New Zealand Law Society - George Barton celebrates 60 years as a lawyer

George Barton celebrates 60 years as a lawyer

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Wellington lawyer Dr George Barton QC celebrated 60 years at the bar on 24 March 2008. Yet when he began his tertiary education, it was not the law he started studying. For his first three years at university, George studied the classics and mathematics at Otago University, graduating with a BA.

After his second year, he began taking law units at Otago and, at the end of 1943, he decided to concentrate on law, studying further at Victoria University and graduating an LLB in 1948.

Perhaps the best tribute to his six decades in practice comes from barrister and former Minister of Justice Bill Jeffries.

At a Government House dinner to mark George's 60 years as a lawyer, Bill Jeffries described him as "the leader of the New Zealand bar" (the emphasis was Bill's).

During George's second decade in the law – 1958-1968 – "you became one of the most admired teachers of law at Victoria University, combined with practice at the bar in Wellington.

"You made your first appearance in the Privy Council (of 11 in total) in Attorney-General v Lower Hutt City Corporation in 1965, a case concerning the then-controversial issue of the fluoridation of water supplies."

The third decade saw George secure his reputation as one of New Zealand's leading legal figures in three historic cases, Bill Jeffries said.

"In 1971, in Parsons v Burk, you affirmed the continuing availability in New Zealand of the prerogative writ ne exeat regno in the plaintiff's (Parsons) attempt to prevent the 1971 All Blacks tour of South Africa, in order to avoid prejudice to New Zealand interests.

"In 1976, you argued and won in the Privy Council the Europa Oil taxation case … you also argued and won the Fitzgerald v Muldoon case.

"Three days after Mr Muldoon had uplifted his warrant of Prime Ministerial office … on 12 December 1975, he issued a press statement purporting to suspend employer statutory obligations to make credit payments to a statutory fund – pending Parliament's presumed repeal of the New Zealand Superannuation Act 1974 sometime in the middle of the following year.

"In what is widely regarded as a masterpiece of pleadings and submissions … you secured a Supreme Court – as the High Court was then – declaration that the Prime Ministerial press statement was unlawful because only Parliament can (suspend the operation of) its own statutes."

The judgment of Chief Justice Wild on this matter is still quoted throughout the common law world.

"In the fourth decade ... another historic case was the 1982 case of Lesa v Attorney-General, in which you won a declaration from the Privy Council that Lesa and many thousands of other Samoans born during the relevant time period were British nationals (and hence, citizens of New Zealand).

"Not for nothing has Samoa honoured you with the title, matai."

Even more than the academic and professional achievements "is the man himself", Bill Jeffries said.

"In your chambers over the years … you have assisted, counselled and inspired countless practitioners. And in the coffee shops, you have generously given fellow practitioners tips about pleadings, wisdom as to practice, references to particular legal authorities and, above all, encouragement."

But there is one honour the former Justice Minister did not mention. George was given membership of the American Law Institute, the only New Zealand lawyer who was not a judge to be granted the honour at that time. (He has since been joined by Campbell McLachlan QC.)

One of the aspects of practice that George has valued is the "inherent interest" of the problems that arise.

"They are not only strictly legal problems, but they are problems of a much wider nature because they have an impact on how we view ourselves as a society," he says.

"Another thing I have greatly enjoyed over the years, and I haven't been alone in this, is the collegiality of the legal profession.

"You are in a group of people that you know very well and part of the whole process is testing your ideas against what previous judges have said on that topic and on what commentators have said about it," he says.

"I have been very fortunate to have had colleagues in the law who were fellow students and a large number who were pupils of mine."

This was highlighted in a particular way during a case in the Court of Appeal some 15 years ago.  During the Employment Court decision appeal, George realised that everybody in the courtroom except the registrar had been a student of his.

Helping people – whether they are clients, other practitioners or students – has also been a very big motivator for George. And in helping people, he has become very close friends with a number of them.

Leaving the last word to Bill Jeffries, he said there was a description that he considered summed up George Barton – and that is the old Scottish saying: "He's a good man to run the river with."

This article appeared in LawTalk 702, 18 February 2008, page 18.

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