New Zealand Law Society - A moment in time: The Wellington legal profession on display

A moment in time: The Wellington legal profession on display

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Law Conference 1993
Law Conference 1993

It’s 19 April 1993. Wellington’s legal profession and members of the judiciary get ready to face the camera in front of the Beehive and House of Representatives.

The photo which was taken (this is a sneaky unofficial view) was to mark the first sitting of Wellington’s High Court in its new building in Molesworth Street, across the road.

The final sitting in the old High Court Building – built between 1879 and 1881 and now preserved and used for ceremonial occasions – was on 7 April 1993.

It wasn’t just a new courthouse which was being celebrated: the Wellington profession also gained a new law library in a major step up from what was a rather dismal research facility.  “Over Easter the High Court Library changed in one leap from the 19th to the 21st Century,” wrote Wellington District Law Society Executive Director Colleen Singleton in the WDLS newsletter Council Brief. “Practitioners are now able to work in open spaces with natural light.”

The Wellington District Law Society had 1,542 practising lawyers in 1993, giving it 24% of the New Zealand profession. They are certainly not all in the photo, but possibly the lawyers from Wairarapa, Kapiti, Porirua and the Hutt Valley could be excused.

If the judges in front look male, it's because that was the situation then. By April 1993, 14 women had been appointed to the judiciary, but just one had been appointed to the High Court bench, with Master Anne Gambrill's appointment in August 1987. A few months on from the time of the photograph, in July 1993, (Dame) Silvia Cartwright would be the first woman appointed to the full High Court bench. Change was on the way: 1993 was the first year in which the number of women admitted as barristers and solicitors exceeded the number of men. Women made up 24% of the legal profession in 1993 - it would not be until January 2018 that they outnumbered men.

At the time of the photo, the organised legal profession was led by (Dame) Judith Potter who had become the first woman President of the New Zealand Law Society in 1991, for a three-year term. Dame Judith was also the first woman to lead a district law society (now branches of the New Zealand Law Society) becoming President of Auckland District Law Society in 1988. By April 1993, however, just two other districts had been led by woman: Wellington (Sandra Moran, elected in 1989) and Otago (Kate Walker, 1990). All districts/branches have now had woman Presidents, with the first in each of the others being: Manawatu (Rosemary Rutherford, 1994), Waikato Bay of Plenty (Christine Grice, 1994), Southland (Judith Flett, 1995), Nelson (Joanna Maze, 1997), Gisborne (Vicki Thorpe, 1998), Canterbury Westland (Isabel Mitchell, 2000), Hawke's Bay (Jacqui Gray, 2001), Taranaki (Emma Smith, 2003), Marlborough (Bryony Millar, 2010), Whanganui (Kathryn Crooks, 2012).

The New Year and Queen's Birthday Honours lists in 1993 recognised the contribution of the first woman judge, Augusta Wallace (appointed to the Magistrate's Court, later the District Court, in September 1975) by appointing her a Dame of the British Empire and Judith Potter (awarded the CBE in 1993, and later being made a Dame).

Dame Judith's time as President coincided with what she described in the 1993 New Zealand Law Society Annual Report as the Renshaw Edwards catastrophe which involved "not one dishonest solicitor (Pat Renshaw) but two (Keith Edwards)".

"I suppose it is inevitable that my term as NZLS President will be remembered for the debacles of Renshaw Edwards ... and the agonising situation concerning the Fidelity Fund. Those were events of such unprecedented and mind boggling proportions that they will be remembered for many years to come, not only in New Zealand but by the international legal community. They had a huge impact on those people who lost money at the hands of those dishonest lawyers, on the whole of the profession in New Zealand, and particularly on those practitioners liable to pay the levy imposed by the NZLS Council in December 1992 [which was $10,000 for all lawyers practising on their own account - 2,800 of them - in five equal annual instalments]. I have said before, and I say again, that I consider our profession responded responsibly and stoically to an extremely difficult situation," she wrote.

Dame Judith's management of the situation was widely praised. "Out of adversity comes strength, and the enormity of this situation emphasised the strength, depth and determination of our profession. At the helm, I had the support of a great group of people, and experienced in a very real way what it means to work as part of a fine team, and be part of a fine profession," she wrote, concluding" "The legal profession is a very fine profession. The misdeeds of a few cannot, and will not, change that. In today's competitive environment, our challenge is to ensure that our services are needed. Our distinguishing mark as lawyers is that of being true professionals, whose independence, integrity, sound judgement and skill are unquestionable and indispensable."

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