Rowland Woods, who died on 4 January 2018 aged 81, was a member of that relatively rare company – those who come late to the law. It is far from unknown of course, but in Rowland’s case it was quite late: he was 61 when he was admitted in 1998.
A genial, charming and urbane man, Rowland then proceeded to make his way in the difficult world of immigration and refugee law. But in the years before becoming a lawyer he had already lived a life and a career that for many people would have been quite enough.
Rowland Woods was born in 1936 in London where his father Noel Woods, later Secretary for Labour in the New Zealand government, was studying. He went to Wellington College and then to the University of Otago where he studied economics with an agricultural bent. After graduation he joined the department of agriculture in Christchurch as the first or one of the first agricultural economists in that department. Focusing on the meat and wool side of farming, he conducted research on farms in Southland and collected base data on farm productivity and costing, for the first time bringing cost benefit tools to bear on farming. His data assisted in developing major civil works projects for farming, particularly irrigation and flood control.
In the early 1960s when Britain began looking to join the EU (then the EEC), alarm bells rang in New Zealand because of the perceived threat to our exports of agricultural products, most of which went to the British market. In 1962 Rowland Woods was sent to Europe to assess the likely impact on New Zealand of British membership of the EEC. He was in London for several years becoming agricultural adviser at the New Zealand High Commission where he joined the New Zealand diplomatic team that was developing a strategy to deal with British entry.
Return to NZ
Rowland returned to New Zealand in 1969 and became chief executive of ANZDEC, a company formed to compete internationally for consultancy contracts in agricultural development through bodies such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.
In 1972 he was asked to return to Europe, this time to open an office in Brussels for the New Zealand Meat Producers’ Board where he helped promote New Zealand meat sales. Britain had finally enter-ed the EEC in 1972 and as European adviser Rowland travelled widely promoting New Zealand meat exports.
From 1979 to 1984 he was head of the OECD’s agricultural trade and markets division in Paris. He headed a secretariat that assisted in promoting the ground-breaking inclusion of agriculture in the Uruguay Round of international trade negotiations, working towards reduction of subsidies on agriculture in a number of countries.
Back in New Zealand in the mid-1980s he worked with the New Zealand Planning Council and the Economic Development Commission on agricultural trade, trade policy and the role of the producer boards.
Change of career
At this point, in his fifties, Rowland decided on a complete change of direction and began studying law. His brother Malcolm Woods says it was not a complete surprise. “He always had a strong interest in law, and in fact contemplated studying law when he was at Wellington College,” he said.
Rowland completed his law degree and was admitted as a barrister and solicitor in May 1998, aged 61. He was a sole practitioner for a time, specialising in immigration and refugee law, was a contractor with Idesi Legal and was in partnership with Richard Fletcher for a time. In 2015 at the age of 78 he established Rowland Woods Legal.
Rowland Woods regularly represented clients in the Immigration and Protection Tribunal, the district court and the high court. He also did Parole Board work, spending time particularly at Springhill prison attending Parole Board meetings there. He conducted a number of judicial reviews of Immigration New Zealand cases.
In 2002 he was instrumental in setting up the Immigration Committee of the Wellington District Law Society. Committee colleague John Petris says Rowland made a huge contribution to the immigration bar. “Rowland was inspirational in setting up that first committee. He put us on the map in many ways, taking what was a minor and fairly esoteric part of the law and turning it into recognised practice.”
Rowland was also responsible for establishing the annual Immigration and Refugee Committee dinner to which the Minister of Immigration is invited. John Petris: “This was Rowland’s brainchild. He was a member of the Wellington Club and had lots of connections, it was his idea and he hosted the dinners. He had been the convener of the Wellington Branch Immigration and Refugee Committee and he was also a member of the NZ Law Society national Immigration and Refugee Law Committee.”
Committee colleague Richard Small says Rowland was heavily involved in preparing submissions on the Immigration Amendment Bill and the subsequent 2009 Act. “… he was a colossus at that time,” he said.
Volunteer at Community Law Centre
For twelve years Rowland was a volunteer solicitor providing free legal advice to refugees and migrants at the Wellington Community Law Centre. Kamil Lakshman, who volunteered around the same time, says Rowland worked very hard for refugees and was unusual early on in this period that he visited people in their homes. “He would go to see them in their family environment where you could really get the feel of what the case was about – it’s one of those times when a lot of things are told to you without their actually being said.”
Wellington Community Law Centre senior community lawyer Megan Williams said Rowland, along with Amanda Calder QSM, chairperson of the Refugee Family Reunification Trust, helped to establish Community Law’s Refugee and Immigration Legal Advice Service (RILAS) in 1997. “This is a free legal advice service for refugees and vulnerable migrants. The main focus of this service is reuniting refugees with their family members. Rowland was a volunteer lawyer with this service for many years and also provided much guidance and advice to our community lawyers. We referred most clients seeking refugee status to Rowland’s legal practice as we could be confident that they would get high quality expert advice and representation.
“Rowland was a staunch advocate for refugees, particularly those in the most difficult circumstances. He was highly regarded by the refugee community and in the legal profession and will be missed hugely.”
Amanda Calder knew Rowland for many years and described him as a “true gentleman with a very kind heart”. She said he was a vocal advocate for refugees and dedicated his legal career to their interests. “He strove to help refugees on many levels, including challenging unfair immigration practices and procedures. There are many refugees who benefitted from his work.”
Kamil Lakshman said Rowland looked outside the box in refugee and immigration matters. “He would ask ‘what else can I do?’ He would look at the solution rather than the problem. People would say, ‘that has never been done’, he would say ‘well, why not? Let’s try it.’”
Richard Small said Rowland was a fearless advocate for his clients and for the profession. “He was an inspiration to me and will be sadly missed. He was a humble man in many ways. He was loyal to his friends and looked for loyalty in return. He was a bit ‘old school’, a senior member of the profession in every sense of the word.”
Rowland was appointed honorary consul of Belgium in 2003 and held this position until 2011. He was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre de la Couronne (Knight of the Order of the Crown) by the King of Belgium in recognition of his services to the Belgian community in New Zealand.
Outside his professional career at various times he was a farmer, a goat breeder, a media commentator and a columnist. He was a former president of Alliance Francaise in Wellington, and former president of the Rotary Club of Karori. He was a keen sailor and maintained a boat in the Marlborough Sounds. He represented the British Cruising Association in Wellington and Marlborough for almost 30 years. He enjoyed lawn bowls and was interested in many sports.
He is survived by his wife Anita, six children and 12 grandchildren.
This was first published in the March 2018 issue of Council Brief, the monthly newsletter of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Law Society