New Zealand Law Society - The rock and roll jurist who wanted to be Mick Jagger

The rock and roll jurist who wanted to be Mick Jagger

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In another life he would have been born Mick Jagger in a (Jumping Jack) flash, but Queen’s Counsel Rhys Harrison settled for law, a High Court judgeship and eight years on the Court of Appeal.

A lifelong Rolling Stones fan, Rhys stepped down from the Court of Appeal in February, after reaching the mandatory judicial retirement age of 70.

“As a child I was allowed to go and sit at dances and watched the widgies with their big wide skirts and dressed up hair, doing rock and roll and I was fascinated.

Rhys Harrison QC
Entry to law
Graduated LLB from Victoria University in 1971. Admitted in 1971.
Fifth Floor, Shortland Building, Shortland Street, Auckland
Speciality area
Arbitration, mediation and general advisory work.
Rhys Harrison
Rhys Harrison

“I never had any desire to be a drummer in a rock and roll band but if I had been born Mick Jagger and the son of an economics professor from Kent University, I would have been in there like Flynn, doing all the things Mick’s done.

“Maybe not siring as many children but I would have been Mick Jagger in a flash.” says Rhys, who – after 47 years in the law, including 17 years as a judge - has returned to legal practice in Auckland and available for arbitration, mediation and general advisory work.

As the previously longest serving of the current crop of Court of Appeal judges, Rhys says he only ever considered medicine or journalism as alternative careers.

“I wanted to be a doctor but did not have the brains and was not good enough at natural sciences. I thought a lot about journalism but in the end, and encouraged by my father, I did law.”

His uncle Noel Harrison, who died in 2016 aged 87, founded the Wellington Polytechnic Journalism course in 1966.

“For some people, if you are a bit of a plodder, like I am, law becomes all-consuming. There are some among us who are multi-talented and can pursue other interests quite easily, and for others it’s more time consuming.”

Rhys came from a family of itinerant farm workers. His mother Shirley was a typist and his father Alex (Jock) – had an academic bent, but like many of his generation was born in a poor rural family.

“As the second of five boys he had to stay on the farm and never got a secondary school education. They were itinerant farmers who worked in Taranaki, Manawatu and the Wairarapa.”

As luck would have it Rhys’ father got a break with a Wellington clothing company in the 1930s and became apprenticed as a tailor – a career move which saw him go on to found Rembrandt Suits.

Rhys’s brother, matrimonial lawyer Geoff Harrison, died earlier this year.

He has three children and four grandchildren and his eldest daughter Ellie, is a senior associate at Wynn Williams in Auckland.

He is married to his second wife Frances, a retired school teacher. “It’s our second marriage for both of us. Frances and her first husband went to Australia for 30 years and had four children there. He started off the popular Bayswater Brasserie in Sydney.

“We were both on our own about five years ago when we re-met and she returned to New Zealand to live with me.”

Frances comes from the Dunedin family which founded chemical and cleaning product distributors Salmond and Spraggon. Her great uncle was Sir John Salmond, an eminent judge, legal academic and former Solicitor General, regarded in his time, in the early 20th century, as New Zealand’s most eminent jurist.

Idi Amin

After he qualified, Rhys travelled to Africa.

“I was in South Africa looking at the political system because I had a deep interest in it. I was very shocked by what I saw in apartheid. I went up through South Africa and got introduced to a law firm in Kenya who then introduced me to a lawyer in Kampala who was looking for somebody.”

That lawyer was Godfrey Lukongwa Binaisa QC, the first Attorney General of independent Uganda, who went on to serve briefly as President.

“It was an amazing experience and I spent the best part of a year doing everything. It was 1972, in the early days of Idi Amin and things did get unpleasant. Amin made threats against my boss who eventually left the country, returned in the late 1970s and was interim president.”

Rhys returned to practice with solicitors in Auckland, becoming a partner, first with Haddow & Co in 1975 and later with McElroy Milne. He went into practice as a barrister in 1987 and was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1994.

He was a member of the panel of prosecutors for the Serious Fraud Office, appointed a temporary judge of the High Court in 2001 and became a permanent judge in 2002. He was appointed to the Court of Appeal in 2010 and is entitled to use the title Honourable for life.

Film buff, sports lover

“I’m an obsessive exerciser and used to be a competitive open water swimmer. I still swim very frequently and have swum across Auckland Harbour from Rangitoto several times. It’s 4.8 kilometres to St Heliers and a nice way to pass the time.

“I spend a lot of time with the grandchildren, love reading and writing, but no major extra-curricular activities I would like to pursue now I am no longer a judge.

“I am a very keen sports follower and follow everything but there’s nothing on TV other than cricket and the BBC news.”

A keen film fan, he goes to every Film Festival film he can find.

“I like European and English films. The best movie I have ever seen is Locke, with Tom Hardy. Only one actor, in a car, taking many phone calls in a crisis.

I, Daniel Blake is a moving film telling of the toll wrought by the technology and the modern bureaucracy on a man who can’t deal with the system in England.

“He gets ground down by bureaucracy, his inability to complete forms, his lack of access to and familiarity with modern technology to complete online questionnaires and eventually he suffers a heart attack and dies. A terrible end but one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen.”

Widely travelled, Rhys says the best place in the world to travel is New Zealand, especially the South Island and places such as Timaru, so it won’t be a surprise if he turns up at next year’s Caroline Bay Rock & Hop festival.

“Everywhere in the South Island is my favourite. I love Wanaka and the Matukituki Valley, and have tramped Aspiring, Routeburn, Hollyford and Nelson Lakes national park.

“We did the Milford Track last year and took the long way back through Dunedin, going into Fleur’s Place at Moeraki – very worthwhile going to.”

A fan of American literature, he rates Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, Ernest Hemingway, John Updike and John Steinbeck among his favourite authors.

“There’s a lot of rubbishy writing around. One of my friends, who is a wonderful reader, (Court of Appeal judge) Raynor Asher says he is increasingly – and I’m doing it too – going back to classics and books you have read and re-read again.”


What he does do, is maintain a life-long and encyclopaedic love of rock and roll, jazz and country.

“I’m a big fan of the Rolling Stones, Presley, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris.

“My father used to take me to see Dave Brubeck and Oscar Petersen when they came here. And I love a lot of women country singers. Dolly Parton has a beautiful voice. I love Emmylou Harris and Roseanne Cash.

“Johnny Cash was a champion of a lot of very liberal causes. When folk singer Pete Seeger was ostracised and blacklisted, Johnny Cash had him on his show and supported him. Cash supported many people who were down and out. He fought for the underdog and fought for liberal causes.

“My late brother gave me some out-takes of old Johnny Cash shows and he had this young guy there talking in 1970, called him Mr Cash, a very nice young man and his name was Eric Clapton.

“They did a great session with Clapton, Cash and the great Carl Perkins, who influenced a lot of Presley’s music.

“I like contemporary jazz musician Keith Jarrett, and New Zealand country rock artist Marlon Williams and Delany Davidson from Lyttleton.

“My parents were very musical – my mother in particular. I played the piano, not very well, but we had music in our house all the time.”

It’s here that a couple of old Stones fans lapsed into Stones tales around former bassman Bill Wyman’s legendary ability to attract women on tour.

“On the Gimme Shelter tour of the US in 1972 the other Stones were in awe of Bill’s ability to attract women. Some members kept a tally.

“I love Charlie Watts, who looks like an Italian painter. Very laidback and funny. And very refined.

“I like English humour of the 60s and 70s - the Goons, Monty Python, Steptoe and Son.

“I like dogs but we don’t have any pets. I’m not likely to get one now – I’m worried who’ll go first, me or the pet. I was away on circuit a lot and it was a term of my employment that I commute to Wellington. After 450 flights I have had enough and it was hard to have a pet in that situation.

“I’m not into big cars and drive a 2011 VW Passat CC. I love VWs but not into cars, much to the mirth and often bemusement of my colleagues. A car is a car that gets me from A to B. I don’t have 20 Ferraris.

“Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling and Audrey Hepburn would cover the bases for dinner guests and I would leave the cooking to my wife Frances, who is a superb cook and cooks a lot of vegetarian food. I like cooking but I think my cooking development has been arrested.”


“My most memorable moment was my fourth appearance at the Privy Council, in a case involving the Stafford Mall, in Timaru.

“The developer financed it through Citibank in a foreign exchange loan that went wrong and he went to the wall. He sued Citibank and lost in High Court and Court of Appeal.

“I was acting for Citibank, the case was going to the Privy Council and people had been a bit dismissive of our prospects. Jim Farmer, who was on the other side and is a great friend of mine, described it as a rather optimistic appeal. He was putting me off my stride.

“The Privy Council is an amazing place. You come into this big old room and stand at a lectern. The law lords are seated in their civilian clothes at ground level, round a D-shaped table, and are not elevated.

“It evens the playing field, as they say.

“Sir Thomas Eichelbaum, the chief justice of New Zealand, was on the bench and that gave me a bit of a fright too.

“A whole lot of other New Zealand lawyers, including Sian Elias and John McGrath, who were waiting for their appeals, had come to watch.

“I was called up to speak, faced the judges and froze. I couldn’t say a word. There was a lot of shuffling. I downed two glasses of water - mine and the junior’s. The judges kept looking at me – they were very well-mannered.

“I thought to myself ‘I’m going to count to 10 and if I don’t say anything by then I’m going to just sit down’. At the count of seven, I said ‘May it please Your Lordships’.

“It is the only time I have been struck dumb, really dumb in a courtroom, dumb beyond belief. Everyone was shuffling their papers and looking around. I felt absolutely terrible.

“Things were a bit rocky for the first hour but it improved very much. We won the appeal in the end.

“I was blessed because I was at the Privy Council, as much if not more, of any barrister of my generation.

“It was a crucible of learning for me. The best place I could ever go. You learned as an advocate all the arts of presenting your case in the most effective way possible.”

Asked if New Zealand should have retained the Privy Council as its final appellate body, Rhys paused before answering.

“I think the Privy Council is a marvellous institution. I understand the arguments both ways.

“But I always thought the fact that it was truly independent of New Zealand was a great virtue and I always thought the other great virtue was our access to the best legal minds in the British Commonwealth.

“Others will have a different view. I think the judges valued New Zealand lawyers appearing there. I felt very blessed to have the chance to go there eight times. It was a marvellous opportunity for me as a lawyer.

“I feel blessed I have had a career in the law, which is remarkably satisfying. Cases come and go and the best part of it is the people you meet and the situations you encounter.

“You have an exposure to a wide range of people, their issues and problems and the ability to help them resolve them.

“I have no regrets, no, I never look back.

“Deep down I’m a bleeding heart and one of the reasons I went into law is I thought I might be able to make a difference, and I haven’t, so I might now. I don’t know how you measure making a difference. I’d like to get back and do something more for the wider good.

“So I’m trying my luck, following the well-trodden path of attempting to do some arbitration and mediation. Whether that succeeds is in the lap of the Gods. No, I will not be doing any court work.

“I have done enough of that, inflicting pain on judges and I have also suffered enough from that as a judge.”

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