New Zealand Law Society

Navigation menu

Sir Peter Alderidge Williams KNZM QC, 1934 - 2015

By Geoff Adlam

Sir Peter Williams died at his home in Auckland on 9 June 2015 aged 80. Over a long career in the law Sir Peter was acknowledged as an exceptional and fearless advocate who had a passionate commitment to ensuring everyone had equal access to justice. He was also a tireless campaigner for improvements in New Zealand's corrections system.

Peter Williams was born in Hawera on 1 December 1934, the son of Cecil and Mavis Williams. His father was a teacher. He was educated at Feilding Agricultural College before beginning his tertiary education at Victoria University of Wellington. After his father was promoted to a headmaster job in Sumner, Peter transferred to Canterbury University.

New Zealand's compulsory military service requirement meant he had to move to Hobsonville to complete three months in the Air Force and he finished his LLB at Auckland University. While in Auckland he was an Auckland University Debating representative and won the Auckland University Joint Scroll Competition for Oratory.

He studied part-time at Auckland, working as a clerk at the Justice Department. He was admitted to the bar at the Auckland Supreme Court on 15 February 1960 and started work with the law firm which was later to become Russell McVeagh. After a short time there, and having married for the first time, to Zelda, he began practice as a barrister sole and started a career which was to see him move to the very top of New Zealand's criminal barrister ranks.

He later said that for him and others such as his friend Kevin Ryan QC, criminal law had always been a "calling": "a career built on the conviction that every accused person deserves a defence and that the justice system should treat everyone the same". (A Passion for Justice, page 184).

Sir Peter appeared in well over 100 murder trials over his career, many of which received extensive coverage in the media and ensured he was one of New Zealand's best-known criminal defenders.

He was regarded as a highly effective advocate in court. One legal commentator, Judge John Cadenhead, described Peter Williams as follows:

"In full flight he was dramatic and one of the keys to his success was the tremendous amount of preparation he put into every case. His closing address to the jury was pure theatre. His histrionic oratory secured him many victories in high profile murder trials." (Law Stories, LexisNexis, Wellington 2003, page 59).

"He was a combination of tenacious, tender and tremendous," says Auckland barrister Gary Gotlieb, who remembers a trial where Sir Peter, Kevin Ryan QC and himself were defence counsel and (later Justice) David Morris was prosecuting.

"I just sat there in awe on occasions because of the performance going on with Dave Morris, who would turn his wig sideways and ham it up, and Peter would outdo him by dropping books on the floor. It was like theatre, absolutely like theatre, and to see the two of them sparring and going on was a wonderful opportunity."

Public attention has inevitably focused on some of the clients he represented, such as Terry Clark, Ronald Jorgensen, Arthur Allan Thomas, Lorraine and Aaron Cohen, and Arapeta Awatere. However, as a meticulous and innovative lawyer Sir Peter also made a significant contribution to New Zealand jurisprudence over his career.

Starting with R v Kafka [1962] NZLR 351, he appeared in 33 cases which were subsequently reported in the New Zealand Law Reports. He was pioneer of the defence of automatism in New Zealand, appearing in the Court of Appeal (as junior to later Chief Justice Sir Ronald Davison QC) in R v Burr [1969] NZLR 736 which remains a definitive case.

While he was later to write a number of books about his life and times, earlier in his career he was a co-author of the authoritative New Zealand edition of Mauet's Fundamentals of Trial Techniques and Judicial Misconduct (Pelanduk Publications, 1990), an analysis of the sacking of five Malaysian Supreme Court judges in 1988.

His standing as a barrister was formally recognised on 6 April 1987 when he was appointed Queens Counsel. He was also awarded a New Zealand 1990 Medal in 1990.

Sir Peter was the Foundation President of the Auckland Criminal Bar Association. In June 1988 he was one of 15 barristers who met in the Auckland chambers of Ted Thomas and passed a resolution to form the Association of Independent Counsel Incorporated. Following resolution of difficulties with the New Zealand Law Society, this became the New Zealand Bar Association. Peter Williams was elected to the first council of the new association and remained a member throughout his career.

While he was widely recognised for his performance as a barrister, he also became closely associated as a champion of prison reform. He was President of the New Zealand Howard League for Penal Reform for 30 years until he resigned in 2011 with a number of other long-standing members after a disagreement on funding and direction, to establish the Prison Reform Society. He said the Society's focus was "less crime, safer communities and fewer people in New Zealand's prisons".

"We know that this country spends too much money on its penal system which does not work and it fails to reduce recidivism. Too few prisoners receive encouragement to rehabilitate, fortified by positive programmes. High security prisoners are kept in claustrophobic and inhumane and cruel conditions causative of psychosis and mental illness."

As President of the new Society he continued to comment on prisons, prisoners and the corrections system. An essay he wrote in March 2012 gives a powerful insight into his feelings:

"As I trekked back through the prison, through the many grills and sally-ports, I reflected again on just what horrible places our prisons are. The prison interior was so ugly, garish yellow paint pealing off the bars revealing rusty iron, a place desolate of art, culture and humanity. A place designed to crush and reduce prisoners to automatons." ("Bound in Solitude: Visiting Paremoremo", 10 March 2012).

Sir Peters' passion for prison reform may have had its genesis while he was a law student. In his autobiography A Passion for Justice (Shoal Bay Press, 1997), he relates how he was arrested while riding his motorbike around the square in Feilding and charged with driving under the influence of liquor:

"There were no blood or urine tests in those days; I was taken before a local doctor, who said that I was unsteady on my feet, and, as a result of this, I was locked up in the local jail. Waking up in a cell next morning, I felt like a character in a Hemingway novel."

Helped by his father who hired a lawyer, he defended the case, but the 20-year-old first offender was sentenced to 10 days' imprisonment, part of which he spent in Wellington's Mount Crawford prison.

"I was simply amazed at the prison lifestyle. I had not believed that such things happened. I saw homosexuals trying to seduce prisoners. I saw sadistic men conspiring to assault others. I saw men of low intellect being bullied and harassed by other inmates. Life within the prison was in no way rehabilitative and was grossly destructive of the humanity of those in the cells," he wrote in A Passion for Justice.

Sir Peter used his courtroom communication skills to author a number of books which focused on his own life and interests. A Passion for Justice (Shoal Bay Press, 1997) is an inspirational and extremely readable account of his career in the law. In 2014 he published The Dwarf Who Moved and other remarkable tales from a life in the law (HarperCollins) which retold many of the cases from his career.

Former Minister of Justice Simon Power says Sir Peter's career was one of the reasons he studied law, and the viewpoints expressed in Sir Peter's books and in personal communications had an impact on how he viewed penal reform and the public policy debate.

Mr Power says Sir Peter corresponded with him regularly.

"We certainly didn't agree on everything, that's for sure. Nonetheless, he was a fearless person, not just as an advocate, but as someone who was prepared to actually lead in the area of public policy debate and that was something that I greatly admired."

Sir Peter was "remarkably respectful and polite and appropriate, never deviating from his core determination around the argument he was presenting at the time".

"It wasn't just as a lawyer that he was fearless; he was actually fearless in his pursuit of what was right in public policy," Mr Power says, noting that through his grasp of the English language and his persuasiveness Sir Peter was able to transmit the most complex of ideas in the most simple of ways.

"That was one of his gifts. He could make the complicated straightforward. He's made an enormous contribution and his legacy is one of being fearless in delivering change."

Gary Gotlieb was closely associated with Sir Peter over his whole career. Three months after Mr Gotlieb started practising a client's son was charged with murder.

"So I immediately got Peter Williams in and I did the trial with Peter. Of course I was Peter's junior, but I just learned so much from him."

Working closely with Sir Peter, Mr Gotlieb appreciated the range of powers he brought to criminal advocacy.

"He had this amazing ability to just see things in a completely broad way with all the options and the alternatives," he says. "And when Peter had a trial he was full on, he got minimal sleep, he just threw himself into it – and naturally you were expected to just follow course. It wasn't a problem, but he had this tenacious energy and he just saw it through."

"Peter's been recognised for his achievements, but if you stand up and fight for what you think is right you're going to annoy some people, and a lot of people have spent their whole life just not wanting to rock the boat and not to do anything. Whereas if Peter believed in something he was passionate and he would stand up and be counted. That's an important thing a lawyer has to have because in the end it's not standing up for your own ego or whatever, it's a matter of what's right for the client or the cause. That's what Peter taught me – you go for it, you think it through, and if you believe it you have to be passionate and you have to fight for it even if it causes you enemies.

"I'm proud to have learnt from him and to have been a close friend and a mate of his."

New Zealand Law Society President Chris Moore says Sir Peter exemplified many of the qualities which people who needed a lawyer looked for.

"He wrote a book called A Passion for Justice and this is a fitting description of his life and long career as one of New Zealand's leading Queens' Counsel.

"Sir Peter was an exceptional advocate. He had the ability to put the defence case for his clients with powerful oratory. His passion shone through in everything he did and said."

Mr Moore says Sir Peter's lifelong commitment to prison reform was instrumental in ensuring prison conditions and the rights of prisoners were brought to public attention.

"I have never forgotten attending meetings of the Howard League when I was a young lawyer and later seeing and hearing Sir Peter – who became heavily involved in the League for a while - in full flight on the issues and problems in our prisons. He was driven and committed but as with everything he was able to speak with humour and compassion.

Sir Peter was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2006 and gradually moved away from full-time practice. He did not fade from public view, however, never hesitating to speak out on important issues and remaining an active participant in prison reform matters.

Recognition of the impact he has had on New Zealand's justice and legal system came in the 2015 New Year's Honours when he was awarded a knighthood "for services to the law". Because of his worsening health a special investiture ceremony was held at his home in Ponsonby on 12 April 2015. Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae attended to formally invest Sir Peter.

Sir Peter was married to Lady Heeni Phillips-Williams. He was the father of Cara, Dureell Alderidge and Katie Patricia, and grandfather of Scarlett, Conor, Grace, Toby, Plum, Iris, and Rory.

Email:

Last updated on the 3rd August 2017