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Sir Bruce Houlton Slane KNZM, CBE, 1931 - 2017

By Geoff Adlam

New Zealand’s first Privacy Commissioner, a former New Zealand Law Society President, and an outstanding communicator, Sir Bruce Slane died in Auckland on 7 January 2017 aged 85.

His legal training, communications abilities and experience and passion for getting things done took him along a career path where he made notable and enduring contributions in broadcasting, the legal profession, immigration and our privacy laws.

“I remember being incredibly proud that we had him as our leader because he was so capable in front of the camera, coming across as sensible, reasonable, calm and modest,” former New Zealand Law Society President Chris Moore recalls. “Of course that came naturally as that was exactly the way he was, regardless of who he was dealing with.”

Sir Bruce was born in Auckland on 10 August 1931. He was educated at Takapuna Grammar School before attending Auckland University where he completed an LLB in 1957. While he was studying he married Penelope Ann Grant in 1955 and they were to have three children, Chris, Peter and Judith. Lady Penelope died on 28 December 2016. The couple had been separated for 15 years.

Photo of Sir Bruce Slane

Admitted to the bar in 1957, Sir Bruce began work at Dufaur Lusk Biss & Fawcett where GE (Jock) Cairns was a senior partner and took him into the partnership. With the retirement of Cairns the firm expanded rapidly during the 1960s and was renamed as Cairns Slane Fitzgerald & Phillips in 1964. Sir Bruce remained a partner of Cairns Slane until 1992.

Throughout his career he was an active contributor in the print media, radio and television. His experience and knowledge of what worked ensured success in the important public roles he held. He wrote a weekly column on legal matters for the Auckland Star, participated in New Zealand’s first talkback programme (as “Bruce Christopher” to get around the prohibitions on lawyers advertising), edited the Auckland District Law Society newsletter from 1967 to 1980 and gave numerous interviews and presentations on radio and television. In 1993 he was named Communicator of the Year by the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand.

His blend of experience in the law and communications was recognised in 1977 when he was appointed chairman of the Broadcasting Tribunal, a position he held until the Tribunal was replaced with the Broadcasting Standards Authority in 1989. His time at the tribunal was a busy one as New Zealand’s tightly regulated broadcasting industry attempted to break the shackles. As chairman he was closely involved in reports on the development of FM broadcasting, recommendations on regional private television (March 1984) and the ownership and control of private radio (July 1987). Recognition of his tenure as chairman came with a Special Award for outstanding contribution to radio in New Zealand at the Mobil Radio Awards in 1989.

Law Society President

His interest in the direction of the legal profession was there right from the start. While studying law part-time at university he was involved in union affairs, and was president of the Northern Legal Employees’ Union in 1954. After joining the profession he became active in law society matters. He was a member of the Auckland District Law Society Council from 1967 to 1980, President from 1978 to 1979, and a Council member of the New Zealand Law Society from 1975 to 1979 and Vice-President from 1979-80. In March 1982 he became the 19th New Zealand Law Society President.

Not long after becoming President he began a regular column, “Waring Taylor Diary”, in the fortnightly magazine LawTalk. “I intend to write this diary occasionally … to tell you of the activities of the Society in a more personal way,” he wrote on 30 April 1982. His fluid writing style and ability to express his opinions directly did this admirably. The first column ended: “Things are going to have to move in criminal legal aid fees. The profession has been disgracefully treated. While legal aid lawyers used to be on a par with Crown solicitors they now get about a quarter. Action is underway. I’ll write more about this later. Right now I’m too annoyed.”

As a skilled communicator with a captive and appreciative audience, the “occasional diary” became a regular feature, often appearing fortnightly. The legal profession, and lots of other interested onlookers in parliament, government and elsewhere were kept well-informed – and also aware that the Law Society President was a man who followed through. A month after his comments on criminal legal aid, his column noted that after meeting the Minister of Justice on the matter “I’m now satisfied the Minister fully understands the anger within the profession at the shabby treatment we’ve had.”

His presidency came at a time of significant change in the legal profession. The Law Practitioners Act 1982 came into force on 1 April 1983: “The Law Practitioners Bill has been a long haul. Many of the new provisions have been debated and discussed until the reports in LawTalk must have bored the ordinary practitioner,” he wrote in September 1982. There were also two major developments with the abolition of the conveyancing scale of charges in 1984 and the lifting of restrictions on advertising in 1984 and 1985. As well, the New Zealand Law Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal met for the first time on 15 June 1983, introducing public hearings, non-lawyer involvement and wider disciplinary powers.

Women were beginning to enter the profession in greater numbers, and there was strong support from Sir Bruce: “Although it is hard for some of us to accept, there is no doubt that there is discrimination on the grounds of sex in the profession and our acknowledgement of it will make it easier for us to recognise and overcome ingrained attitudes.” (LawTalk 164, 15 December 1982).

Cartoon of Sir Bruce Slane
LawTalk, 24 April 1985. The 19th President leaves.

Long-standing friend and colleague Sir Anand Satyanand says it can be said with some certainty that Sir Bruce led the change of lawyers’ profile in the community which made the Law Society a significant player in public affairs.

“This involved a lot of making representations. He would make many air journeys to Wellington – pinstripe suit and briefcase – with contents of the briefcase very often being grapefruit from the capacious tree at 128 Wheturangi Road, which he would provide for the support staff of the great and good he was to meet. This in his terms represented a good investment, when he had to follow through with another appointment later on.”

Sir Bruce was the key driver of change to the Scale of Professional Charges. As the new Bill was debated and discussed, he became aware that the fixed prices for conveyancing were a looming danger for the profession as they were “no longer acceptable in the community” and it was vital to establish that lawyers were willing to price competitively.

“’My advice to the Law Society is to take the scale and throw it out the window before someone else does it for them!’ - I can’t swear that that’s a verbatim report of what the Minister of Justice told the Committee of the House considering the Law Practitioners Bill, but it’s pretty close to it.” (LawTalk 164, 15 December 1982).

The scale was abolished in November 1984. A few months later Sir Bruce reminded the profession that it had to continue to focus on providing a “good, efficient and well conducted conveyancing service at a reasonable cost”.

“We are sometimes accused of being defensive (chiefly by people who write me very defensive letters about fees, saying we should not be defensive) and we must not try to justify the indefensible,” he wrote just before ending his three-year term as President. “The fact is that we do not have to be defensive when we have our house in order. By and large we’ve achieved that. If we constantly revise and keep our rules and attitudes relevant to the public we serve, the profession will continue to play its role quite properly and with the support of the community.”

Sir Bruce’s involvement in the profession continued after the Law Society. He was heavily involved in international lawyers’ organisations, being a Council member for LAWASIA from 1982 to 1991 and Vice-president from 1989 to 1992, a council member of the International Bar Association from 1982 to 1996, Deputy Secretary-General of the IBA for New Zealand and Pacific from 1988 to 1994. He was the first New Zealander to be elected to the IBA management committee (from 1998 to 2004). His service was marked with appointment of an Honorary Life Member of the IBA in 2007.

“Bruce was never ambitious as a lawyer… He had a general practice with a loyal clientele and he never aspired to become Queen’s Counsel or a judge,” says journalist and long-time friend Graham Wear.

“But he was deeply concerned about the public image of the legal profession and his skills as a communicator helped him to lead the profession to make a better job of promoting itself and responding to public queries and criticism.”

Judicial Conduct Commissioner and former Law Society Executive Director Alan Ritchie says the successors to Sir Bruce as Law Society President all bear sure testimony to the magnitude of the Slade contribution to the regulated legal profession.

“Not one of them will have taken the reins without being steeped in the Slane legacy which is, in the plainest terms, that had he not had the insight, wit and skill to build on the platform established by his work with his immediate predecessor as President, Sir Thomas Eichelbaum, the profession’s vital role in its own regulation and destiny would have been deeply imperilled.”

Privacy Commissioner

The Privacy Act 1993 came into force on 1 July 1993, marking an important step forward in personal rights. The role of Privacy Commissioner was a pivotal one in implementing the Act and Sir Bruce was appointed New Zealand’s first Privacy Commissioner in 1992. He had been closely involved with development of the new laws, as a special adviser to the select committee which considered the legislation. He retired from the role in 2003, having overseen the implementation of a whole new direction in individual rights.

“Bruce set the pathway, as well as providing many direction signs along the way which have greatly helped his successors and privacy practitioners,” his successor as Privacy Commissioner, Marie Shroff said.

The General Manager of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, Gary Bulog, began working with Sir Bruce in 1996. Sir Bruce thrived in the independent environment of the Office, he says.

“He could deliver on the priorities he thought important to New Zealanders in the protection of their personal privacy. He knew he had a task ahead of him in educating people on their important rights. His Office was one of the first government agencies to have a website. He also knew that, for most of us, privacy was not all that interesting. Along came the use of cartoons. He said to me that a cartoon could reach so many more people than any pamphlet, and would present very strong messages in one place. Fortunately he had an excellent cartoonist in the family who could be co-opted at a moment’s notice.”

On his retirement, Associate Minister of Justice Lianne Dalziel acknowledged what she described as the significant achievements of “the person who I describe as the public face of privacy matters” in establishing the Office of the Privacy Commissioner and the development of various privacy Codes of Practice.

“He has advised successive governments on legislative and policy proposals, provided regular and frequent education sessions all over the country, and has been a calming influence in an area that can be fraught due to the interests of the media. He and his staff have worked hard to make New Zealanders aware that they have a right to privacy, that privacy is an important right and that it will be protected,” she told a parliamentary reception in his honour.

International recognition of his trailblazing contribution included a comment from Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia that Sir Bruce had been “imaginative, decisive and principled as Privacy Commissioner and has set the gold standard to be copied throughout our region.”

As Privacy Commissioner he was also a member of the Human Rights Commission. Race Relations Conciliator from 1996 to 2001, Rajen Prasad worked with Sir Bruce at the Commission and also later on the Residence Review Board. He remembers him as a man who was always prepared to share his knowledge.

“He had an enormous circle of friends both nationally and internationally. He made it an art form connecting people to each other. Bruce enabled my understanding of human rights law and its use in making decisions on discrimination cases that made sense to the public and deflected the criticism of political correctness that was commonly made of some rights bodies at the time,” he says.

“Bruce encouraged decisions to be made on the basis of a detailed command of the facts, disciplined analysis of the applicable legal provisions and a fearless approach to doing the right thing. On the Complaints Division of the Human Rights Commission Bruce would encourage argument against the prevailing orthodoxy that resulted in some landmark decisions.”

Sir Bruce’s work as Privacy Commissioner was honoured in 2003 when he was appointed a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (redesignated Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2009). He had been appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1985 after his term at the New Zealand Law Society.

From privacy he moved to immigration matters in 2003, with his appointment as a member of the Residence Review Board and Removal Review Authority.

“On the Residence Review Board he spent a considerable amount of time thinking through the special circumstances of a case that the Minister could consider as an exception to policy,” former Race Relations Conciliator and Review Board member Rajen Prasad said in tribute.

“These cases reflected Bruce’s humanity, his compassion and his willingness to use his knowledge and skill to advance the interests of other human beings. It would have been so much easier just to turn an appeal down without taking this opportunity that our immigration legislation provided for. Some of our most committed new New Zealanders are those who have been given a second chance in this way.”

Retirement from public office in 2009 did not mean Sir Bruce’s disappearance. He became closely involved in the Save the Farms campaign which sought a wider debate on sales of farmland to foreigners. As an active committee member he was “consumed”, says Gary Bulog, loving the punch and counter-punch the group was able to deliver in its arguments with the government. “His interest remained long after the group passed the baton, writing letters to the editor whenever he saw a need.”

New Zealand Law Society President Kathryn Beck says with the death of Sir Bruce the legal profession has lost a great communicator and campaigner for individual rights.

“In the legal profession he was renowned for his openness and great communication skills,” she says.

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Last updated on the 26th January 2017