By Helen Cull QC
Keith Taylor Matthews was one of the law profession’s finest examples of an extremely competent, dedicated and compassionate lawyer, with a true love of the law, serving his clients assiduously and actively upholding the principles of the rule of law. He was highly respected among the legal profession and was dearly loved by family and friends.
Keith Matthews was admitted on 11 June 1945. He became a partner of Duncan Matthews and Taylor in 1948 and from 1968, was a partner of Tripe Matthews and Feist until 1997, where he continued to work until 2002.
Born in Wellington on 14 July 1921, Keith’s life was shaped by the exigencies and aftermath of the two World Wars. His solicitor father, Nelson, contracted tuberculosis in World War 1, having fought in the battle of Passchendaele, and was an invalid throughout Keith’s childhood, able to practise law only spasmodically. His mother had cared for people during the 1918 influenza epidemic and brought up the three children of the family in difficult circumstances.
Speaking of that time in a recent eulogy for one of his lifelong friends from the 1930s at Wellington College, Keith recalled:
“As a group we questioned in depth all those wicked things that were happening in the world between the two wars. We felt we were compelled to stand by and watch the apparently ineluctable measures that politicians were inflicting on our generation in what seemed to be a conscious endeavour to rekindle the drive towards war. We gobbled up all the literature that we could lay our hands on and talked our heads off deep into the night… It was a good life and then came the war with consequences I would rather not dwell on.”
Keith’s father died in 1938 and when Keith started university the following year, he chose to study law as well as continuing to study language and languages, a love which was to last his whole life. While studying, he also worked as a Judges Associate in Wellington, first to Sir Hubert Ostler and then to Justice Arthur Fair in Auckland. He applied himself willingly to the law, satisfied in the knowledge that he had helped resolve a human conflict or problem.
After his marriage to Jackie in 1946, and some years working as an office solicitor in Leicester, Rainey & McCarthy and Phillips, Hollings and Shayle-George, Keith joined forces with his long-time school friend, Nigel Taylor to start their own law practice, which shortly thereafter became Duncan, Matthews and Taylor.
In 1950, Keith took leave, during which he and Jackie worked for the World Peace Council in Paris. Years later, Keith wrote of the fear that gripped Europe in 1950-51, when he had travelled to places such as London, Coventry, Stuttgart, Nuremberg, Berlin, Dresden and Warsaw, and said:
“Arriving from distant New Zealand the shock of all this was a source of unutterable despair, something that could be comprehended only by seeing the damage and speaking to the people. The written word was and is totally inadequate to describe the scale of such monstrosities. It was almost impossible to believe the world could do this to itself. It was unthinkable that some of the great powers were able to contemplate and prepare for a renewal of world war as a political instrument.”
In 1951, when Keith returned to New Zealand, it was to a country in the throes of a bitter waterfront dispute. During that time, the government had declared a state of emergency. The law firm of Duncan, Matthews and Taylor became engaged in defending union workers and their funds from new draconian regulations.
They provided defences for strikers charged under the regulations, at a time when lawyers themselves were at risk of imprisonment for their role.
Keith continued his work for peace by promoting the Stockholm Appeal [a call for the absolute ban on nuclear weapons], addressing public meetings and chairing the Wellington Peace Council for the next four years.
He was also involved in legal action to prevent continued discrimination. In the long battle to prevent the All Black team leaving New Zealand to play against the segregated South African Springbok team in 1970, Roy Parsons initiated a legal action with Dr George Barton as barrister and Keith as solicitor. They invoked the writ ‘Ne exeat regno’ in its ancient form, to prevent a subject leaving the realm to engage in activity that would bring the Queen and her subjects into disrepute. The writ was refused on the ground that in a matter of State, the writ cannot issue on the application of a private citizen.
Along with his wife Jackie, Ailsa Barton and Margaret Lee, Keith was among the ranks who confronted the Red Squad on Rintoul Street in the 1981 Springbok tour demonstrations. Keith was batoned. Later Keith and Margaret Lee made submissions to a subsequent inquiry into incidents during the Springbok tour, pressing for the creation of an independent authority to monitor police conduct.
Keith was always alive to the needs of others and led by example. He was a volunteer solicitor at the Aro Valley Citizens Advice Bureau, and was on the roster of the Wellington Central Library senior law centre for many years.
On a sabbatical break with Jackie in Europe in 1977, Keith worked for days on end, in a campervan in the Ardêche, drafting a report on community law centres, many of which he had visited in England and Holland to ascertain their viability and work. He returned to Wellington, a strong advocate for the establishment of community law centres here, and of course, became a volunteer practitioner on their roster, once they became established.
In so many ways, Keith Matthews was ahead of his time. He encouraged and mentored women to practise law and helped in advancing their careers. Tripe Matthews and Feist was the first law firm in Wellington, if not in New Zealand, to have equal numbers of men and women partners, a fact of which he was rightly proud. Those of us who were partners with him are in his debt.
Even in 1968, when Keith hired Anne Thompson as his practice accountant, she timidly told him she was a solo mother with a young baby. Keith was undeterred. He encouraged her to bring her baby to work, which for the time was unusual. Anne remained at Tripe, Matthews and Feist for 30 years.
With his experience of the aftermath of war, Keith eschewed labels to describe people or their beliefs. Unbeknown to him, he was the very target of such classification.
In the 1950s, Keith was a member of “the vegetable club”, which comprised a group of friends whose bonds were forged by their various experiences of war and their desire to change the world. They gathered on Friday nights after work at Duncan Matthews and Taylor to partake of a drink, talk politics and distribute vegetables bought wholesale from the market, to take home to their long suffering families.
In 2007, nearly 55 years later, Keith requested his SIS declassified file, to discover he was the subject of security interest, because of his association with “communist” or “subversive” persons or organisations. Reports had been received from a “mole” inside the vegetable club. Keith was clearly aghast and entered into a carefully considered correspondence with the Director, asking that it be lodged with his file.
Of note is the following paragraph: “One should beware of broad political descriptions like communist, leftist, subversive, right wing, fascist, islamist, terrorist, unionist, wharfie, Catholic, Jew, masonic, muslim etc. It is necessary to remember how such words have often been used politically in the past to impute evil and to arouse suspicion and hatred. Such descriptions can creep into the unconscious mind of a person who is called upon to make judgements about another citizen and great harm and injustice can ensue.”
Keith practised law the way he lived: principled, compassionate, and with the utmost integrity. For him, social justice was not an empty term in the life of the law.
In addition to his work life, Keith was a wonderful family man. He was gifted in his interactions with young children and was a wonderful father and grandfather to his four children and grandchildren. He was patient and enthusiastic, reading aloud to them and instilling in them a love of the bush, the outdoors and the mountains, with family walks and camping trips.
Keith Matthews was a kind and gentle person, who led by example and was generous to a fault. He was a friend beyond measure to many; a mentor to a lucky few: and an example to all. For those of us who had the privilege to know and work with him, we are richer for that experience and his influence.
Keith died on 29 March 2014.
This obituary is drawn from eulogies by Tina Matthews and family, Judge Margaret Lee, Clare Taylor, and the writings of Keith Matthews. It was first published in Council Brief, May 2014, page 3, the newsletter of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Law Society.