New Zealand Law Society - Fact sponge’s legal hobby began with a Eunice encounter

Fact sponge’s legal hobby began with a Eunice encounter

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Douglas Ewen
Douglas Ewen

After freeing prisoners from doing more time than they should, the shoegazing-loving son of a couple who met in the galley of a Super Constellation aircraft, “ran away” to see a rock band in Argentina.

“After one case in the Supreme Court in 2016 I ran away to Argentina to see Slowdive, an English band from Berkshire which was part of the so-called Shoegazing scene of the early 1990s, in Buenos Aires. It was the most sublime musical experience I have been through in years and it was the closest they got to New Zealand.” Wellington barrister Douglas Ewen says.

“I needed to blow off steam and relax after what had been a pretty arduous period in my career. The case was Mareno and Corrections, reported as Booth v R.

Douglas Alexander (Douglas) Ewen
Wokingham, Berkshire, England (famous for making church bells and silk).
Entry to law
Graduated LLB from Waikato University. Admitted in 1996.
Barrister in Brandon Street Chambers, Wellington.
Speciality area
Criminal defence, human rights, judicial review.

“I persuaded the Supreme Court that New Zealand had been miscalculating prison sentences for the last 30 years. When the judgment came out it led to the immediate release of about 22 people, more importantly to the recalculation of 500 prisoners’ sentences, as a result of a case I did.

“Five-hundred people spent the time in prison they were supposed to spend and not on the ludicrous miscalculation that sometimes the Corrections approach had led to.

“In 2016 they had their sentences adjusted. It didn’t take much of a stretch to realise the number of people adversely affected by this was easily in the thousands.”

Douglas’s work varies from human rights legislation and judicial review, criminal appeals and trials, to civil cases against the state for false imprisonment, unlawful searches and Bill of Rights breaches. He lectured at Victoria University, Wellington, in advanced criminal procedure and publishes practice guides for Thomson Reuters, setting out practical ways to conduct both civil and criminal cases.

His Scottish father Alec, a flight engineer, and New Zealand mother Joan Webb both died some time ago. Older sisters Alison is a teacher and Fiona is a sound engineer. His younger brother Andrew works in Timaru.

His children Lucas (9) and Daniel (6) live with their mother.

“My mother decided in 1987 she was no longer prepared to pay the heating bills for north-east of Scotland winters. We lived in Alford, west of Aberdeen - where nature makes a concerted attempt to kill us two weeks out of 52.

“She brought my father and younger brother Andrew to New Zealand and I followed in 1990 - Queen’s Birthday weekend. My father started life after leaving school at 13 or 14 as an agricultural labourer, a nice way of saying a slave.

“He ran away to war in 1939, ended up being dropped behind the lines on D-Day and as a result of the de-mob process learned engineering as a trade and started in civil aviation.

“He met my mother at Luca Airport in Malta. They met in the galley of a Super Constellation and were shortly thereafter married.”

The flogging parson

Douglas is related on his mother’s side to Thomas Hansen, the captain of the ship Active which brought missionary and Sydney magistrate Rev Samuel Marsden – known as the flogging parson - to the Bay of Islands in 1814.

“Most of Hansen’s children were missionaries. I am fortunate to be descended from a good honest butcher.

“The law is my hobby. The New Zealand Legal Information Institute churns out all the decisions of the higher courts, which I make my way through when I’ve got some downtime, just simply to stay on top of things. I run a varied practice and need to have knowledge of a varied area of topics.

“Effectively I came from a commercial background in London, because I was a solicitor’s clerk before coming to New Zealand. I was one of the legal profession’s non-commissioned officers.

“On my very first day in the job in August 1988, at age 19, I got pitchforked into the Royal Courts of Justice to get something done. I had no idea what I was doing.

“I ended up in a long line in the Queen’s Bench Action Department before I got to the front of the queue and there before me was Eunice. Every court needs a Eunice.

“Eunice had been with the courts department for longer than half the judiciary and basically her word carried the weight of holy writ. She told me ‘no, you can’t do that, you’re seeking rescission, you need a Master’s approval for that’.

“Eunice despatched me upstairs to the kindly Master Craigmore who stamped the papers, and I got the judgment sealed.

“I realised at an early stage that if you showed fear it would not go well for you. I also learned very quickly that in litigation the law has comparatively little to do with running a court case and it’s all about procedure.

Douglas Ewen
Douglas Ewen

“So I learned what all these qualified solicitors and barristers had never got round to learning and that was the rules of court. It meant that of all the people in the firm without a shred of law to my name, but a working knowledge of procedure, I was running rings round professionals in hearings because I knew what the rules were.

“It meant that at a very early stage I was doing hearings in front of county court registrars, High Court masters and occasionally High Court judges in chambers, which is where I got the taste for litigation.

“I consistently see lawyers in New Zealand fail to appreciate the judges and the court staff you encounter.

“If you have a good relationship with court staff - any mistakes you make can quietly go away. I’ve told trainees of mine over the last 20 years that the toes you tread on today are invariably connected to the arse you have to kiss tomorrow. It pays to treat court staff and other users with respect because, time after time, it pays dividends.”

Douglas studied at Waikato University where he was one of the first entrants to the new law school. “I had a profound distaste for Auckland. South Island universities were too far away and Wellington was prone to earthquakes.


“I don’t watch sport and have never played rugby. Sport in the north-east of Scotland was a form of persecution by my physical education teacher.

“Every litigator generally becomes a lawyer as a result of an early experience with injustice.

“As a five-year-old on my first day at school I walked up the wrong set of stairs to go to lunch and got walloped by a teacher for doing so. I didn’t think that was fair. At the age of five I didn’t have the ability to vocalise how unjust the experience was.

“I did not love school, I was very much a square peg. I went to the north-east of Scotland with a very pronounced English accent at a young age which may as well have involved me attaching a target to my forehead. It was a bruising experience.

“Tertiary education in Scotland failed so I went to work on a voluntary basis for my Labour MP, the late Frank Doran.

“Mr Doran was on a select committee considering the poll tax bill, which was introduced to Scotland before the rest of UK. I discovered a loophole in the legislation in respect of one aspect of the poll tax for students - which I brought to his attention.

“I learned that I seemed to have something of a knack for statutory interpretation. I was then posted to London with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in Snaresbrook Crown Court where I spent a joyless three months sitting behind prosecuting counsel.

“I am not one of life’s prosecutors and there was never a jury that didn’t come back that I didn’t quietly hope for an acquittal. That’s where I got my blooding in law. And it was because the circuit judges in Snaresbrook were a variable breed.”

He secured a job with a firm of solicitors in north London, courtesy of another New Zealander who worked for the CPS.

“When I was 12 I thought I wanted to be a lawyer but then watched the television programme Crown Court, a series of mock trials, and thought I would never be smart enough to do that, I’ll be an architect instead.

“I did little bits of travelling in Europe when I was in London. I got to go to Samoa in 2000 and was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Samoa Supreme Court to argue a case the next day in front of their Court of Appeal, which was comprised of Lord Cooke of Thorndon, Sir Maurice Casey and Sir Gordon Bisson.

DJ and band manager

“I tortured a violin in primary school days, but was a great music lover at university and did the only thing that someone does who wants to hang around bands but can’t play - I was a band manager.

“I was involved with the Waikato student radio station and a DJ and promotions manager - Hamilton in the 1990s was a fun place to be.

“I like everything from the Boston-based indie rock band Drop Nineteens to French composer Claude deBussy. Sergei Rachmaninoff is my favourite.

“The great 90s phenomenon of the Shoegazers was probably my choice. Indie music for the profoundly self-conscious.

“I like facts – I’m a fact sponge – and read mainly non-fiction. BBC Radio 4 on the internet is my absolute love. Lord Melvyn Bragg hosts In Our Time - a panel discussion on the entire panoply of human experience. A feast for the mind.

“My main hobby is cooking so I fluctuate between watching the cooking channel and British drama on UKTV. Everyone needs a creative outlet and in my cooking I am not trammelled by a set of instructions so work out in my mind what works.

“My dinner guest would be Dorothy Parker - one of the great acerbic wits of all time. I would give her pastrami on rye, easy on the mayo. And I am a huge fan of New Zealand pinot noir.

“In London the Good Ship Ewen was afloat on a sea of claret because burgundy is a bit insipid. New Zealand pinot noir is a source of great pleasure to me, and in loyalty to my learned friend Colin Carruthers QC it would have to come from Martinborough. And probably Colin’s Te Muna Valley Red Bank Estate.

“I am separated and rent so I don’t have any pets. We had a dog in Scotland but I have never been attached to dogs and I’m allergic to cats.

“I don’t have a car and am a non-driver, more nowadays by phobia. I tried to drive in the UK and the standard of my driving when I failed the UK test would probably have got me a full licence in New Zealand.

“Since leaving home at 17 I have lived in one major metropolitan centre after another - Glasgow, Aberdeen, London, Hamilton and Wellington - all of them served adequately by public transport.

“I live half a cigarette away from Tawa train station which gets me to either Wellington or Porirua, where most of my work is. Cars are a matter of supreme indifference to me.

“I would love to write. I always had in mind several plays, perhaps a single actor play about the history of art forgery.

“It is fascinating, it has happened for millennia and there’s a fair amount of humour in it, especially when the entirely pompous over-stuffed art dealing industry has been taken to the cleaners. The puncturing of pomposity is always a good angle.

“But the inherent personal tragedy of the art forger, who is a great technician but has no originality or inspiration, must be a sad state of affairs.”

Over a long career in journalism Jock Anderson has spent many hours in courtrooms and talking to members of the legal profession. If you think you would make for an interesting profile, or know of someone who would, contact Jock at

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