Wellington-based barrister, Renée Riddell-Garner died on 18 May 2019. It was unexpected in that she was just 45 years old and was taken by a brain aneurysm.
In these situations it is normal to be distracted by what she could have been as a lawyer if such a tragedy had not occurred. This tribute though will reflect on who she was as a person and the place she created for herself in the legal profession over the past 20 years. It includes commentary by some of the many lawyers who knew and worked with Renée.
Renée Riddell-Garner was admitted in December 1999 after graduating at Otago University. She joined the independent bar in 2015 after working in a range of public and private legal roles, including as Legislative Counsel for Parliament’s secretariat, legal advisor to the Regulations Review Committee, and General Counsel for an occupational regulator.
She was a barrister at Central Chambers. The Chambers describes her as a ‘big picture thinker with an eye for detail’.
Joining Central Chambers
Rachael Schmidt-McCleave is also a barrister at Central Chambers and met Renée about five years ago when she was contacted to assist her on a work project.
At the time Renée Riddell-Garner was General Counsel at the Plumbers, Gasfitters and Drainlayers Board.
"I went along to that first meeting in my best formal manner but within about 10 minutes the pair of us were laughing about something together and that formed the start of our friendship. After instructing me for a couple of years, Renée left to join the independent Bar and joined our Chambers. At that stage, Chambers consisted of Richard Laurenson, Michael Dalmer, Wendy Aldred, myself and then Renée. We kept fairly independent practices but, when our paths did cross within Chambers, we always shared a joke, a mutual sympathetic ear about the juggling of family and work life, or a collegial discussion about files troubling us,” she says.
She says Renée was always professional and highly respected in her areas of expertise - which included public law, legislation and privacy.
“She was extremely approachable and collaborative. Above all else, I was aware how much Renée put her beloved family first and everything she did was for them. She will be sorely missed by everyone who knew her and her loss leaves an unfillable hole in her family’s life,” says Rachael Schmidt-McCleave.
Lambton Chambers barrister Debra Angus also knew Renée well, and like everyone who knew her, she shares the sentiment that she was taken too soon.
“The words I hear now to describe Renée in a professional and personal capacity are that she was kind and loving. She touched people because she cared and made a personal connection. She was a great lawyer to have in your corner.
Office of the Clerk
Debra Angus first met Renée when she joined the inaugural Legal Services Team as a Legislative Counsel in the Office of the Clerk in 2006 where Debra had just been appointed the manager. She was building a new team and recruited Renée.
“She had worked as a prosecutor in the Department of Labour for many years and had never lost a case, but said she knew she needed to move on while she still had that perfect record. She had worked in private practice, including on treaty settlements.
"Renée was innovative, a self-starter and took to developing new systems and processes with great relish. She was also highly organised, with a good attention to detail. She did the varied work of an in-house lawyer, drafted Member's Bills and was, for a time, the legal adviser to the Regulations Review Committee.
"She was very happy to be more than a lawyer which is essential in a small organisation. She was the project manager for a number of organisational projects,” she says.
Renée left the Office of the Clerk to become the Chief Legal Counsel at the Plumbers, Gasfitters and Drainlayers Board, a position that features a lot in this obituary because of the formative work she did there.
Debra says when Renée became a barrister, specialising in public law, she represented clients in occupational licensing litigation and was engaged to assist a number of public sector clients in developing legislation and rules.
“Renée seemed to be constantly moving ahead and taking on big career leaps. When I moved from being the Deputy Clerk of the House and became a barrister, a couple of years after her, she was extraordinarily helpful and supportive,” she says.
Clients liked working with her
Debra Angus says clients liked working with Renée because she was positive, looked for solutions and could write and explain difficult concepts in a clear and straightforward way.
“Renée was always too happy to share her knowledge and help people. She could be very straight-talking but very good at getting people on board with her. However, she was not a push-over and had a steel core. She was very much her own person and had her own style.
"She had a loud laugh and a lot of presence. When she attended a conference of Pacific-region parliamentary officers held on Norfolk Island, she joined in the island dancing demonstration with such great enthusiasm and style that she could have been a local,” she says.
Debra Angus says Renée adored her family, her husband and two daughters.
“She returned to work within several months of having her second daughter while working at OOC and worked full-time while her husband was the primary caregiver. We got to know the family in the early months as her husband brought the baby in to work for Renée to breastfeed. She shared many stories of school achievements, guinea-pig and pet dramas. She worked very hard at being both a good lawyer and a present parent,” she says.
The Plumbers, Gasfitters and Drainlayers Board
Paul Radich QC of Clifton Chambers also knew Renée as he was part of the interview panel that eventually hired her for the General Counsel position at the Plumbers, Gasfitters and Drainlayers Board.
He says the work she did for the Board was deeply important to her career.
“I came to know Renée through the work I was doing at the time as Counsel for the Plumbers, Gasfitters and Drainlayers Board. At the time, the Board was going through some changes. Before Renée’s appointment it had been criticised by the Office of the Auditor-General. It had hired a new Chief Executive and the thinking was that it needed a top level public lawyer to be engaged inhouse,” he says.
Mr Radich says rather than have someone dealing with day-to-day legal issues, the Board wanted to hire someone focused in a regulatory, governance and compliance sense.
“I was involved in the search and interview process and Renée was one of the candidates. She was by far, the person who stood out. She took on that role and left her mark. She really did help transform - alongside the chief executive, the Board, as a result of her significant legal and people skills frankly,” he says.
He says given Renée’s achievements at the Board, she brought a considerable toolbox to the Independent Bar, which came after that General Counsel role.
“Renée had a suite of skills from her experience across private and government sector that is quite rare to find in one person. She had been involved in the parliamentary structure and understood how it worked such as the legislative drafting process.”
“She was a deep thinking person, a kind soul and she presented a really user friendly interface to people who were utilising her services. The natural way she dealt with people put people at ease,” Mr Radich says.
A compelling person to have on the team
Lawyer Robert Buchanan also knew Renée Riddell-Garner, having met her when she applied for a position in the legal team at the Office of the Clerk, where he was an external interview panel member.
“She struck me immediately as someone with a unique combination of modesty, empathy, and yet a big personality – all of which together with undoubted legal skills made her a compelling person to want to have on the team.”
“She was a standout performer in the office, a careful and conscientious lawyer and at the same time a great and loyal team member. I was briefly acting as the head of the legal team during her early time there with Amanda Smith, John Crookston, and Tim Workman after Debra Angus had moved to be Deputy Clerk. Renee made deep and lasting friendships with all her team members,” he says.
Mr Buchanan says it was when Renée moved to a demanding role as general counsel at the Plumbers, Gasfitters and Drainlayers Board that she really made her mark.
“While this may have seemed a strange place for someone like Renée to be, it actually suited her legal skills very well because of the emphasis on regulation and also complaints and disciplinary proceedings. This was a challenging time for her and I offered some mentoring support. I well remember our afternoon teas at Pravda, always with a new blend of green tea to try, and the deepening of a professional relationship while still having plenty of time to talk about family, friends and other things,” he says.
“I didn’t have much to do with Renée in recent years – we lost touch after became a barrister work. She was a wonderful and lovely person, a fine lawyer, and someone who warmed the hearts of all she came into contact with. She is a real loss to our Wellington legal profession."