New Zealand Law Society - League-loving country Catholic’s race track adventures

League-loving country Catholic’s race track adventures

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Brian Dickey
Brian Dickey

Coming from an “ordinary Catholic school,” Auckland Crown Solicitor Brian Dickey couldn’t find a place to stay in Dunedin so did law in Wellington, where his mate’s sister found them space in her flat.

“My mate from school, Duncan McGill, who is now a partner at Duncan Cotterill in Auckland, and I couldn’t get into an Otago student hostel. No-one wanted us in Dunedin. Probably wisely enough.” says Brian, a long-time prosecutor at Meredith Connell, who has held the Crown warrant in Auckland for two years following the appointment to the High Court of Simon Moore.

“We went to what might be referred to as an ordinary Catholic school. So we didn’t have a big pull on the traditional hostels at Otago at the time. They were taken by the great and good of the private schools. Duncan’s sister offered us a place to flat in Wellington and did law at Vic. I suppose I wanted to do law but I wouldn’t say I had any passion to be a lawyer.

Brian Harold (Brian) Dickey.
Entry to law
Graduated LLB from Victoria University in 1990. Admitted in 1990.
Crown Solicitor and partner at Meredith Connell, Auckland.
Speciality area

“Basically I wanted to move out, leave home. In those days you received an accommodation allowance if the course you took wasn’t offered at your local university.

“Waikato didn’t offer law then, so had to do it somewhere. I was an English and history guy, and into debating at school. So law was what you did if you couldn’t do maths or science, didn’t like blood and couldn’t bear the thought of accounting.

“As a result of a series of attractions and mitigating circumstances I took law. I was sort of backed into a corner. What’s a kid to do?”

Brought up around a succession of country schools in Waikato, Bay of Plenty and Thames Valley, where his father was a primary schoolteacher and headmaster, Brian ended up in Te Awamutu, at the age of 12.

“Dad was the son of a Waihi miner and Mum’s family were Croatian migrant dairy farmers in the Thames Valley. There were no legal connections in the wider family.

A family of dairy farmers

“I’d watched television about what lawyers did. Rumpole and LA Law, and read a couple of JB Mortimer’s books. I didn’t know a lot about practising law. Family, friends and cousins were all dairy farmers.”

Brian’s attraction to prosecuting began when he was offered a job after he left university with the then Rotorua Crown solicitors Davys Burton.

“I wanted to go to court. I might have found my way there anyway in time because I like the public interest side to litigation whether it’s criminal or not criminal. I did quite a lot of other non-criminal litigation. I’ve tended to be for the plaintiff, someone bringing a case rather than the defendant.”

A veteran of more than 300 trials – most of them during his lengthy career at Meredith Connell - Brian prosecuted his first trial at 22 – a drug cultivation case he lost. “My second and third trials, drugs and aggravated robbery, in the High Court – which in those days did a lot more low-level crime – resulted in convictions.

“We’re not allowed to talk about success rates, but in general terms there would be about 70 to 78 percent convictions in my trials. It is higher in more serious crime. In more serious stuff we tend to get a much higher conviction rate. High Court trials of more than two weeks duration probably get conviction percentages in the 80s and 90s.”

Married to Roanna Gravit, also a lawyer but who hasn’t worked in law for a while, the couple have three sons – the oldest in his second year of law at Victoria University, a 17-year old in his last year at school and a 14-year old also at St Peter’s Catholic College in Epsom.

“My kids have plenty of time to figure out what they want to do. You can go to the wrong job and have a bad experience of law. The dropout rate is horrendous. You should take time to make your mind up over what to do in law. I know - law is not a subject I’m strong in.

“I was a traditional Catholic schoolboy, playing a form of rugby through school and into university – not at a great level but with some enthusiasm. I retain an interest but it’s gone from being passionate to being interested.

“The boys have played rugby and league, and one is into basketball. I enjoy rugby league which is a good change from my upbringing. I got to know a lot of guys at the Mt Albert club and enjoy their company. There’s something at grassroots level that is a bit more community and real about league.”

A goer for the gee-gees

From a young age Brian ran bets for his “hard case” grandmother who sat up in the stand at Te Rapa racecourse.

“I was brought up on race tracks in the summer months in the Waikato, going round with my parents. I would be in the public stand while they were in the members’ stand.

“I’m afraid I’m a horse racing enthusiast. Which derives more from the Catholic upbringing than the sport of kings.”

It’s an enthusiasm which has met with some success.

In partnership with Paul Wicks QC, Brian races four-year-old bay gelding Gravano, which has won five races at Ellerslie, including three so far this season.

Trained by Peter and Dawn Williams at Byerley Park, Karaka, Brian describes Gravano as “by far the best of the horses we’ve had.” Gravano won the $30,000 Australian Turf Club Trophy at Ellerslie in February, taking his winnings to $70,000.

“I don’t have a big stake in them but I do like the horses. Wicksie assures me we are going all the way to Melbourne this year, whether that’s the Cox Plate or the Cup is yet to be determined. But I always take Wicksie at his word.”

Croatian roots and exotic countries

“I might watch cricket on TV and I am an enthusiastic rather than accomplished skier. The family went to Whistler in Canada a couple of years ago. It was fantastic. My first time overseas skiing. We ski in the North and South Islands, usually in school holidays. Coronet Peak is my favourite spot in New Zealand and Heidi’s Bar there is very good.

“I followed the well-beaten OE track in my early 20s, through South-east Asia, Thailand, east and west Europe, Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary - not too long after the veil of the east had come down. Then Syria, Jordan, Egypt in 1994.

“I did bits of fill-in legal work in London to make ends meet.”

With strong connections to, and second cousins in Croatia, Brian had a trip there five years ago and is planning to go back for another visit this year to Dubrovnik.

“It’s great to go back, especially as my grandfather was born there. To see the place he was born and I can understand why he left.

“I’m not musical and it is a bad night when I’m singing. I like all that music of my time at uni, post punk stuff … Joy Division, New Order, Elvis Costello, Hunters and Collectors, and I like the stuff the boys bring home.”

British performer Adele has been and gone and Brian didn’t see her. “I’d like to have a beer with her, an arm wrestle and talk about the football but I’m not really an Adele kind of guy. I don’t like that kind of angry woman artiste.

“My wife is a prolific reader and I pick up every third book of hers which she thinks I might be able to manage. They are predictably spy thrillers or crime novels.

“I like Michael Connelly (The Lincoln Lawyer), and Scandinavian crime stories. Some non-fiction like End of the Cold War, which came out last year. I’ve read a bit of Antony Beevor and Robert Harris.

“Most TV watching is with Netflix. I liked Narcos … had to get through first five shows to grasp it. Breaking Bad, Vikings and I have started The Americans. Homeland drives me nuts. And Big Little Lies on Soho.

‘Not serving justice well’

“There are some things that concern me about Auckland at the moment. Organised crime and the proliferation of meth, which is really the same thing. The third is sexual violence.

“There is a sexual violence court pilot in Auckland and we need to do better in that area because it’s still too tough on the complainant.

“We’re not serving justice well because we are not getting the best information from complainants for juries to make decisions - which may be guilty or not guilty verdicts.

“We should be striving to do better and the sexual violence pilot may be an avenue to help that.

“But Auckland’s biggest problem now is organised crime and meth, and meth is right through society. It throws up at the lower levels because they are already involved in criminal activity but it is ruining households and lives in other echelons as well.

“In a bad day – such as day two of the complainant giving evidence in the Dome Valley trial – I wonder if there must be something better that I could have done.”

The recent Dome Valley trial – which Brian prosecuted and resulted in a raft of convictions - revealed appalling and graphic details of how a group of mainly young women kidnapped, threatened to kill, attempted to murder and sexually degraded another young woman.

“People often ask what toll a trial like that takes. It’s hard to assess. Everything has to have an effect, it’s the law of physics. It must harden you.

“I must be more hardened than I was at 22 when did my first High Court trial. The experience hardens you. But because you are doing something about it as the prosecutor you are not helpless or hapless.

“You are doing something about it. I don’t feel a particular impact from it. I don’t feel as if each case buffets me. You sit there with the details. But because you are taking a positive action in response and in respect of it, it doesn’t get you down in the way people might think it would.

“If not in the law I would probably have drifted off into the banking or finance world and wouldn’t have found that fulfilling or interesting over time. That’s where the guys went who didn’t head down the law track. They all ended up overseas as bankers but I don’t think I would have lasted in that.

“Maybe I should have got into horse syndications. I don’t ride a horse. I’m a purist, I back them.”

“My car is a beaten-up 2007 BMW 330D. I drive it into kerbs and parking building pillars. I’m not a car guy. One day I’ll get a proper car.

“We have good dinner guests round our place all the time. But I would have my mates, Matthew Hooton and John Campbell, and their wives. There’s a usual mix of Westmerians who end up at our place quite regularly.

“We’ve just got a slow cooker so would probably have a standing rib. If you look after the meat everything thing else looks after itself, and duck fat potatoes. Pyramid Valley wine would be important and something from Hans Herzog in Marlborough, probably chardonnay. I’m a wine enthusiast rather than a buff.”

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