Those who knew Mary Moir Hussey who died aged 83 in Dunedin at the beginning of 1993 say she would have been horrified at the thought of people making a fuss in public about her.
“She was a woman of extraordinary shyness and reserve. She preferred to stand in the shadow, taking little if any active public part in the practice of law, but creating a powerful and wide effect on those who knew her.”
Mr Justice Greig is just one of many who came within her influence and to whom Mary Hussey, the fourth female lawyer to be admitted to the bar in Otago, became a mentor and friend.
It was in 1947 when a young Lawrence Greig, fresh from full time study at Otago University, joined the firm of Adams Brothers as the most junior clerk.
Mary Hussey, who already had a distinguished career in literary work, was the chief law clerk, working with the late Mr Justice FB Adams and later, on his elevation to the bench, with his brother and successor as Crown Solicitor, HS Adams. Subsequently she worked with crown solicitors the late Boyd Deaker and WF Thomson. “She never aspired to partnership or any mark of seniority or status,” Mr Justice Greig remembers.
“For many years she refused to take out a practising certificate for fear that some partner would require her to appear in court, if only to seek an unopposed adjournment. She relented later so that she could take affidavits, but only on the condition that she would never appear in court.”
Mary Hussey worked long hours and hard, applying her considerable intelligence and firm grasp of the fundamental principles of law.
“Boyd Deaker put a considerable reliance upon her and she willingly and assiduously worked devilling the law, marshalling the facts and doing a great deal of the preparation and preliminary work for the common law cases.”
Crown Solicitor Bill Wright recalls that when he joined Adams Bros in 1970 it was considered something of a “plum” to obtain a position with the firm simply because one had access to the help and assistance of Miss Hussey.
“In physical appearance she probably did not resemble the stereotype of a lawyer and could have easily been mistaken for someone’s very sweet grandmother. She completely disdained the use of motor vehicles and walked up and down the Dunedin hills, refusing rides even in the most inclement weather.”
Likewise Mr Justice Greig recalls her physical features as distinctive and little changed over the years: “pale blue cardigan or twin set and perhaps a darker blue skirt. Her hair secured neatly around her head in a fashion long since passed. Her feet shod in rather ugly shoes and often somehow twined together as she stood as far away as possible and with one arm bent and wing-like flapping occasionally at her side.”
The dominant recollection of most who knew her is of a person with a razor-like sharp mind who impressed not only with her depth of knowledge but also her breadth.
Modest and softly spoken she had a commanding authority and presence which came from a person who really did know what she was talking about, says Bill Wright.
“Her greatest gift was the ability to explain things to other people. [I] can recall on many occasions approaching Miss Hussey in a totally confused state and leaving her office 15 minutes later thinking that it was all so simple when explained I wondered why I hadn’t been able to work it out.”
Her use of written language was masterful and precise and while she never appeared personally in court she was responsible for the pleadings and submissions in cases and was consistently advising practitioners on various matters.
“Many solicitors came to her with approaching deadlines and a briefcase full of totally disorganised files which in two or three days were turned into immaculate proceedings which often drew favourable comment from the Bench,” says Bill Wright.
Material rewards seemed to be of little consequence to her and the bills of costs she chose to write totally undervalued her services, in the view of colleagues. Mr Wright says he remembers correspondence from instructing solicitors either requesting her to send a proper bill of costs or sending a cheque for a substantially increased amount saying she had obviously made a mistake on the bill rendered.
Dunedin barrister Royden Sommerville who worked with Mary Hussey in the early 1970s believes she had a profound influence on him and his approach to legal work.
“She was totally dedicated to her clients and to the training of the younger members of the practice. She would give up her Easters to help law clerks involved in the University Tournament Mooting and would spend hours assisting them with pleadings, submissions and the preparation of their cases.”
On the subject of how one became a good lawyer, Mary Hussey had a firm philosophy: once a week one should set an hour aside to read a case – any case, civil or criminal. One had to read the case completely, concentrating on the reasoning of the judge and the reason for the conclusion reached. If one did this once a week for 20 years then subconsciously one would start thinking instinctively like a lawyer.
Mary Hussey’s expertise was in the areas of equity, tort, criminal law and civil procedure.
On other fronts she will be remembered for her considerable work as a member of the ODLS library committee and the legal guidance and help that she gave to colleagues freely, but never in conflict with her primary duty to Adams Bros and its clients.
Beyond the law, she gave of her time in a number of area and for some years nursed her sister through a major illness.
Miss Hussey was the oldest of five children. Her brother, a Monsignor in the Catholic church and her three sisters predeceased her. She retired in 1975.
This obituary was first published in LawTalk 389, 8 April 1993, page 8.