Irish rebels, an undercover drugs agent and American legal star F. Lee Bailey may not appear to have much in common but they are all linked to a small country law practice in Hawera.
It’s where country “GP” and raconteur Preston Bulfin has plied his trade for more than 50 years.
At 76, while he remains as a consultant after retiring from his partnership with Halliwells, Preston continues to work full-time.
- Preston Edward (Preston) Bulfin
- Entry to law
- Graduated LLB from Canterbury University in 1966 and LLM in 1967. Admitted in 1965.
- Consultant after retiring as a partner at Halliwells, in Hawera.
- Speciality area
- General practice
“In a country practise your clients are your friends, you deal with generations of them and become entwined with their families,” says Preston, who is a former vice-president of the Taranaki District Law Society.
“I enjoy that contact and the stimulation of having to consider and deal with problems that arise within families and work out a solution.
“When I qualified in 1965 the largest law firm in New Zealand would have been Chapman Tripp with 14 partners and one office. Weston Ward & Lascelles and Duncan Cotterill in Christchurch had seven partners each and the vast majority of law firms would have been two to three partners.
“I was born in Invercargill as a quirk of fate. We come from Lawrence and Dad was at Invercargill training for the air force in 1941 and Mum had taken a flat there. Dad grew up in Tuapeka West and Mum came from the Roughan clan at Waitahuna West.
“The Bulfins are Irish, from near Birr in County Offally. Eamon Bulfin, who was born in Argentina after his father was chased out of Ireland because of his nationalist sympathies, and Eamon de Valera, who was born in America, both escaped a British firing squad after the Dublin Easter Rising in 1916.”
Eamon Bulfin was an Argentine-born Irish republican, recruited to the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1913 and involved in the Easter Rising of 1916.
“There is a healthy streak of Irish scepticism and rebellion running in the Bulfin clan, also in the Roughans.” Preston is a cousin of Kamo lawyer David Roughan, who was profiled on 1 March, 2018.
Love in a divisive climate
“The Bulfins have a Catholic branch and a Church of Ireland branch. My father’s folk were Church of Ireland. When Mum and Dad wanted to get married the religious feeling was high and the local Catholic priest wouldn’t marry them, neither would the Presbyterian minister so they chose a mutual venue and got married in the Anglican church.
“Only one family member attended the wedding, such was the religious divide at the time. But, despite tensions, both sides of the family came to accept it. When we were raised I frequented Catholic, Presbyterian and Anglican churches.”
Three Bulfin brothers left Ireland together at the height of the potato famine and all went to the California gold rush. One stayed there and the other two went to the Victoria gold rush in 1854. One stayed there, and the youngest came to Gabriel’s Gully in 1868.
“I was getting towards the end of my law degree and working part-time when I saw Margaret, a tall long-legged blue-eyed blonde on the other side of the land transfer office who turned out was from Australia, and we ended up marrying.
“When she became pregnant we looked for some employment security but the situation in Christchurch was pretty tight so far as future prospects went. It was difficult to get a partnership, firms were growing but there were others in the queue ahead of me.
“I was having a business settlement with a colleague, Ian White, and he asked if I had thought of moving out of Christchurch. He was Alan Horner’s brother-in-law, who was then in Horner Burns, subsequently Halliwells, in Hawera. So we came to Hawera, which has been very good to us, so we stayed.”
Many people thought the Bulfins were Catholic, because they had eight children, but three days after their youngest, Patrick, was born Margaret Bulfin died of a cerebral haemorrhage.
“To give you an example of what country towns are like, Patrick was put back into the maternity annex while I tried to sort myself out. Another woman there who was a client of mine, who had just given birth and knew my wife well, breastfed Patrick.”
Preston married his Japanese wife Sachiko 13 years later.
The peanut conundrum
Preston and Margaret gave all their children Irish names. Ranking from the oldest are Connaire, Brighid, Siobhan, Caitrin, Tim, Tom, Mairead (pronounced mah-raid) and Patrick.
“Mairead is interesting because by the time we got to her we had run out of our favourite Irish names. I wrote to the Irish embassy in Australia and asked for a list of girl’s names, they sent a list back and we pondered over a short list of about six but couldn’t decide.
“So we called her Peanut, until one day the local court registrar - and this is again illustrative of small towns – called me and said ‘Bulfin when the hell are you going to register that youngest child of yours?’ I asked why and he said ‘If you don’t register by tomorrow I’m going to have to fine you.
“So I came home at lunchtime, wrote down our short list. My eldest stood on the kitchen table, I held a hat up with the names in it and she drew Mairead out.
“Margaret and I looked at each and thought ‘no’, so we put the name back in the hat and Mairead came out again. So Mairead it was.
“One of the great things when I started out, because all firms were small, were the relationships built with clients. That is still the case in country practices.”
“For example, in 1967, when I first arrived here, we acted for the Taranaki Māori Trust Board. At that stage there was legislation called the Māori Affairs Amendment Act 1967 which kind of revolutionised the approach to Māori land law, etc.
“I was tossed the job of preparing submissions for the Trust Board on the implications of the new legislation.
“One of the guys I met while doing that was a fellow called Charles Bailey. Out of that he approached me and asked if I would act for them while they set up a ginger group to take back the control of the West Coast Settlement Reserve, which comprised some 300-plus dairy farms, and which had been confiscated post the land wars in the 1860s.
“After confiscation the government of the day sold the blocks to European settlers who cleared the land and created farms. A series of Royal Commissions in the late 1800s and ending in 1888, found that dispossessed Māori had not been rebels fighting against the Crown at all, and there should be some way of giving them back the land taken from them.
“The Government was faced with a dilemma because, in the meantime, all these farmers had settled and paid for the land. So they came up with a Clayton’s solution and gave the underlying freehold back to Māori to be administered by the Native Trustee, subsequently the Māori Trustee, and gave the Pakeha settlers 21-year perpetually renewable leases.
“They are called Glasgow leases because they are a creature of Lord Glasgow, the Governor General of the day, and a racing man, who apparently picked 21 years because that was the term of leases of mares.
“Over a nine-year period this group and I pestered the hell out of the government and eventually, in 1976, we created what I think was the first Māori Incorporation. The Government handed back the administration of the West Coast settlement reserve to that body, Parininihi ki Waitotara Inc, which has subsequently become an immensely wealthy and thriving entity.”
The OJ Simpson lawyer connection
It’s about here that Preston’s long-term association with famous American trial lawyer F. Lee Bailey began.
F. Lee Bailey, now 84, is a flamboyant American former criminal defence lawyer famous for his links to high-profile cases such as the court martial of Captain Ernest Medina for the My Lai massacre, the OJ Simpson murder case, the Boston Strangler, osteopath Sam Sheppard and Patty Hearst. He is described as a disbarred lawyer, businessman, author, actor and television personality.
“When we first moved to Hawera we lived next door to an English migrant family and got to know them quite well. They had a young daughter called Lynda Hart, who went to America, became an air hostess for Continental Airlines and then married F. Lee Bailey, becoming wife No.3.
“He came to Hawera on a visit in the late 1970s and I met him.”
At the time Mr Bailey owned Enstrom Helicopter Corp, and brought a demonstrator helicopter to New Zealand with the idea of setting up a manufacturing base here.
“The helicopter crashed in Lake Rotorua and the famous aviator and World War 2 pilot Fred Ladd – who flew under the Auckland Harbour Bridge – who was on board, was the only one who made it to shore.
“Out of the blue some months later I got a call from a Wall St law firm acting for the insurers of Enstrom. Apparently, the families of two who had drowned in the lake had brought proceedings in Grand Rapids, Michigan, against Enstrom.
“The issue came down to whether or not the fact that they had accepted ACC payments debarred them from collecting from Enstrom. It was a very interesting situation and I got an affidavit from former Prime Minister Sir John Marshall, who wrote the ACC legislation.
“Years later I got another call from this Wall St firm and this time they were acting for the insurers of the Rothwell Corp, who made the navigation instruments of the Air New Zealand DC10 that crashed into Mt Erebus.
“So, again, despite being in Hawera and being a conveyancer, I ended up doing work for them, which was great and a departure from the normal work. It all came through F. Lee Bailey putting some work my way. It’s what can grow from these kinds of relationships.
“They probably thought Hawera had a population of 300,000 and we were a mega firm with 40 or 50 partners.”
Adventures at sea
“In my youth I was into sport, in the first XV (rugby) at school, swimming and athletics. I jogged for years and sailed in small boats for years, but right now I am recovering from a hip replacement.
“Travel is one of the advantages of having a large family.
“Brighid, who did a double degree, got a job as a nanny for an Italian banking family living in Lugano. A woman at a function was impressed and asked if she had a sister, so Caitrin went across to Lugano and she was a nanny for the Ermenegildo Zegna family – the Italian luxury fashion house that makes men’s clothing and accessories.
“Caitrin has had a fascinating life. At one time she was chief stewardess on a Texas billionaire’s private yacht - about the size of a New Zealand frigate.
“I got a ring from Cait one day when they were in Chicago. They had finished the cruising season and the boat had to be taken to Savannagh, Georgia, for its annual refit but they were two crew members short.
“They needed a full crew to get through the locks so Sachiko and I signed on as crew. We sailed across all the great lakes, down the St Lawrence River and St Lawrence Seaway and got off on Prince Edward Island.
“And a funny thing happened. While going down the St Lawrence River we kept changing pilots because one minute you were in the States, then in Canada, then back in the States again.
“On a particular bend in the river, on a cliff overlooking the river, was a retired sea captain who lived there with giant loud speakers outside his house and a flagpole. He knew the pilots and had two-way radios, so in his retirement, when ships approached, he would radio the pilots and ask their port of registration.
“He would then run up the flag of the port of registration and play their national anthem. Our ship was registered in Southampton, so the Union Jack was going up the flagpole and God Save the Queen was bellowing out.
“But Cait and I and the Kiwi captain told the pilot to tell the guy on the cliff that the majority of crew were from New Zealand and we resented the Union Jack and God Save the Queen.
“Well, bugger me days, down came the Union Jack, up went the New Zealand flag and the loudspeakers played God Defend New Zealand.”
Apart from those adventures Preston and Sachiko have done a lot of road trips round Ireland, France Spain, Portugal, Central Europe, Italy, Estonia, Germany, Argentina, Chile, Russia, parts of China and travelled on the Trans-Siberian railway.
“We go to Japan a lot, staying with family and friends where I’m treated as one of them.”
The moment he became a boarder at Christ’s College and away from his mother’s control, Preston dropped playing the piano, which he had been learning for seven years. “I found there were guys who could hear a tune on the radio and within five minutes were playing it but I couldn’t do that so gave it away.”
A love of history
“I’m a history buff and over the holidays I read The Fall of the Ottomans. Open Veins of Latin America is another good rant. I like legal writers Henry Cecil, AP Herbert and Frances Wellman, who wrote a fantastic book called The Art of Cross-Examination. Clarence Darrow’s autobiography is a great book. Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That is fantastic, as is the second world war equivalent Goodbye, Darkness by William Manchester. And I enjoyed American Caesar, his book on General Douglas MacArthur.
“Sachiko records lots of films. We have the Russian version of War and Peace and Gone with the Wind and we like good foreign movies. Argentinian crime drama The Secret in their Eyes, shown on Māori TV, and Canadian mystery Incendies, also on Māori TV.
“For years my late wife Margaret and I had VW Beetles - we had four. The only thing I could afford as my first car was a fourth-hand Beetle. We had a succession of them. I got 13 people in a Beetle, but some were small.
“Then we moved into Holden or Ford station wagons and had 16 in a Falcon station wagon in the days before seat belts were compulsory. Now I have a Mazda ute I take to work and a Toyota Prado as the family car.
“Every Easter we head to Lawrence, where my parents and all the forebears are buried. I love that area, it’s where I grew up. When the kids were younger we bought a house at Orewa, and have it rented out but it is always vacant for a month over Christmas – which has worked for more than 40 years.
“I bought a block of land at Ruawai, south of Dargaville, which over the years has slowly been converted into a dairy farm. It’s a loss-making venture but if I live long enough it may yet turn a profit.
“I went to Christ’s College but I’m not from a moneyed family. Mum and Dad owned a small bus company with three buses so it was at considerable cost they sent me there for four years.
“I got to the sixth form but had to leave because my parents could not support me. I thought of doing marine biology, but worked for an insurance company for a year and did legal system. I topped the class in the mid-year exams so went full-time at university.
“I wrote a book about my childhood (Growing Pains, Athena press) but it didn’t sell that well. My brother Keith in Australia has had an interesting life and has done better with his book.”
Keith Bulfin, is a former investment banker co-opted as an undercover agent for the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), who wrote a bestseller book Undercover, about his life on both sides of the law.
“I want to be entertained at dinner so I would have Gough Whitlam, Peter Ustinov, Barry Humphries and Joanna Lumley. But my preference would be deceased family members. We would have good New Zealand lamb, traditional New Zealand vegetables, followed by good New Zealand pavlova, fresh New Zealand fruit, and good South Island wine from Marlborough, Waipara Valley or Central Otago.”
Changing nature of law
“We are churning out lawyers in the thousands and I have a theory that the number of lawyers increases exponentially with the speed of print.
“If you are writing a document with a quill pen it is going to be short and to the point and won’t need too many lawyers to interpret it. But now with computers even a relatively simple bank document is many pages long and filled with kitchen sink clauses, which I find difficult and appalling in a sense. I think this has given rise to the huge number of bloody lawyers we now have.”
On the increasing number of women in law, Preston says all professions are facing a tsunami without realising it.
“Almost all professional graduation ceremonies now, except possibly for IT, are dominated by young women. Which is great, but for law, which has been male dominated for yonks, in the not too distant it is going to be female dominated.
“Until there is some change in the education system there is going to be a growing imbalance, which will have social affects. You will have embittered males who traditionally have been the breadwinners staying at home looking after kids while mum, who is much better qualified, goes out to work.
“Much of this is to be commended and healthy but I think there is a potential social problem looming in the future as a consequence of the way the education system is.”