Helen Aikman QC, described as “utterly determined to advocate for her cause”, led an inspiring career dedicated to law in New Zealand and the Pacific.
The daughter of Dr Colin Campbell Aikman and Betty Alicia James, Ms Aikman graduated with a LLB (Hons) from Victoria University of Wellington and a BA from the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji.
Robert Lithgow QC, who worked with Ms Aikman on and off for 29 years, says that they demanded their own private admission ceremony.
“Due to having young children and wanting a pay increase, Helen and I demanded our own admission ceremony, which was heresy in those days. We succeeded, and the Chief Justice at the time begrudgingly admitted us.”
This admission ceremony took place on 17 December 1982 and until 1988, Ms Aikman was a staff solicitor for Buddle Findlay and Tripe Matthews and Feist doing general civil and criminal litigation in the District, High Court and Court of Appeal.
In 1988 she became a researcher for the Law Commission working on the Courts, Companies Act and Limitation Act projects.
In 1992-1993 she was the Principal State Solicitor in Samoa, where she undertook a wide range of Government work, including the negotiation of large government contracts and international treaties on behalf of the Samoan Government. In court she was dealing directly with issues concerning the Bill of Rights under the Constitution of Samoa and their practical application to its criminal justice process.
In 1994, Ms Aikman joined the Crown Law Office as Crown Counsel. As a member of the Treaty and International team Ms Aikman represented the Government in a number of major Treaty cases. In 1998 she was appointed leader of the Commercial Regulatory team and Deputy Solicitor-General (Constitutional) in 2002.
Ms Aikman returned to the Bar in 2004 where she acted for the Crown in claims relating to Treaty settlements of forest assets, succession issues before the Maori Land Court and relationship property matters.
In June 2005, Ms Aikman started three years working part time as a Law Commissioner. She worked on several law reform projects, two of which resulted in legislative proposals, one concerning Maori governance structures and the other public inquiries.
Ms Aikman became Queen’s Counsel on 19 July 2005. For many years she represented the New Zealand Government at meetings of the Pacific Islands Law Officers Network (PILON) and has been a faculty member for the PILON and NZLS litigation skills courses.
At Thorndon Chambers, Ms Aikman specialised in public law, including constitutional and international law issues, human rights and regulatory matters, and Treaty of Waitangi issues.
She was also an adjunct lecturer in public law at Victoria University, and presented a number of seminars on judicial review and Treaty and related issues.
Ms Aikman was a member of the Wellington District Law Society Council from 2003-2004. She was also on committees of the Wellington Woman Lawyers and the Community Law Centre Management Board. In Samoa, Ms Aikman co-founded a women’s group which continues to focus on concerns regarding domestic violence.
“Helen has had far more than her fair share of pain and troubles but never let it break her. She was extremely good natured and even tempered. She was an angel. She had the same skills as her mother and father - to be gracious and diplomatic under pressure,” says Mr Lithgow.
Ms Aikman’s final project, sadly not completed, is an historical study of the Fijian constitution. It took her to Cambridge University for five months in 2010 on a Herbert Smith fellowship. In her mind this book was to be written in a way that is accessible to the population and provide building blocks that would help them in deciding their constitutional future by explaining what had led to the events of the past.
In his Eulogy, the Hon Justice McGrath, said that Ms Aikman exemplified the highest traditions of the bar in all respects of her practice.
“In her wider legal work Helen also sought to refashion the law so it would better serve the people who depend on it and she applied her extraordinary legal and personal skills to this end. Helen was a warm, optimistic, caring person as a lawyer as in life. Her deftness was such that she never found it necessary to compromise these personal qualities in her legal practice. She could and would defuse a tense meeting or situation with a smile and shrug of her shoulders.
“So while we all mourn Helen’s death, we do so recognising what a unique person she was and we celebrate the wonderful contribution she made to the law in New Zealand and the Pacific,” he says.
Helen Aikman died on 18 January 2012 and is survived by her son Atu.
By Hannah Grant, New Zealand Law Society.