Brian Cunningham was an able and conscientious lawyer, who spent most of his professional life with the Wellington firm of Luke Cunningham & Clere and more latterly with Tripe Matthews & Feist.
Born in Hastings, Brian was the oldest of five children. He was educated at Hastings Boys’ High School before coming to Wellington in 1961 to study law at Victoria University. He started work with Luke Cunningham & Clere in 1963 as a law clerk, while finishing his degree, and became a partner in 1969.
Colleague David Murphy says Brian was of the “old school” of lawyering and a true gentleman… “He always wore a jacket and tie and highly polished shoes. He frequently hand wrote the first drafts of documents with his Waterman fountain pen. His signature was carefully crafted and legible.”
David Murphy says his work was meticulous. In his general practice, which included commercial and property law, trusts, wills and estates, “… he treated his clients with great respect. Many became lifetime friends…”
There was another side to Brian Cunningham, however, that reached far beyond the four walls of his office. He was a generous man, David Murphy says, “… giving freely of his time to the scouting movement over many years, establishing his own charitable trust, providing benefits to his college, Hastings Boys’ High School, along with other institutions, and sponsoring three Kenyan boys through their schooling.”
His long service in the army, in which he attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, is of particular note. Brian joined the territorial force in January 1966 and was commissioned Second Lieutenant in 1967. He performed a number of legal staff officer roles during the 1970s, and when he retired from the territorial force in 1985 it was as a company commander with the rank of Major.
Brian re-enlisted in 1997 with a new appointment to army general staff as Director of Army Legal Services (Territorial Force) with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. In 2005 he was appointed to the Panel of Judge Advocates, and on 1 July 2009 became Deputy Chief Judge of the Court Martial of New Zealand and Deputy Judge Advocate General of New Zealand Armed Forces.
Brigadier Kevin Riordan, New Zealand Defence Force Director-General of Legal Services, said that between 1997 and 2009, Brian would arrive at defence headquarters on most Tuesdays – in uniform, having changed in his Wellington law office – and deal with a plethora of legal matters that were of concern to the military at the time. At midday he would return to his office, change back into his suit and continue as a civilian lawyer.
“He would bring a common sense approach and the wisdom of his long legal practice to military matters which was invaluable to us,” said Brigadier Riordan.
Brian maintained strong links with Hasting Boys’ High School throughout all his adult life. Principal Rob Sturch says Brian attended every school prizegiving and in November 2010 presented the Year 13 academic awards.
“He is one of the most respected old boys of the school. For 12 years the BK Cunningham scholarship, awarded each year to two boys who have outstanding potential but whose achievement may be circumscribed through less than favourable circumstances, has been one of our most prized scholarships.”
George Fairbairn, Scouts New Zealand international commissioner, said that from Brian’s enrolment in scouts in Hastings in the late 1950s, he steadfastly held to the scout promise by honouring God and country and with countless examples of helping others to achieve their potential.
He chaired the special purposes committee of the association for nearly 20 years, and served as a member of the national executive committee, “…where his wise counsel and guidance were valued by successive national presidents and chief executives.” He was directly involved in establishing the Scout Youth Foundation in 1995 and was appointed one of its trustees.
“His wealth of institutional knowledge cannot be matched, and scouting in New Zealand will forever owe him a debt of gratitude… As honorary solicitor of the association for close on three decades, he dealt with countless complex issues…”
Scouts New Zealand recognised Brian’s service to scouting with the award of the Bar to the Silver Tiki Award in 1992, life membership in 1996, and in 2009 with one of the first awards of the association’s new distinguished service award for a special commitment to scouting, in Brian’s case for his work as honorary solicitor.
Other community involvements included YMCA, hospital chaplains, armed forces canteen council and the army museum.
When he was younger Brian loved tramping and traversed the Tararuas southern crossing more than 30 times. He took up cycling more recently, and often combined this activity with his love of France. He spent many northern summers there over recent years (overcoming his dislike of flying in the process), often in the company of friends Justice Pam Andrews and her husband John.
David Murphy says Brian joined Tripe Matthews & Feist as a consultant on his retirement from Luke Cunningham & Clere in March 2009, planning to work four days a week, leaving time to pursue his work with the army, travel, fishing from his launch at Mana, and his interest in music.
“Unfortunately his arrival at Tripe Matthews & Feist coincided with the early stages of the decline in his health and the fishing trips were regrettably few.”
Brian Cunningham’s funeral included a military guard of honour, the firing of volleys and a bugler playing Last Post and Reveille. His casket was draped with the New Zealand flag, a sword and “lemon squeezer”.
This obituary was first publised in Council Brief, February 2011, page 3.a