At a time some practitioners are thinking of retiring, leading media law specialist Willy Akel has launched himself into a new branch of his career in fresh chambers.
After spending his entire legal life at Simpson Grierson, Willy – not yet 72 - is a founding member of recently-formed Sangro Chambers, in Auckland.
With extensive experience in diverse areas of dispute resolution he is a recognised specialist in media law, defamation, confidentiality, privacy, open justice, contempt, broadcasting standards and censorship.
- William (Willy) Akel
- A baby boomer. "Just a bit younger than you, Jock."
- Entry to law
- LLB(Hons) Auckland University in 1970, Master of Jurisprudence in 1972, Bachelor of Civil Law from Oxford University in 1974. Admitted in 1971.
- Barrister in Sangro Chambers, Auckland.
- Speciality area
- Media law, dispute resolution.
His professional memberships include the New Zealand Law Society, ADLS Incorporated, New Zealand Bar Association, Cooks Islands Law Society, International Bar Association and Media Law Resource Centre, New York.
Akel is a Lebanese name. Willy’s paternal grandfather was Lebanese, a trader who came to New Zealand in the 1890s and settled in Wellington.
“My father, Richard, was a country GP in Whakatane and my mother Lilla was a nurse. They met in the war. Dad served in Norfolk Island as a young doctor.”
His older brother Richard, a retired lawyer, lives in the United States, and his sister Elizabeth, who taught at school for many years, lives at Ohope Beach. There are no other lawyers in the family.
Willy’s partner is well-known artist Robyn Hughes. The couple have no children “but a myriad of nephews and nieces and an extensive extended family".
One of New Zealand’s leading media law practitioners, he always had an interest in news and current affairs and the humanities.
“Growing up in our house we had Time, Life, Punch, the Illustrated London News. I went to Saint Kentigern College and loved history, geography and the whole concept of geo-politics.
“I went to law school because I was too dumb to do anything else. I had no skills in mathematics or as an accountant.
“When I went to Oxford I became fascinated in the media and the whole broad concept of what does the media do and how does the media inform, educate and entertain.
“I was introduced to The Times, Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, BBC 1 and 2 and ITV. I recall how great the media landscape was then. That’s when I became fascinated in the media.
“If I was not a lawyer I would have loved to have been in some way involved in the media.
“My Bachelor of Commercial Law at Oxford was very demanding. It was the winter of discontent, Prime Minister Ted Heath was taking on the unions. I saw conflict playing out. I had sympathy for the unions and later when the coal miners went on strike.”
“At Oxford I had the privilege of seminars/lectures by Sir Rupert Cross of Cross on Evidence fame; J. H. C. Morris of Dicey and Morris on Conflicts of Law; and Sir Peter North of Cheshire and North International Law.
“Back in New Zealand I became involved in media law. It was when TVNZ news and current affairs was in the golden age. Many journalists then were leaders in the field.
“They understood what the media was about. It was about holding those in authority, whether it be government or companies or whoever, to account. Testing them and looking for the truth and aware of standards.
“Standards of truthfulness, giving the other side, letting the other side be heard, fairness, balance, etc. It was about news and current affairs and the search for truth.
“When you look at the media landscape today are you getting that? Are you getting that hard news, hard current affairs? We are lacking in good solid investigative journalism. My concern is it is once over lightly and entertainment has been sold as current affairs.
“One of the books I have had a look at is The Death of Truth by Michiko Kakutani. It’s a study of the intellectual crisis that has gripped the West in the age of Trump. We as lawyers have to be careful. I think the rule of law is generally under attack and we must uphold the rule of law."
Willy is learning more about New Zealand history and has been doing some elementary Te Reo classes recently to assist his learning. “I haven’t got round to reading it but I have by bedside Ranginui Walker’s revised edition of Struggle Without End. Looking at New Zealand history from a Maori perspective.”
“I don’t have hobbies but have interests in history and geo-politics which leads on to media law.
“I have a fascination with books, I’m not an avid reader, but I dabble in and out of books. For example: Seymour Hersch’s Reporter, Inside Story by Times columnist Philip Webster and Anton La Guardia’s Israeli/Palestinian study War Without End.
“I like biographies on generals of World War 2, such as World War 1 veteran and World War 2 commander Field Marshall Sir Harold Alexander of Tunis’s memoir.
“I have a real interest in travel, mainly to Europe and have had a fascination recently in World War 1. In 2015 Robyn and I went to Ypres, Passchendaele and Messines, where New Zealanders were, and became fascinated in learning about those battles, the New Zealanders who fought there and the embryonic Maori Battalion under Sir Peter Buck.
“We went back for the centenary last year, to Le Quesnoy, and to Ypres on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. That was one of the great privileges of my life. The other was seeing Nelson Mandela when he came to New Zealand.
“Robyn has done two wonderful exhibitions, one on Casino – the 70th anniversary of battle of Casino. Last year she had an exhibition on Passchendaele. Those exhibitions were held in Whakatane. She had the Casino exhibition in Whakatane because a lot of the Maori Battalion soldiers came from that district.
“Which leads to my interest in Whakatane, where I grew up. That’s where my soul is. Along with close friends we sponsor a major prize for a major provincial art awards – the Molly Morpeth Canaday awards.
“I’ve been a member of the Whakatane golf club for a long time – my father was one of the people who got it up and running. I was a pretty good swimmer and still swim.
“We have a place at Tairua. My favourite holiday spot is a toss-up between Tairua and Ohope. I used to surf in my younger days but now my eyesight is so bad I’d get lost if I went out beyond the waves. I also enjoy watching All Black games and cricket."
Willy’s family grow maize on a small block at Edgecumbe, which was totally flooded last year. “The whole idea of growing maize and the science of maize has become an interest to me, with the help of the guy who does it for us, Rob Simpson, a wonderful farmer.”
“We won the 2014 Bay of Plenty mid-maturity grain segment for Pioneer brand products. The maize is sold to Glencore, a big international maize operation. It goes to Tegel and Binghams as feeding supplements. Maize growing is something I enjoy.
“My attraction to law stemmed from the humanities and an interest in people and society. I have an interest in how society operates as an orderly society. I suppose when I first started out it wasn’t those lofty principles it was rather just an interest in people and society.
“I can’t play any instrument and my music taste is eclectic. I like Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell - I have her book Reckless Daughter which I am going to be getting into shortly – Emmylou Harris.
“Nancy Griffith, Lyle Lovett, and I saw John Prine this year. Americana stuff, Leonard Cohen, it's also pretty hard to beat a great Mozart opera - Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, how inspiring is that. And Beethoven. I love music.
“I’m an avid Netflix viewer. There’s been an outstanding period for US television in the likes of Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire. They are absolute classics. As are movies like The Godfather and The Deerhunter – which is a classic.
“There are some great little movies that have come out of the US, such as Three Billboards in Missouri. Martin Scorsese is a fantastic director…
“I like French, Italian and Kiwi movies - The Piano, Whale Rider, Vigil, Boy, Sleeping Dogs, all the Vincent Ward movies.
“We have a 12-year-old lady cat called Henri, named after the artist Henri Rousseau the artist. We grew up with Persian cats as kids, but this is not a Persian. It was a stray we picked off the beach and we were very lucky to find her.
“My dinner guests would include Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev, Barack and Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton and US lawyer and jurist Ruth Bader Ginsberg. There would be New Zealand fish and vegetables, a Gisborne Chardonnay, Central Otago pinot gris and Hawke's Bay Coleraine. I’m keen on Central Otago wines."
“So many people have contributed to my career. I have had some wonderful mentors, including Sir Ian Barker QC.
“I mention him because when you talk about cases you think about the early days appearing in front of him in the High Court at Auckland and how much you learnt about conducting yourself in court, getting your papers right and presenting something in a way a judge could understand and help the judge to make the right decision.
“Julian Miles QC has always been very helpful in the broad area of media law and defamation in particular Peter Clapshaw, Robert Fisher, Rod Hansen QC.
“Tracey Walker, now Justice Walker, and I did some marvellous cases with David Baragwanath [former Court of Appeal judge Sir David] leading us. I learnt so much from that.
“I had the privilege of having David as our senior counsel in the Goldcorp case that went to the Privy Council. A wonderful case on the crossover between equitable remedies and commercial law in receiverships. It was quite different from what I had been used to in media law.”
From a case file packed with many significant trial decisions, Willy mentions three that stand out for him as lead counsel.
Rogers v TVNZ  NZSC 91, a leading Supreme Court authority on privacy surrounding a Court of Appeal decision to allow Television New Zealand to broadcast footage of a confession and reconstruction of an alleged murder.
Stevens v Premium Real Estate Ltd  NZSC 15, a leading Supreme Court case on the fiduciary duties owed by real estate agents generally to vendors and purchasers.
And in the area of media law, helping establish a new public interest defence of responsible communication in Durie v Gardiner  NZCA 278.
Having spent 48 years with Simpson Grierson, previously Simpson Coates and Clapshaw, Willy had no desire to move. He was a litigation partner at Simpson Grierson from 1978 to 2016.
“It is a wonderful firm, with a truly great group of people and very well led. There were wonderful partners going back to Peter Blanchard, Susan Glazebrook, Mark Cooper, Rob Fisher, and many others.
“I’m now embarking on a new branch of my career and will have to see how it goes. It is very exciting."
Sangro Chambers, in Auckland’s Customs Street, was established earlier in 2019 and includes Earl Gray, Jane Glover and Katherine Anderson. Tracey Walker was a founding member before her appointment to the High Court.
The chambers takes its name from a river in central Italy, the site of the advance of the New Zealand Second Division in November 1943. For chamber’s members it is a “place of courage which commemorates, respects and honours the sacrifice for freedom and the rule of law.”
Over a long career in journalism Jock Anderson has spent many hours in courtrooms and talking to members of the legal profession. He can be contacted at email@example.com. Check out the forthcoming August 2019 issue of LawTalk for more of Jock's history (and age).