Regarded fondly as a true Gentleman of the Bar, leading Auckland crime barrister Roger Chambers’ colourful life includes owning racehorses, running restaurants, travel to exotic locations, owning more than 30 pubs and enjoying many more.
At 76 he is very much still involved in the legal profession. He is the secretary, and a founding member of, the Criminal Bar Association.
“I’ll be lawyering until I can’t stand up and say something. As long as I can stand up and say something that helps someone I’ll do it.”
- Roger Preston (Roger) Chambers
- Epsom, Auckland.
- Entry to law
- Graduated LLB from Auckland University. Admitted in 1968.
- Head of Chambers, Vulcan Chambers, Vulcan Lane, Auckland.
- Speciality area
Where to start with such a legendary character whose legal roots go back to when lawyers, cops and crims drank under the same roof and there was honour among the criminal fraternity?
And whose chambers holding company is called Carefree Screws Ltd?
Begin at the beginning, as they say …
Law meant not cutting people up
Brought up in a big property in Epsom – his father ran a stevedoring company and his mother kept the home – Roger and his two younger brothers and sister played among bomb shelters and slit trenches in a war-time Auckland.
“I was one of those responsible people. Our parents had spent a lot of money on our education and I felt I had a real obligation that when I left school I did something that gave recognition to the efforts my parents gave not only me but my brothers and sister.
“I was proficient in Latin so it was a toss-up between law and medicine, but I decided against medicine because that meant cutting people up. So law appeared to be a more practical move,” he says.
“But as part of securing my free education through the universities I ended up for several seasons as a slaughterman in the freezing works covered in blood and gore.
“I went to Dunedin for a winter sports tournament and stayed on for a wee while, attended a few parties then came home because a young lady I was interested in graduated as a physiotherapist and went to Wellington Hospital, so I came back to Auckland.
“I used to go down once a fortnight to see her on my Vespa 125cc scooter, until that all fell over. I graduated from Auckland, didn’t do more than was absolutely necessary and didn’t aspire to honours degrees.
“Professor Bernard Brown – who is still about - had a huge influence on me. His lectures were so entertaining when viewed alongside others who taught boring subjects.”
A statuesque girl from Tauranga
About 1960 Roger got his first job as a law clerk with “a lovely firm” called Milne and Meek. He was law clerk to Francis William Laidlaw Milne, a commercial lawyer, chairman of Reid Rubber, a former mayor of One Tree Hill Borough Council and a staunch Presbyterian.
“He set me up at a little table in his office and I was privy to every discussion that went on with some very important clients – one of them being Barfoot & Thompson,” says Roger.
“His partner, Bill Meek, was an ebullient Yorkshireman and my job for him was to go across to DeBrett’s Hotel every day at 2 o’clock and bring him back to the office. I also locked the office doors between 1 and 2 to prevent entry by members of the public and clients.
“Bill would then come back to the office because there was always an array of mature women, generally dressed in purple, wearing large strings of pearls, who came in to see him with 500 pounds to invest on a mortgage.
“I left that firm because I was upset at how they had treated another staff member. Her name was Pamela – I liked her - and I must say she was a very statuesque girl from Tauranga.
“After a couple of years they found out she had an evening job - a couple of nights in a coffee bar in Vulcan Lane. They took umbrage that she was working there and fired her. I took umbrage at that and resigned.
“I went to Haddow Chilwell Pain and Palmer and was interviewed by Denis Pain, who was later made a district court judge. When he stood up I saw a copy of Best Bets sticking out of his back pocket and I quite liked that.
“Muir Chilwell, who was later knighted and served 18 years as a High Court judge, was a fabulous commercial lawyer. I started off with the late, notorious - or celebrated - Edward Poulter Leary and we had an absolute bloody ball. Muir Chilwell was a mentor of myself and Eb Leary and one of the greatest minds in law.
“But I got sick of commercial law. I wanted to do something useful and practical. The same day I was admitted to the Bar in 1968 I was admitted to partnership.
“The influence of Denis Pain saw me spend an awful lot of time in the Occidental and Queen’s Ferry taverns. Denis looked after some pretty tough fellows in those days. Two Fats Smith, Burglar Bill Tierney - The Occidental was a meeting place for everyone at lunchtime, whether you were a lawyer, insurance agent, bank manager, accountant - we all went there every day.
Crims and cops
“Sharing the premises were also some heavy duty crims - the Mr Asia crowd, Rudolf Denis Alford. We had our tables, they had theirs.
“A policeman who belonged to the consorting squad called Tony Beattie enjoyed a beer and was in the pub most days. The crims knew he was a copper and probably reporting on them but they fixed him, filled him up with beer and he slept in the corner. Business continued.
“As my interest in criminal law continued - I had done a few jury trials by then - we would meet every morning for a whisky and milk at 9 then tootle up to the old magistrates’ court where we spent most of our time. But all back in the pub by midday, or at the RSA in the High Street.
“We had so much fun in those days and life was a good deal less complicated.
“I enjoy the eclectic mix of people you get in pubs. It’s how I got started in criminal law as a devotee of early openers. You always knew some guy was going to court because suddenly he was wearing a clean shirt, so I’d sidle up and offer to help. That’s how it all started.”
Roger has what he describes as a “huge Australian history” and many of his forebears were lawyers in Australia from the turn of the 19th century.
His civil engineer and surveyor grandfather came over from Australia to survey parts of the King Country – “which was a lost cause because as soon as he surveyed a piece of land and bunged the pegs in the local Maori came along and pulled them all out.”
Fun as part of the job
Naturally, Roger looks back on his career in very favourable terms.
“Having fun has kept me in it. I have had a most remarkable and happy career in the law and I get a kick out of helping people.
“There’s loads of money to be made in commercial law and I am gobsmacked when I read about partners in big firms wanting to achieve millions of dollars in fees. That leaves me angry and annoyed.
But it hasn’t been all fun and games, and he recalls two particularly difficult periods.
“When I was a partner at Haddow Chilwell Pain and Palmer we had a nominee company which was used like a private bank and all of us got prosecuted for the administration of that. No money was lost but I was suspended for six months for having insufficient regard to the adequacy of the security. We were all in it together including a chap who later became a High Court judge.
“The other blow, which I didn’t quite get over, was because all the things I got involved in, including pubs, restaurants, trawler and race horses, played a part in the loss of my first marriage, which I always regret because I thought it was quite unnecessary.
“My first wife Virginia is mother of my three children and I am very fond of my first wife, as I am of my second wife Bobbie. My eldest, Victoria, an independent thinker who has a slightly rebellious nature from her mother, is my personal secretary.
“My son Richard has a BCom in management and worked for me until one day he asked my permission to become a policeman. I said certainly, I count among some of my very best friends – some now dead – some bloody good cops.
“I gave my permission provided he observed three requests: Always treat your prisoners with respect and fairness because you’ll get what you want; always rise above the politics of an institution and the third message was a very strong one and that was to never ever listen to Det Sgt ‘Fingers’ Flannagan – who’s now dead – he was the world’s greatest bullshitter.”
Richard Chambers, who is 44, is now an assistant commissioner of police based in Wellington, with the nickname Felix the Cat – “one of his first jobs as a probationary constable was to attend, police car and all, a wounded cat that had been run over in Avondale. He could not save the cat so there was judicious use of a baton.
“My youngest daughter Elizabeth didn’t work for me but she too became a police officer and is living in Te Puna outside Tauranga.”
Trains and boats and pubs
A keen stamp collector, billiards player and sport watcher, Roger boxed, played rugby and ran steeplechases in his youth. “I belong to a group of guys who for years have been going to the Bledisloe Cup in Sydney, although our ranks are getting a bit thin, and sometimes we have got to the games.
“Pubs have always featured in my life. The first one I had, in partnership with a couple of others, was the Kopu Station Hotel outside Thames. I got bought out - I think I had a tax problem so cash was important.
“I had interests in pubs from north of Kataia through to The Lodge in Hanmer Springs but that one was only brief. I owned about 30-odd pubs at varying times, including Palmerston North’s Café De Paris, a bit of a dive and it was demolished last August after 123 years.
“One of my favourites was Makuri, 32km east of Paihiatua. We never had a problem with police because if a police car headed down a country road in clouds of dust we always got telephoned by local farmers to say someone was on their way. It didn’t have a huge turnover, we sold more in school lunches and had a couple of petrol pumps outside.
“Much later Bobbie and I helped out doing the evening shift at the Queen’s Ferry in Vulcan Lane. I love the contact with people, its great fun. My mother’s side had a history of owning hotels, it’s in the blood. In pubs you meet fascinating people – even journalists – who are not always pissed.”
For several years pre-quota, Roger leased a 90ft steel ocean-going trawler with a skipper who was thrown out of the navy for punching an officer.
“I didn’t make any money because these buggers would offload some of the catch into the back of taxis. Reluctantly, I got in the press gang situation and rounded up crew from fishermen who had come ashore and spent all the money in the pubs.”
A passionate train traveller – “I like the philosophy of trains” - there’s not many places he hasn’t ridden the iron rails.
“The Eastern and Orient from Singapore to Bangkok is a plush and brilliant experience – it’s built up out of converted stainless steel rolling stock from New Zealand. Similarly, the trans-Mongolian from HongKong/Beijing through to Ulaanbaatar is brilliant – I did that with Richard. Bobbie likes the trains, provided there is a never-ending supply of bubbly and good company.
To relax he indulges in music and books.
“I enjoy easy listening but I’m not musical. At King’s School the glee club did a musical called Summer Song based on Dvorak’s New World Symphony and when I go to distant courts I like to play it on the way. I have been known, depending on the amount of gin drunk, to also fancy Meatloaf.
“I read anything I get my hands on, mainly historical novels. I’m reading John Wukovits’ One Square Mile of Hell about when US marines went ashore at Tarawa in what is now Kiribati, with shocking loss of life. As a small boy I remember many of those troops stationed in New Zealand.
“The last film I went out to see was Dudley Moore in Arthur. I enjoy The Bill on TV and The Crown – mainly at the cajoling of my dear wife. I don’t have a cellphone and don’t want one. I have trouble with TV remotes, I have never sent a text, my daughter Victoria finally taught me how to access my emails in the office and I don’t have a computer on my desk. I have a good, happy, busy professional life without the electronics.
“I’d have Winston Churchill round for dinner and my first wife Virginia. Seated at the table would also be my second wife Bobbie, at the other end Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida, Leonard Leary QC and a host of people I have represented who have been so interesting, including Rudolf Denis Alford – who ran with Two Fats Smith.
Changing face of crime
Crime has changed dramatically in Roger’s nearly 50 years at the Bar. “It is not sophisticated, there is far too much domestic violence and parenting of young children is abysmal.
“People are rude, there is a huge lack of respect all round and I am getting tired of trying to help people or represent them when they have done huge damage to themselves, in text messaging, for example.
“I’ve appeared before hundreds of judges in many courts and they are generally very good. Sir Muir Chilwell stands out. I was approached to go on the bench in Samoa, but that fizzled out because a hurricane turned up and blew the house away.
“I was shoulder tapped three times to go on the district court bench and politely declined. I valued my freedom. I did not want to become a servant of the government.
“I would find it difficult to sit in judgment on anyone, and probably not able to sit in Auckland. If I had a bad day in the office, which is very infrequent, I couldn’t toss my files around, curse and swear and go across the road to the pub. When you are on the Bench you are stuck with it.
“I’d love to be a publican. I’ve always hankered to open up a small wine bar in competition to the Queen’s Ferry and The Occidental, to piss the owners off.
Vulcan Chambers is renowned for its hospitality.
“We have drinks every night but our main evening is Friday. There were times when half the police force would turn up and drink all the booze. Anyone passing by can step in. We are involved in a pretty tough and uncompromising industry and I always believed you have to have fun and enjoy what you do so having a laugh and a drink is better than any pill.”
Which brings us back to Carefree Screws.
“Years ago a chap gave me a dud cheque. I tried to decipher the company on which he drew the dud cheque and I couldn’t, but figured it was Carefree Screws Ltd.
“I was given permission to incorporate it myself and that is the holding company which has operated Vulcan Chambers since 1982. I started in one small office in Giffords Building in Vulcan Lane and now pretty well occupy the whole building over three floors and have 13 fairly senior barristers with me.”
Timaru-based Jock Anderson has been writing and commenting on New Zealand lawyers and New Zealand's courts for most of his career in journalism. Read more of his law-related news with a touch of humour on Jock’s website www.caseload.co.nz and on his Facebook page. Contact Jock at firstname.lastname@example.org.