Geoff Adlam

Les Atkins QC died on 25 May 2016 aged 67. Over a prominent legal career he worked as an academic, a renowned criminal defence lawyer and as a District Court Judge.

Born in Napier on 7 October 1948, Les Atkins attended Palmerston North Boys' High School and spent a year at Massey University in 1967 before heading to Wellington where he studied law at Victoria University from 1968 to 1970.

He shone academically, graduating LLB in 1971. His first job was as a legal research officer with the Department of Justice before he joined the academic staff at Victoria's law faculty in 1972 as a junior lecturer. After admission to the Bar in 1974 he moved to Canterbury University in 1975. He completed an LLM with first class honours at Victoria in 1977. However, before this, the legal academic world's loss was the legal profession's gain, with his return to Palmerston North and the life of a practising lawyer in 1976.

Photo of Les Atkins QC
Judge Les Atkins QC. 

In an interview he gave to the Manawatu Standard in 2015, he said he would probably have stayed with academic work if it hadn't been for his parents, who owned and lived in the spectacular Greenhaugh Gardens near Palmerston North. The two hectare gardens surrounded a colonial homestead built in 1874.

"The main purpose for leaving academic work was the property here," he said. "My parents were at an age when they couldn't look after it."

Les Atkins and his wife Lynne moved in to the property, which they were to build up over the next four decades. It was designated a Garden of National Significance by the New Zealand Gardens Trust in 2013.

Family was always important to him. Les and Lynne married in 1971 and had three children – Rebecca, John and George. He told the Manawatu Standard at the beginning of this year that he had been fortunate to have his family when dealing with what were often gruesome homicide cases.

"I had a family that were very gentle in their approach to things. I think that probably keeps you sane, to a degree," he said.

Established in Palmerston North, he began to build a career and be recognised as a criminal defence lawyer. For much of the 1980s he practised with another prominent Palmerston North lawyer, Mike Behrens QC, in the firm Behrens and Atkins. Both were to become Queen's Counsel and both were to become District Court Judges.

Les Atkins left the partnership in 1987 to practise as a barrister sole. By this time he was a much sought-after criminal defender and his expertise was recognised on 20 March 1990 when he was appointed Queen's Counsel – the fourth Palmerston North lawyer to be so appointed.

While most of New Zealand's most prominent silks were found in the Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington, Les Atkins QC remained based in Palmerston North, but with a New Zealand-wide reputation.

Nigel Hampton, who became a Queen's Counsel in 1989, one year before Les Atkins, says he had the privilege of appearing with him in a number of joint trials in the 1980s and through into the 1990s.

"Les brought something unique to criminal defence work, especially jury trials. His uniqueness? Well, he brought intellectual acuity and rigour, intellectual honesty, into the practice of criminal advocacy. Those qualities, combined with his quietly understated eloquence and his understanding of the flaws in any human being, of the human condition, gave to him an outstanding appeal to juries. 

"His style: not the sardonic sharpness of a Peter Williams, not the humorous bonhomie of a Mike Bungay, but of reason leavened with wise understanding and wit."

Looking back at his association with Les Atkins in joint trials, Nigel Hampton QC says he sees those trials as the apogee of collegial trial work

"I cannot think of another practitioner with whom I worked who co-operated and shared so fully, so well, with fellow counsel as did Les. I count myself very fortunate.

"We formed, I believe, quite a formidable team. I the less than temperate, the fierce; Les the still, the measured sweet voice of reason. With the leave of the trial judge, whether in order of cross-examining or of addressing, he and I would swap positions, depending on how we assessed the 'needs' of each Crown witness, of how we thought best to address the over-all case," he says.

"Oh, and we had fun, both in court and out; and founded a lasting friendship. A more loyal friend I could not want for.

"It was Les who argued that I should go to the independent bar and that, if I did, I should immediately apply for silk. I was persuaded, not least by his faith in me. I did both, and within a short time was admitted to the inner bar, where I was joined not long thereafter by Les.

"He was a true leader at the bar, and as fine a criminal law advocate as one could hope to witness in action."

During the 1990s he continued to practise, but also made an important contribution to law reform by serving as a part-time Law Commissioner from 1992 until 1997. During his time with the Law Commission the projects he worked on included evidence and criminal law. He prepared the Law Commission discussion paper Criminal Prosecution which was released in 1997.

Les Atkins QC became Judge Atkins on 16 December 1997 when he was sworn in at the Palmerston North District Court. Unusually, he remained in the region, perhaps assisted by a move to Dunedin in 1995. He sat in Palmerston North and the Feilding District Court until its merger with Palmerston North in 2013 from 2 February 1998 until his retirement in September 2015. He had been in ill health for some time.

Judge Les Atkins QC was honoured for his services to the judiciary in the New Year's Honours in 2016 when he was made a Companion of the Queen's Service Order.

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Last updated on the 6th September 2019