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William Vernon Gazley, 1921 - 2011

by Gary Turkington

During the last weekend in February, while in his 90th year, William Vernon Gazley slipped away quietly. He was mourned by his close family without fuss or public ceremony. He was a quintessentially private person and devoted family man.

Was it then that his professional life was sequestered from debate, fondness for respite, and aversion to the long travail of chambers? Oh, some of his opponents surely wished it so. But those that stayed the journey were usually left to marvel at his craft; and his clients the result. Let me explain.

This remarkable lawyer dominated the legal scene a generation or so ago in a way that few could have done (or dared). He was resolute and more; he was utterly fearless. It is entirely possible that the profession will never see another like him.

I first met “WV” or “Bill” as a law clerk around 1970-71. He and Gordon Black then occupied rooms in Bowen House, long since demolished in favour of a Parliamentary wing (they were never in partnership, despite their mutual occupation of an elliptical letterhead).

 I had to serve a document upon him. Previous attempts by others had failed. Bill had a reputation for being “difficult” and even if his presence could be detected, his last bastion of defence was the inscrutable Chinese staff of Sadie and Percy Leong. On this occasion I trapped him in his rooms.

“What do you want?” he barked.

“I’ve come to serve a document,” I said.

“Well, you’d better get on with it, then,” he replied, “and while you’re at it, sit down and I’ll get you a cup of tea.”

Bill and I never looked back. It was a warm relationship that I feel privileged to treasure.

When I returned from overseas in 1975 I rang him. “You wouldn’t be interested in employing somebody, would you, Bill?” I inquired.

He laughed. “No, but I might be able to do something better than that. If you set up on your own, I’ll send you some work.”

And that is what I did. And he was true to his word. From time to time he would ring. I should meet him, he said, and have morning tea. It was always in his rooms, by now at the top end of Molesworth Street. It always consisted of a cup of tea and the largest sponge cake that you ever could imagine. He must have thought that married life and four young children were wearing me thin. For he pressed me with slice after slice until I could take no more. None for him mind: “Eat up now – I don’t eat the stuff”. Then he shuffled some files across, each with a handwritten note as to how the case should be handled.

During the sixties and seventies (and I am sure before then), and well before the introduction of the internet and online research, Bill researched every imaginable legal resource. He kept the references fully indexed at his home in Karori. All I had to do was ask, and a handwritten note would be provided, usually the next day, of every authority on the point.

Bill had a way with him in cross-examination that few could attain. He showed me that there was no short route home. Everything was in the preparation. In a long flowing hand, often with different colours, and on strips of paper taped end on end, Bill would pen a series of topics and questions. They formed a scroll that tumbled from one section to another. That way it could be carried into court or tucked into the middle of the file. At precisely the right moment the scroll was unravelled and questions then fired in a volley.

I have been cross-examined by Bill and I have seen him cross-examine others. It was not an experience that many enjoyed. Not because it was an harangue: it was downright pinpoint questioning borne of splendid preparation.

I remember a solicitor ringing me about a tenancy case where Bill was acting for the tenant and the solicitor for the landlord.

“This is a clear-cut case,” explained the solicitor. “While the terms are disputed, I was there when everything was agreed and I have it noted - at least, most of it. Gazley’s client won’t remember a thing. All you have to do is turn up and I will give the evidence.”

Those were the days when a ruck of cases was called in the civil list in the Magistrates Court at 10 am. Counsel took their place in the queue of three or four or more that were to be heard that day; each requiring a rough estimate of the number of witnesses only; totally unburdened with briefs of evidence, bundles of documents and all the flotsam of procedure that has become the expensive lot of the modern civil case. The case was duly called before Wicks SM in the old Arbitration Court where now stands the new Supreme Court (and before then a park). Bill cross-examined the solicitor, patiently and by reference to the typical scroll of notes that he had prepared.

“When did you take that note” (later when I got back to my office); “so did it not enter your professional mind to enter such an important term there and then” (well no but I remember it); “and have it signed” (well yes now I suppose I should have); and the term is not even recorded” (but I remember it); “witness (the errant were usually reminded in this way ) answer the question, there is no record of it” (no). The solicitor withered and an oral judgment followed, (as was the custom). Judgment for the tenant with costs; “Call the next case Mr Registrar” intoned Wicks SM. So less one, the clutter of the daily list rolled on.

It was not only solicitors who needed to be concerned about Bill’s tack. In the somewhat notorious case of Nakhla v McCarthy [1978] 1 NZLR 291 (CA).Bill unsuccessfully sued the President of the Court of Appeal for damages for abuse of process and false imprisonment. It was alleged that he, in delivering the judgment for the Court, failed to address a point in a criminal appeal that Bill later took to the Privy Council and won. The Court of Appeal had omitted to deal with the issue of “frequenting” a public place with felonious intent in section 52(1)(j) of the Police Offences Act 1927. Bill argued that a single brief visit to Oriental Bay by Nakhla, (who had underworld connections and had been set up by the police), to purchase some stolen jewellery amounted to no such thing. It may be noted that Nakhla called the whole thing off anyway. The gold rings offered him did not match his taste for diamond rings.

The police, hoping for a receiving, were left to struggle with something else and decided on the ill suited charge. At any rate, Nakhla’s appeal against conviction and sentence of imprisonment were dismissed. Nahkla, who had been on bail meanwhile, was required to surrender and serve his sentence. But this perdition should not have happened. The judgment was there for the pricking. It had overlooked counsel’s point. Writ and motion were now to follow. Bill moved that it had been given per incuriam.

A missing page was then delivered to his junior, Des Deacon, in Chambers by the President. It dealt with and rejected the frequenting point as had the Chief Justice in the Court below. The President said it had been inadvertently omitted from the judgment. Bill refused to accept it. He submitted the Court was now functus officio.

He briefed Paul Temm QC for the journey to the Privy Council. Bill never did appear there; it was too far from home and family – the result was a first for a criminal case from New Zealand. Their Lordships were untroubled by the point observing that “frequenting” embraced a “continuous or repeated” presence absent in the present case (R v Nakhla [1975] 1 NZLR 393 (PC); [1976] AC 1). Had the argument been accepted by the Court of Appeal, Nakhla would have been free.

Polemics now followed including the unsuccessful foray for damages from the President. The audacity of some of the barbs in the suit was too much for the Wellington District Law Society and to this day there are some who felt its eventually successful disciplinary action against Bill should never have been mounted (Gazley v Wellington District Law Society [1976] 1 NZLR 452). Bill was totally resolute and completely unmoved by all that followed. It dampened not a jot his appetite for suit against all comers.

He was jealous of any kerbing of a barrister’s ”absolute” right of retainer by anyone and the quixotic litigation (some would say) against various members of the Court of Appeal who denied him the right to act against a former client must be mentioned for its zeal, careful argument and profound occupation of a place in the law reports (Gazley v Lord Cooke of Thorndon [1999] 2 NZLR 668 (CA) et al). Or freedom to practise his own forthright style in family litigation when “guidance” was offered by the Wellington District Law Society to practitioners that appeared to rein him in: that too resulted in a writ against it that was withdrawn under an uneasy truce between them.

When I look back on his career, it would be a mistake to assume that those cases which attracted notoriety were all that marked the man. Not one bit. But the rich tapestry of his career would remain without all its panels should mention be made only of those that had such a marked impact on the development of the law, especially in matrimonial litigation. I include the status of separate property when used in business after marriage (Reid v Reid [1982] 1 NZLR 147 (PC)); the equality of division in a share once acquired in the matrimonial home (Dahya v Dahya [1991] 2 NZLR 150 (CA)); equal division of the matrimonial home regardless of contribution (Martin v Martin [1979] 1 NZLR 97 (CA)); adjustment for dissipated assets (Johnston v Johnston [1998] NZFLR 601 (CA)); and so many others.

Further fields also occupied his argument and included the then wholly new development in this country of the Anton Piller order (Busby v Thorn EMI Video Programmes Ltd [1984] 1 NZLR 461 (CA)); the duty of disclosure when acting for both parties (Farrington v Rowe McBride & Partners [1985] 1 NZLR 83 (CA)); informed consent when borrowing from a client (Sims v Craig Bell & Bond [1991] 3 NZLR 535 (CA)); libel, constructive trust, copyright, criminal of all sorts – in the end I find the cases too numerous and their reporting in the New Zealand Law Reports so extensive that this tribute would be overtaxed by further mention of them.

His correspondence with practitioners had style and he enjoyed others who he considered had the knack of expression. From time to time he showed me correspondence and affidavits drawn by George Kent, senior litigation partner of the then Buddle Anderson Kent.

“Look at the way George employs his language. You will do worse than to take note. There are few like him. His work is a pleasure to read. ” And it was.

Bill admitted he was a practitioner who came to the point and sometimes quickly. You knew where you stood. In Gordon v Treadwell Stacey Smith [1996] 3 NZLR 281, 284 (CA) the Court of Appeal reproduced the following passage as capturing the “flavour” of the exchange from one of his letters against a solicitor who had, it was alleged, improperly lodged a caveat against his client and whose cheque for $2,000 to make amends was returned with:

"Rather than submit to payment of $3,185 you have adopted an aggressive and inflammatory course of conduct that has already increased the damages and heads of damage against (nominally) Cancian. If you wish proceedings to continue and escalate, you can be so accommodated. If, on the other hand, you are willing to proffer a figure to reflect Cancian's nominal liability for damages, it will be considered. Already, Cancian is made liable for registration of the order ($55) a figure that I had been minded to overlook. Not now. There has been caused, through your activities, the expense of preparing a statement of claim and the agent's disbursements for filing and serving it $121.50.

Battle or settle. The choice is yours,"

Trouble loomed when a rejoinder pronounced the last letter received as “adumbrated with a farrago unworthy of response” or advised “such gallimaufry has quite unnecessarily detained me”. Famously, painstaking correspondence crafting a proposal was not always, but sometimes, crucified on the point of settlement by the economic answer that required no dictionary:

 “Dear Partners

No.

Yours faithfully

 W V Gazley.”

Such was the success of his practice, particularly in relation to matrimonial property matters, that it was not unknown for one spouse to rush to Bill’s rooms on the eve of separation only to be greeted with the dismaying news that Bill had already accepted instructions from the other. That spouse should look elsewhere.

In his twilight years, Bill withdrew from the hurly-burly and his practice devolved to his equally capable son, Dr M G Gazley. It continues to thrive today from the same rooms in upper Molesworth Street that he spent so many years. During this time Bill devoted himself to his home and garden in Karori, not to mention the wonderful garden and retreat he cherished at Pukawa at Lake Taupo. So much so that the surrounding bush reserve is now administered by a trust set up by his son.

All the while, and even with a busy practice, Bill made a point of trekking up Johnston’s Hill, nestled behind his home. He used to boast he never missed a day (until recently). My wife and I often met him on his journey.

“I hope you’re keeping out of trouble,” he’d say, and with a smile and wave of hand, he’d travel on, another walk done; another moment in nature spent.

Then in the last year or so, Bill gave the walk away. As his son explained, “He’d love to, but he just wasn’t up to it anymore.” Then, on his last day, Bill retrieved the morning paper, sat down in his chair at home, and passed away. That is how the family found him – a quietus to be cherished after such a fulsome journey. And in that voyage his late wife Myra was his rock and his five children including the late Paul, their partners and grandchildren were the foundation of his soul.

He was generous to me. And to many others, this I know. I shall remember him.

This tribute was first published in Council Brief, April 2011. Gary Turkington says “I havwe omitted references to Bill’s contemporaries as “late” in the interests of tiresome repetition – sadly most have passed on.

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Last updated on the 15th January 2013