Retired Timaru-born High Court Judge Nick Davidson’s career as a defender and prosecutor has seen him in the front row of some of New Zealand’s - and the world’s - most controversial legal events.
After representing the Serious Fraud Office at the Wine Box Inquiry, he played a key role in the investigation of corruption within the world football body FIFA, which ultimately resulted in the removal of its president Sepp Blatter and led to criminal charges being laid against others in America.
At the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the 2010 Pike River mine disaster, Nick represented the families of the men killed in the mine – a life-changing experience involving “magnificent, resolute families”.
- Nicholas Richard William (Nick) Davidson QC
- Entry to law
- Graduated LLB (Hons) from Canterbury University in 1971. Admitted in 1972.
- Recently retired Judge of the High Court, now practising as a barrister based in Christchurch and Bankside Chambers, Auckland.
- Speciality area
- Arbitration and mediation.
The then Attorney-General Christopher Finlayson appointed him as Christchurch’s fifth resident High Court judge in 2015.
“I didn’t seek appointment, it just came to me out of the blue. The Christchurch court was inundated with work and they decided to appoint a fifth judge.
“It suited the Attorney-General at the time to appoint someone who didn’t have a lot of tenure ahead of them.” Nick was four years from judicial retirement age when he was appointed.
“I took the job with very little thought because I was coming out of post Pike River Commission time and, like the Wine Box Inquiry, it takes time to build up your practice again and it struck me as a huge honour to be offered that job.
“I have always admired the work of the courts at that level, all courts really. I thought I would see if I am up to this - I wasn’t entirely certain.
“I found from the day you walked in you are under considerable pressure from the sheer load of work, the complexity, the variety, the amount of work. It’s absolutely absorbing and totally dominated the time I was on the court.
“I was lucky enough to work in Auckland and Wellington and right through the southern districts on circuit - in a variety of work, which ranges from homicide to relatively minor civil cases. And in between every other kind of case you can think of.”
Nick Davidson’s legal career began with Duncan Cotterill in Christchurch, before moving to Young Hunter, where he became a partner in 1975. He went to the independent Bar in 1988 and was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1996.
After 47 years in the law, and having finished judging on 23 March this year, he is re-establishing a new life and practice in what he says is a “very different world”.
“I’m going to chambers in Christchurch where I will be operating as an arbitrator and mediator. I was doing arbitration work before I went on the Bench and the convention is former judges don’t appear in court again.”
An only child in Timaru who grew up playing on Caroline Bay beach, and of Scottish heritage, Nick boarded at St Andrew’s College in Christchurch where he became a drummer in the school pipe band.
He worked on the wharf, in wool stores, on pea harvesters, tractor driving and in high country shearing sheds to get through university. “This shaped me. Long hours, hard work and risk. The unions came in for stick but they were also protective. I believe in the dignity of the workforce no matter how menial the task.”
Studying law at Canterbury University, Nick says Professor John Burroughs was the real influence in his year. “He was not that much older than us but we all regarded him as an outstanding teacher and friend, and he remained that way over the years. Rigorous and with absolute clarity.”
His fellow students included Peter Whiteside QC, Justice John Fogarty, Terry Sissons, Prof Gordon Anderson of Victoria Uni, Mike French and Pip Hall QC.
Family of professors
Nick’s father Richard was managing director of DC Turnbull grain and seed merchants in Timaru, a firm he served all his working life – with the exception of the war years - until the age of 81.
“My father had a scholarship to attend Otago University to study law. The family go back in law in Glasgow and the Sorbonne, to the early 1600s.
“There’s a straight line of Davidsons who were professors of divinity, of law, of the humanities, right through until my father’s family came out to Otago in 1858.
“They broke with the law then. The family had a strong Welsh influence through the Lloyds - father was Richard Lloyd Ramsay Davidson. My grandfather became a banker and they worked in Otago and the goldfields. I never knew my grandfather, he died at 42 when he collapsed over the oars rowing competitively in Otago harbour.
“My father was left with a mother who did not work in those days, and a young sister. He had a scholarship but he couldn’t take it up because he had to look after them.
“They sold up in Dunedin and moved to Timaru. Dad walked the streets of Timaru looking for a pupillage with a lawyer. It was approaching the Depression and he could not get a job.
“He walked into DC Turnbull’s at 17 and they took him on as a clerk. He remained there for 64 years, becoming managing director and chairman of the board. The sea, the navy and the firm were his life.”
After six years in the navy, Nick’s father came back from the war with Nick’s mother, Margaret Blow, a nurse from Nottinghamshire, related to English magazine editor and socialite Isabella Blow. “She was a nurse through the blitz. She was a theatre nurse at airfields in Biggin Hill, and at Guys and St Thomas’s Hospitals and worked with pioneering New Zealand plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe.”
She was a nurse who was walking in London when a V1 rocket came down into the famous nightclub Café de Paris, on March 8, 1941. Thirty-four people were killed and about 80 injured.
“My mother was the first nurse into the rubble and the next day she appeared in the paper. These things were used for propaganda purposes. Our Maggie in her nurse’s uniform. She never told me about it and I found out from someone else.
“When I challenged her about it she said ‘that’s what people did’.”
“My mother devoted herself to bringing up the only child – me - and also immersed herself in the TB Association, which was rife in South Canterbury, especially at the pa at Arowhenua.
“My childhood memories at Waimataitai School were going out there with my mother to visit homes where TB was rife, delivering food to those families. Temuka and south Timaru had this problem.
“I remember being astonished by the impoverishment of the people. Many homes had no running water, a number did not have floors, just earth floors by the river. The memory of the inequality and deprivation stuck with me, and led to what I am doing now.”
Kids steered away from the law
Nick is married to Rosie and they have three children. Annabel is in London where she is an editor at Vanity Fair and also writes for the Daily Telegraph. “Annabel and her husband developed a cosmetics business which they sold a couple of years ago, bought land in Auckland, and they hope to return with their three children.”
“Son Guy, who has one child, lives in Auckland and runs a national recruitment company, and Tom, who has two boys, is a fund management advisor living in Matakana.”
There are no other lawyers in the immediate family. “I did not encourage my kids to pursue law. While I found it a fascinating career I found it took me away from home too much. I did not want to see the children have that sort of life.
“Reflecting on that now, things are very different. There is specialisation which means that when you become in charge of a particular area of law, practice is that much easier. In my time we were generalists and we did everything.
“My real interest is history and I read hugely, particularly biographies and autobiographies, and especially military history.
“I am ploughing into autobiographies by people I have known about but haven’t studied at all, for example, Major General Sir Howard Kippenberger, formerly a country solicitor, and his experiences growing up in New Zealand between the world wars and serving in both.
“I have been reading American writer Vendela Vida, all Joan Didion’s works, Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson, Helen Macdonald, Antonia Fraser on Marie Antoinette and Christopher Hardings’ Japan Story.
“I am also very interested in Scottish history, reading things like Camerons of the Glen [by Donald Offwood] and the story of the Davidsons and the various unsatisfactory alliances they had. I am going to visit the seat of the clan next year.
“We stood by the memorial cairn on the day of the anniversary of the Battle of Culloden (April 16, 1746) and it was incredibly emotional. A woman came out of the crowd with a huge bunch of sunflowers and put them on the cairn. The service was in Gaelic. The tears and the feeling made me realise what it meant to be a Scot. Very real, it struck me: that’s where I came from.”
The Davidsons were part of the Clan Chattan confederation with the Clan McPherson. Historian, lawyer and antiquary, William Forbes Skene, found the Davidsons to be descended from one of the sons of Gilliecattan Mhor, chief of Clan Chattan in the 11th and 12th century. The Davidsons were wiped out in 1370 in the battle of Invernahavon.
“My father talked about all this sort of stuff all the time. The family then moved north from the Borders area and that’s where the Davidsons of Cantrae and Tulloch families appeared.”
Nick played competitive squash, cricket, golf, rugby, and skied. He became involved in sport as a lawyer and was national commissioner for New Zealand Cricket for 17 years, involved in the disciplinary process and code of conduct.
“I have happy relationships with the likes of Martin Snedden and Chris Doig. Then I became involved with the judicial process for Super Rugby and representing the International Rugby Board in big tournaments.”
That led to a surprise move when - as a non-footballer - he was asked to take over from Sir Eion Edgar as president of New Zealand Football, a position he held for eight years.
“It was during that time when New Zealand had its best result getting to the finals at the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 and left undefeated.
“I was by then on the FIFA investigation committee. I thought I was suitable because I was a New Zealander and had a very long record of law with the Serious Fraud Office, going back to the Wine Box and prosecuting many of the cases for the Crown including Capital and Merchant Finance case, when a lot of directors and people went to jail.
“When I went to Zurich it was right at the fever pitch time of ‘how did Russia and Qatar get the World Cup?’.”
“I was on the investigation committee, with Michael Garcia, who is now a federal judge in New York. He wrote a report which I was not shown, which concerned me. I was pitched right into the middle of that controversy and became involved in the FIFA prosecutions of some of those who are now facing criminal trial in the United States.
“It was work I couldn’t continue because essentially it was close to full-time work and effectively unpaid except for the times you were there in Zurich. I became involved indirectly in the circumstances in which Sepp Blatter was removed. It was all part of that same story.
“I was still in discussion with New Zealand Football at that time but felt it was wrong to be president of New Zealand Football, hosting FIFA world cup games in New Zealand, and the same people we were hosting at that time were the same people in a FIFA context we were investigating.
“I stood down from the investigating committee while the hosting went on. I was by then aware of the acute irregularities that have since been reported. I found it very difficult but there was a job as a host to do. My intention was to resume that investigation work afterwards.
“I can say this … I was always extremely concerned that I could not see the Garcia report that was given to FIFA. I was not shown it, and I did not accept the reasons I was given.
“I was struck by Garcia’s absolute fearlessness and determination to expose and report as he did, because I then became part of the sweep that began after that, investigating individuals at a very high level.
“Blatter was removed not long after that, which he is still contesting. I found it an extremely fraught period investigating what were very, very serious allegations. Not just the World Cup allegations but other things, like the ordinary things that occur when vast amounts of money are going round the world – where they end up is a huge issue. That work could well have been full-time had I taken that on.”
Nelson Mandela’s South Africa
“My travels have usually been to the UK and London in particular to see family. I have been many times to South Africa as part of the SANZAAR tribunal. It was an enormous experience, being there shortly after Nelson Mandela took office, and seeing the way South Africa was responding.
“I have had a fascinating, rich and worthwhile contact with people from those earlier times who were adjusting to the Mandela era, including Lex Mpati, a senior judge. Frontline ANC activists, and people who were part of the apartheid regime. It taught me a great deal about the divisions that open up through race and had a big influence on what I am doing now.
“On the High Court two things struck me: the change in the nature of criminal activity from the time I practised as a criminal lawyer and as a fraud prosecutor. You don’t really see that violent depravity – you see a different depravity and greed. Serious nonetheless.
“What struck me in dealing with many appeals from the district court and having your own judgments sent on to the Court of Appeal is you look inside that part of New Zealand society where there are families simply immersed in violence.
“You look behind the scenes and the facts of trials. I’ve done quite a lot of homicide and sexual violation trials. The extreme violence which is committed in itself is shocking but you have to deal with it in an entirely unemotional way.
“But it certainly stuck with me when I saw the impact on families. Not just the victim but the circumstances of the perpetrator, in particular the effect on women and children.
“It led me to realise that a lot of the relevant considerations on appeal are the families of prisoners and how they deal with not having a parent, how do they see themselves.
“I developed an understanding and concern for those children which has led me now to getting involved with an organisation in Christchurch which takes on the toughest kids. Kids who can’t go to school because of their behaviour. They take them in and they are taught all sorts of life skills.
“It’s a school, it provides schooling but a great deal more and a great deal of mentoring. Kids aged 14, 15 and 16 heading very much the wrong way in life and the aim is to turn them around. I’ll also be involved with Pathways, with prisoners getting out of prison and getting work, so I’ll be giving a lot of my time to that area and youth at risk.
“I’m trying to understand the significance of imprisonment in a different way. When you are a judge you have got tramlines of authority to guide you in sentencing.
“People ask ‘how do you do it?’. It’s not so difficult in the sense you have very clear guidelines from the Court of Appeal as to where things sit and you’ve got to find where they sit. If you get it remarkably wrong you get appealed and that’s how the law develops.
“Towards the end of my time I started to come to some judgments on appeal that may not have been on the tramlines. Where I would see something about the appellant’s condition which hadn’t been picked up, and I would impose a sentence which reflected that.
“In other words trying to encourage people to change their ways. I spoke directly to a prisoner on one occasion. Had them brought from prison to court and talk to me to see if I was right in what I saw.”
Nick reflected on a recent murder trial he sat on in Timaru, the case of a man who killed his brother with a single stab to the heart.
The case involved a rare pre-sentencing report which focused on the cultural aspects of the offender’s life, his social dysfunction and the absence of any connection with family. In effect, a young man who did not know who he was or where he came from.
“It was desperately sad, and that led me to understand the complete estrangement some people have from their iwi, from their whānau. They had become so disengaged they had nothing, moving from foster home to foster home.
“There was a need for them to reconnect. They have pride when they realise where they are from. I have tried to learn as much te reo as I could. ”
Bagpipes and Welsh choirs
With a love of the pipes and drums and a former drummer in the St Andrew’s College pipe band, Nick says that, unfortunately for his wife, his enthusiasm is also largely for Welsh choirs. “I love the grand anthems … How Great Thou Art, particularly the Howard Morrison and Harry Secombe versions.”
“I am also a concert radio devotee, which is on most of the time.
“And I am partial to country and western. If you grew up in Timaru country and western was part of your life. Each year at Caroline Bay in particular. I’m a big fan of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and also Ray Charles.
“My favourite places to visit are Syracusa in Sicily, the Scottish Highlands, Bordeaux, London, Paris, San Francisco, New York, regional New Zealand and the Northland coast.
“I read voluminously. The Pacific war intrigues me. I have read all English military historian Antony Beavor’s books and Max Hastings’ books. I am fascinated by the history of the first world war, and how it began as a conflict between cousins over nothing. And how the waste that followed was a product of what really wasn’t anything of consequence, except the vanity of individuals.
“I am appalled that so many lives should have been lost and so many people affected over nothing. That troubles me when I now see conflicts arising out of what I see as egocentricity, and prejudice. Both of those things are to me the most dangerous influences we’ve got.
“My father was scarred badly by his experiences in a destroyer. Bunkering in South Africa when he saw black prisoners in chains carrying munitions and coal and supplies into the ship.
“The way they were treated by the guards affected him all his life. He could not get over men treating fellow countrymen in that way. It had a profound effect on me. He had a very Scottish philosophy – you treat everyone exactly the same.”
“I am a Netflix fan and my favourite programmes are Law & Order and the Shetland crime drama, which in America has subtitles.”
Nick’s is a dog-orientated household, with Billy, a big four-year-old chocolate Labrador/golden retriever cross currently taking front and centre place. “We have had many dogs. They all lie together. A boxer called Freddie, a Brussels Griffon called Alfie, who died at 14, Maggie, a Border collie … before that a long-standing family retriever called Paddington.”
“He was the gentlest dog in the world. He would put the childrens’ heads inside his jaws. We have had cats as well.
“My dinner guests would include Nelson Mandela, golfer Arnold Palmer – I admire the charisma he brought to the game of golf – Lord Denning, who was a beacon for our generation of lawyers, Sir Apirana Ngata, Helen Kelly, Lady Gaga, American journalist and author Joan Didion, Dame Anne Salmond and Mike King.
“I’m very seldom allowed near cooking, but we would start with pumpkin soup with olive oil, Banks Peninsula mussel fritters with aoli and lemon, followed by a lamb rack with damson jelly, greens but no root vegetables, pan fried Brussel sprouts. I’m a massive fan of Brussel sprouts and small barbecued corn cobs. And after my experience in South Canterbury I have never got over the quality of an absolutely fresh pea.
“For pudding Rosie does a magnificent fruit tart, a Black Doris plum tart with yoghurt.
“There would be no sauvignon blanc or pinot noir, but a Rioja or Côtes du Rhône. I would have begun the night with a BenRiach single malt whisky, and finish with a Speyside single malt, un-peated.
“Rosie has done many things, including designing clothes. The main feather in her cap is she was the first person to get food into the great American speciality food chains in New York … Dean & DeLuca, a chain of upscale grocery stores.
“She exported organic food which she had produced in Roxburgh in the old Rochdale factory. Exported organic apple glaze which no one had, for cooking.
“She had a thriving business exporting into there, and in New Zealand, which she sold to a major New Zealand food company some years ago. It was a real coup for her. It began in the kitchen and she developed the business and beat all the odds.
“When she ran into blockages over organic certification she was helped out enormously by Jim Anderton, who was in power at time. He cleared the blockages for her.
“Now she’s a very dedicated grandmother who devotes time to charitable and community work, and is in charge of our house building project in Matakana.”
Pathway to the law
Nick was initially drawn to law by what he knew of the great advocates of the day. “Seeing how they conducted themselves in criminal trials and in civil trials – which there were in those days, civil jury trials for personal injury.”
“I wanted to practise personal injury the way lawyers like Austin Young, Brian McClelland and Ralph Thompson did. The famous Canterbury lawyers.
“The ACC Act put paid to that in 1972, and I couldn’t make a living on that because it was winding down, so I switched to crime and domestic law.
“I had a very large practice in matrimonial property, then grew into civil until I started to prosecute for the Crown.
“What drew me to that was the theatre and the importance of the occasion in court. I was always struck by the fact these were moments of ‘in the door out the door’ resolution. It had winners and losers.
“I was very competitive as a sportsperson and it struck me that that would be something I would carry into law. I came to the view after not many years that the utter destruction of the loser and sometimes the destruction of the winner put a question mark across the whole process.
“Hence my extreme interest in resolution which is short of a court judgment. I believe in that very strongly. I have seen such misjudgment, such failure of people pursuing what sometimes is simply vanity projects in court. They end up with such a bloody nose, particularly in defamation, and so pointlessly.
“I have a real thing about individuals who have substance, using the court system to an extreme to pursue their own personal interests at the expense of other worthwhile litigation not getting in the door because there’s simply no time for it.
“Sitting as a judge you see the lawyers trying extremely hard, you know the effort that’s gone into their case. I took the view that no matter how much they were in difficulty I was going to listen and probe and make sure they could develop their case. I hope I had a reputation of being a polite judge rather than a rude judge.”
Willows Cricket Club
Medicine would be Nick’s alternative career, and there are family members in medicine. “I struck out down the classics line in the sixth form in the misguided view of the school that that was the way to get better marks in scholarship exams. It was a big call to make. I came back to Latin and French, which I loved and was more compatible with law.”
Nick is a long-standing member of Canterbury’s legendary Willows Cricket Club, which includes some of New Zealand’s cricketing greats, as well as a swathe of knights, judges and well-known business and sporting figures. “The club is run to the strictest rules of cricket and behaviour, right down to collar and ties. There are speeches afterwards, and the schools have to speak and thank the host. They are the things that give kids confidence.”
In Timaru, Nick went to Waimataitai School and became leader of the brass band, the only primary school in New Zealand that had one.
“We had a school reunion a while back and Norman Dickson, the last teacher who taught us, came along. To our astonishment he had kept all our exercise books from our year, going back to 1954. He kept them in his garage, and gave them back to us. He was a man without envy. So Waimataitai deserves a tick from me.”
The Davidson family home was wrecked in the Christchurch earthquakes. “Split in two, written off, and we sold it as is where is. The new owner patched it up.
“We now live in Akaroa and are building a house on farmland at Matakana, north of Auckland.
“As a judge the theatre never left me. When I stepped into court - sometimes in trepidation - but always with anticipation, intrigue and interest, it’s the whole theatre of life, and you are in the front row.”