For Belinda Sellars it has always been about the underdog.
From her days as a junior in the District Court representing some of Auckland’s most determined drink drivers, to her current post as one of the country’s top criminal barristers, Ms Sellars does not shy away from a fight.
“I’ve had a circuitous route,” she says modestly from her Chancery Street chambers.
“I started pretty early. I was still only 16 when I started university. I had missed seventh form which wasn’t that unheard of in my day.”
Counting backwards, she figures she was just 21 when she began representing clients.
“That does sound very young. I can’t remember exactly, but it would have been around that.”
Now, at the age of 47, she is about to mark a year since being appointed Queen’s Counsel in November 2018. While there may not have been much time for reflection since the announcement last year, her wide smile when asked about it tells its own story.
“It’s extraordinary,” she says. “I’m so thrilled by it. It had been something that I had always thought would be a wonderful thing to achieve and I’m incredibly grateful.”
Unpicking reactions to her appointment results in an interesting discussion about changes in the legal industry during Ms Sellars’ career. She was one of five women in the 10-strong group of appointees last November.
“I’ve had so much positive reaction, particularly from younger lawyers and women and people of different backgrounds,” she says. “I find that very pleasing – that I can be somebody that can be approached.”
Law in a less dominating age
Related comments on the topic of “diversity in the law”, and the increasing prominence it has received in recent years, show a maturing of both Belinda Sellars and the profession.
It starts with her path into law. Coming from a family of lawyers, it seemed like a natural fit and “eminently doable”, she says light-heartedly.
With Vietnamese heritage, she stands out from the stable of “old white men” which has dominated the profession, though that was not something she paid much attention to.
Rather, it was all about the work, Ms Sellars says.
“I suppose it was a familiar environment to me because of my family and always being around it. But, I now see how it must be quite unsettling for someone, particularly if you don’t have the background.
“Honestly, I’ve probably spent my career just sort-of looking in one direction and charging ahead a bit, rather than reflecting that much. There was a time when there didn’t seem to be room for much else – particularly the end of the 80s and the 90s. All you did was think about how much [you were going to bill].”
And while men still dominate the legal profession, progress since her early days has been significant, she says.
“It’s interesting talking about diversity in the law now. When I first started, it really was lots of old white men, even though we were equal amounts coming through law school. There were women around, but they seemed to fade away quite quickly. That still happens now, but hopefully it’s changing a bit.”
One of the things she has noticed, which underlies the need for better representation in the legal workforce, is how her presence as a person of mixed ethnicity often puts some clients at ease.
“I sort of look like I’m of no fixed ethnicity. It’s actually an advantage because clients feel comfortable. And I think it’s something that we often underestimate – how seeing someone who might share your background can impact that client/advocate relationship.”
Ms Sellars has Vietnamese ancestry and speaks French, which she picked up to communicate with her maternal side of the family.
“My mother was Vietnamese, but most of her family lived in France,” she says. “I couldn’t speak Vietnamese so I basically learned French so I could speak to them.”
Drink drivers, commercial law and the PDS
When asked about her choice of criminal defence work, Ms Sellars points to her time as part of the original Public Defence Service pilot team in Auckland as a crucial career point.
Launched in 2004 under Michael Corry, the service was her re-entry into criminal work after six years at Russell McVeagh. Her stint at the firm followed two solid years wrangling drink driving cases under Auckland barrister Michael Harte.
“It was great because I got into court and I got lots of exposure,” she says of her junior barrister days.
“The clientele was real estate agents and car dealers. They were people desperate to keep their licences and were definitely a certain sort of person. It wasn’t the most politically correct of times,” she says with a laugh.
“He [Harte] had quite a unique approach to things but he was a great teacher. Seeing how he worked as an advocate was an education in itself.”
When she wanted to “spread her wings”, Michael Harte insisted she seek employment at Russell McVeagh.
“So, I did. It was general litigation and lots of interesting work. But I came to a point where I thought it wasn’t quite me and that even though I enjoyed it, something was missing.”
Being back in the thick of the District Court with the PDS cemented things for her, she says.
“I think what had been missing for me at Russell McVeagh was possibly a sense of purpose. I was finding commercial litigation a bit unfulfilling.
“With criminal law, there’s a lot of social interaction. You do often feel like you’re giving back quite a lot.”
After five years with the PDS and promotion to a senior lawyer position, Ms Sellars took the leap and joined the independent bar in 2009. Since then, her career has gone from strength to strength.
Underdogs and unhelpful clickbait
When asked if she ever considered a move to prosecution, she grins and quickly asserts her position on the Auckland Crown Prosecutions Panel. “But I haven’t yet prosecuted.”
“I suppose I’ve always liked being on the side of the underdog. That said, I think it’s always good to be able to look at things from both sides. And to be a good advocate and adviser, you need to do that,” she says.
Her measured approach extends to other facets of society which impact criminal law. When we discuss the impact of media coverage on cases, and criminal justice issues, she shakes her head. The headline-grabbing slant often put on cases and criminal issues adds to misinformation about the justice system, she says.
“When things in the media over popularise calls that say ‘prison is the answer’ and ‘longer prison is the answer’, it is really concerning,” she says.
“I’d like it if the public was re-educated about what prison actually does and just the fact that when a person gets into that cycle, it’s so hard to ever get out.”
The reaction of certain clients and their family members when they interact with the system for the first time provides a bit of reassurance, she says.
“One thing about our system is there’s this perception that everything is there for the defendant. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s very dehumanising ... right down from the way you stand, the way you’re talked about and the way you’re addressed.
“It always amazes me when you get clients who have never had anything to do with the criminal justice system and would be the ‘sorts’ that would be attracted to some of the messages from the Sensible Sentencing Trust or something like that,” Ms Sellars says.
“It only takes for them to be charged or a member of the family to be charged to take on an entirely different perspective.”
Stress, injustice and satisfaction
Overall, Ms Sellars credits a full and varied career, with numerous support people and mentors.
There have been so many memorable moments, she says.
The successful appeal for mercy of Tyson Redman, who went to prison for assault following a wrongful conviction in 2007, sticks out.
“It was when I was still at the PDS that I started an application for the prerogative of mercy. That took five years to be granted. It ended up almost 10 years after the events that we were listening to these witnesses again, but this time they were in the Court of Appeal,” she says.
There is also the case of a disabled man, who was representing himself during a retrial in the Court of Appeal for sexual offences. “He felt so strongly and argued for himself even though he had a speech impediment. I took him through the journey of a trial again, where he was acquitted.”
Smatterings of dry, twisted humour from various drugs cases are also mentioned.
And then there is her first murder case.
“It was about a mother charged with killing her baby. That was pretty sad.”
After explaining the woman’s progress in a prison reintegration programme, Belinda Sellars pauses briefly. She then cuts directly to what it is all about.
“It’s the cases where you have a real feeling there’s been an injustice of some sort. Those are the ones that are the most stressful and most rewarding. I’ve had quite a few of those over the years in different forms. They cause you incredible stress at the time, because you have a feeling that ‘this is riding on me’. But, they’re so satisfying when you get the right result.”
Teuila Fuatai firstname.lastname@example.org is an Auckland journalist.