New Zealand Law Society - Louise Elder, 1964 - 2014

Louise Elder, 1964 - 2014

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Members of the legal profession were stunned and saddened by the sudden death of Masterton lawyer Louise Elder, aged 50, on 8 September 2014.

Colleagues, court staff, police and clients were all profoundly shocked to hear the tragic news at a Masterton District Court sitting that morning, causing the abandonment of the session.

Described as a "defender of the weak, representative of the downtrodden, a great litigator, someone who made a difference", and also "vivacious, happy, outgoing, and free-spirited", Louise ran her own law practice in Masterton as a criminal defence and family court lawyer. Her practice was wide-ranging and included youth work, civil litigation and compliance prosecutions, as well as a great deal of pro bono work for SPCA, Forest and Bird and other clients.

Louise was born on 13 August 1964 in West Drayton on the western edge of greater London and lived with her family in a small Norfolk village for her first few years. Her father George was in the Royal Air Force and the family - mum Angela and children Louise, Nigel and Philip, moved frequently - as is the way of military families - living in East Anglia but also in North Wales and most memorably in Hong Kong from 1969 to 1971.

Older brother Nigel Elder, speaking at Louise's funeral, said she was a very happy little girl who made friends easily and managed the frequent changes of school with aplomb. "She was talented in many areas and was always a 'sporty tryer'," he said. "She was a 'mature sister' to both younger brother Philip and to myself."

In 1977 her father George completed 20 years service and retired from the military. This provided an opportunity to take stock and look around at opportunities and as a result the family decided to start a new life outside the United Kingdom in New Zealand. They set up home first in Johnsonville and Louise, then 13, went to Onslow College. A move a few months later to the Wairarapa took Louise to Solway College and then for her last two years, to Wairarapa College.

She studied at Victoria University, majoring in anthropology for a BA, but being of pragmatic disposition thought that she may have limited her job prospects and decided to study for a second degree in law.

While a student at Vic the more "free-spirited" aspects of her personality came to the fore. Georgina Miller, a close friend from student days, related Louise's formation of the "Growlers" hockey team, later transformed into a netball team, which included Louise wearing a set of so-called "elephant undies" that caused consternation and dismay among opponents. The team played together for a decade.

"An early hint of her litigation skills came with her debating with the referees, opponents and their supporters... She was sparkling, loyal, funny and irreverent, a friend for life."

Georgina said Louise loved shopping, particularly for shoes, and dressed really well. "She also loved parties and dancing - she was like a real life Patsy from Ab Fab." 

Louise was admitted to the bar on 2 November 1988 and went to work with Phillips Shayle George in Wellington, becoming a duty solicitor in 1989. In January 1991 she joined Burridge & Co in Masterton where she was responsible for building and maintaining the firm's litigation practice, both criminal and family. She joined Gawith & Co in Masterton in 1994, became a partner in 1996, and continued in the merged firm of Gawith Burridge until she set out on her own as a barrister in 2003.

She was a youth advocate in the Youth Court and a lawyer for the child in the Family Court, and also represented those with mental illness. New Zealand Law Society Vice-President Mark Wilton said Louise excelled in representing the most vulnerable members of the community. "Her passionate and powerful representation obtained outstanding outcomes for her clients and she changed their lives ... she was a dynamo lawyer full of energy with a wonderful can-do attitude who made a difference."

She served as Wairarapa representative on the New Zealand Law Society Wellington branch between 2009 and 2010 and recently became a tutor at the Institute of Professional Legal Studies, passing on her skills to a new generation of advocates.

Friend and colleague Jock Blathwayt said Louise built the largest personal practice in the district, particularly representing those most at risk. "I have heard many people say 'I was a client of Lou's - she was my friend'. When she started in the Wairarapa she was a country lawyer and did everything, and she continued to do a surprising range of work."

Louise Elder was a special kind of lawyer and she was also unique in the way she ran her court practice while caring for her three children.

Jock Blathwayt: "Intertwined with her professional life were her children Hannah, Maddy and Izzy. The library at the Masterton District Court was the nursery. I remember a prison guard with a bemused expression with a baby in his arms. There was a jacket Lou often wore with dribble down its back - we all put in for dry clearning for that. She was the only counsel I have seen appearing in court with a child latched on!"

Louise was described as a "fiercely proud mother". She was deeply involved in her children's many interests, including dancing, swimming, hockey and school.

Jock Blathwayt again: "She had a complex structure of friends often linked by text messaging. It didn't look as if it was under control but it was. She had a facade of casualness, sometimes marked by sudden disappearances from court. But she was a top-notch lawyer, respected by clients, colleagues, police and court staff. I was privileged to be a sounding board and friend."

Jock Blathwayt said it was inevitable to rail against the unfairness of it - the loss of a friend, partner and mother. "But when I think that, I feel her tap on my shoulder. Lou was a pragmatist - she did not take on battles she knew she could not win ... she was one of a kind."

This obituary was first published in Council Brief, October 2014, page 3.

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