With a passion for criminal law Mark Williams has crossed the court room floor more times than most, working as both a prosecutor and defence lawyer in four commonwealth jurisdictions. Now he’s bringing his knowledge, skills and experience from both areas into his new role heading up the largest Public Defence office in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Tell us about your journey into the law I’m from the UK originally. I grew up in the countryside near Exeter which is in the South West. I didn’t actually study law for my undergraduate degree but went on to do a law conversion course at Exeter University. That’s not an unusual route into the law in the UK. I then did the Bar vocational course at the Inns of Court School of Law in London.
I was admitted to the bar in 1996. I worked as a barrister in London, initially across a range of areas before I really began to specialise in criminal law and where my passion grew. I did both prosecution and defence work.
So how did you come to be in New Zealand? My partner and I came here in 2010. We’d been on a few holidays and really liked the work life balance that New Zealand offered. My partner got a job here so lucky for us we came to Auckland. We love the access to the outdoors that we have, even living in the country’s largest city. It’s very different to being in London.
I qualified here and spent a year working for a disputes resolution company specialising in ACC claims. I found that really fascinating work despite being outside my comfort zone.
I then joined Meredith Connell as an Associate in their criminal team, before moving on to a role in the leadership team at the Serious Fraud Office where I was General Counsel from 2014 to 2016.
My partner and I then went to Canada for a year. I completed the Accreditation Examinations through the Federation of Law Societies of Canada (Toronto) but never practised. We came back to New Zealand in 2017 and I joined Kayes Fletcher Walker in South Auckland as a Principal Prosecutor.
Were the three jurisdictions you have studied in all very similar?
The UK and New Zealand are very similar. Canada’s legal system is more complex. The principals are all similar but they have a very different way of doing things. It took a good year to fully understand the system over their due to its complicated nature. I have really enjoyed studying the different systems and working across different jurisdictions too.
I’m actually admitted to the bar in Samoa and the Cook Islands. I prosecuted quite a high-profile case in Samoa that involved a former Speaker of Parliament and others. I’ve been to the Cook Islands twice and undertook prosecution work there. The photograph is of me after being admitted in the Cook Islands.
Both Pacific Island jurisdictions are similar to New Zealand so it’s been relatively easy moving between them. But there are challenges and unexpected differences that keep me on my toes.
What’s it like switching between prosecution and defence work? It’s really common for barristers in the UK to work across both fields. Both areas require you to rely on your advocacy and legal skills. I’ve found it relatively easy switching between the two but I am really pleased to be back working in defence in my new role as Public Defender for Manukau. This feels like I’m coming back to my roots as I started my career doing defence work.
Which ever side of the case you’re representing it’s not really about the result but how you run the case and how you give it your best.
Tell us about the Public Defence Service in Manukau We’re the largest public defence team as part of the PDS in New Zealand. There’s 35 lawyers in the team, five graduates and around 13 support staff. We also have a number of Duty Lawyer Supervisors.
We are growing and entering a new and exciting phase of our history. We have a really good mix of staff ranging from juniors to more senior practitioners. This is a great space to start your career as a junior lawyer as you’ll quickly gain real-world experience. We deal with some of the most serious cases in South Auckland and represent some of the most marginalised people in the criminal justice system.
Because I’ve been based in South Auckland I’ve know many of the team here and those who have worked for the PDS. They have a great reputation and I’m really proud to be taking on the role heading up the team. It’s only my third week and we’re now in lockdown so I’m very quickly getting up to speed with what the team does!
I’m really excited about the opportunities we have to grow the team, attracting new talent to the area and the positive impact we can have for the community. We can make a significant difference for people at an incredibly difficult time in their lives. That’s a huge privilege and one that no defence lawyer takes lightly.