Thirty-one years a criminal barrister, John “Johnnie K” Kovacevich says he is not in with the in crowd “and may be out with the out crowd”.
But the proud Croatian New Zealander, who has been bashed, applauded and known for singing to a jury, says he has always stood up for the underdog.
“In the law I have been a High Court Judge’s clerk, Solicitor, Crown Prosecutor, Defence Counsel, Duty Solicitor, Duty Solicitor Supervisor, complainant and victim.
- John Stephen (“I am better known as Johnnie K”) Kovacevich
- Entry to law
- Graduated BA from Auckland University in 1977, and LLB (Hons) 1986. Admitted in 1988.
- John Kovacevich Barrister, Auckland.
- Speciality area
- Criminal law
“I am a very proud Croatian New Zealander. My father Paul was a refugee who came here from the Slavonia region of war-torn Croatia in 1947. My late Mother Olga, a Dalmatian, was an immigrant in 1951-52.
“She worked hard and paid her way to come here. They met in Taranaki and married. I’m an only child and am pro-Croatian.
“Thus, I have great sympathy for refugees and immigrants who come to this country with nothing but a suitcase and the desire for a better life in a new land without any ability to read, write or talk the native tongue.
“My family were partisans in World War II. My grandmother and my great grandmother both survived a concentration camp.”
John’s partner Leigh Ezernieks is a former school deputy principal who is now a property manager.
His son Nick (33) is a partner in the Auckland office of Wynn Williams, specialising in mergers and acquisitions. “I steered him away from the criminal law. We are the poor cousins of the law. We get all the glory but none of the money.”
Daughters Bella (15) and Eva (9) are at school.
“I read philosophy for a hobby. I like practical wisdom that can be applied to the law and people’s lives.”
Guitars, vinyl and the Stones in Auckland
A dedicated musician and guitarist, John’s guitars include a 1976 Fender Stratocaster – “the heaviest they ever made”, a Takamine, and an Australian-made Maton.
“Music is my salvation. This job is not only difficult but really dangerous. Once the day is over and you pick up a guitar and play it, music is emotion manifested in sound. It is a way of letting off the frustrations of the day by just playing the chord of A minor 7, or whatever, and releasing a lot of strain and pressure.
“I wasn’t as good at music as I wanted to be. I wanted to be like Eric Clapton or Hendrix. But God didn’t make me that good. I’m better as a public speaker than as a guitar player.
“I have 6,000 CDs and 4,000 LPs. In 1994 people were saying to me: ‘Why do you buy vinyl? CDs are the thing.’ In 2019 they are saying: ‘Why do you buy CDs? Vinyl is the thing’.
“I love soul, funk, R‘n’B, blues, jazz, rock, pop, reggae, classical, house, all of it. I love everything from The Rolling Stones to Rachmaninov, Baaba Maal to The Beatles.”
The first concert John went to was The Rolling Stones at Auckland’s Western Springs stadium, on Sunday, 11 February 1973, when tickets were $4.90 and folk just rolled up and paid at the gate. “The last time I saw them it cost $400 more than that.”
The interviewer was at the same concert with a group of journalists who drove up from Wellington in a massive Humber Super Snipe.
“It was a cloudy day, and the Stones didn’t bring lighting from Australia. I loved the quintessential blues/rock Mick Taylor era of the Stones. Sticky Fingers time – at their peak.
“I still occasionally play music. I play the guitar and sing. I had a band in London called The Current Unrest whose one claim to fame was playing the Loughborough Hotel in Brixton in 1983. At milestone birthdays I play in a duo with Paul Merriott. Paul is a professional muso, a bass player in an Eagles tribute band called Motel California and also The Gunsmiths.
“I got the autographs of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones of The Clash outside The Roxy in London in 1978. I also have the autograph of Paul Weller of The Jam.”
Squat culture and rioting
“I lived in south London from 1980 to 1984 and was in among the Brixton riots (in April 1981). I lived in a squat in Vauxhall and Brixton was further south.
“My mate Steve Burke was living right in the middle of it. I was worried about him and managed to talk my way through the police cordon to see if he was all right.
“Vagrancy laws were in place at the time and if you didn’t have money in your pocket you could be arrested for being poor. This was selectively enforced against Jamaicans. They had enough and just let go.
“I’m a football player and played outdoor and indoor until I was 50. I support Tottenham Hotspur, Auckland City and Central United in Auckland, and also follow rugby union, league, basketball and cricket.
“I only watch TV for news, docos and sport.”
John won the public speaking prize at Mt Albert Grammar School when he was 16.
“I had a natural propensity for public speaking and I had read and admired the TV programmes and books on English barristers such as Rumpole of the Bailey and others before him.
“It was a natural fit, I have always been one to stand up for the rights of the underdog.
“For example, I have many friends who are gay. At school, a 15-year-old friend decided to come out. It was a different age then and they gave him stick. One day he’s their best mate and next day he’s the enemy.
“I stuck up for him and gave it to them literally and physically. There’s an element of standing up for the little people but also the Christian notion of serving and helping people. I am a Roman Catholic and that has infused my philosophy and approach to things.
“I believe in Christian charity. You can do your best for the souls you meet in the course of your life.”
The Big Yin
While living in London John worked as a bookkeeper for acclaimed international music promoter Harvey Goldsmith Entertainments.
“At the time, Mr Goldsmith was managing the legendary Billy Connolly and Billy came into the office all the time. I got to meet him and realised comedians are essentially psychologists. We got on like a house on fire and we would talk about deadly serious things like psychology. Billy had great insights.
“I read assiduously, mainly non-fiction. I like psychology, philosophy, advocacy, logic, positive psychology.
“I read music books on every kind of musical artist … Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Prince, Van Morrison, Curtis Mayfield. Where does it stop???
“I tend to do my thinking, writing, researching and reading late at night when everyone’s asleep.”
An extensive traveller, John went to Europe in 1972. “Then between 1978 and 1984 I went to Croatia, Germany, England, France - all over Europe.”
“In the 1990s I went to America a lot. I love New Orleans and have been many times to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and also Mardi Gras in New Orleans. I’ve been all over America - California, Florida, New York. But these days we tend to go to Australia.
“I like Whangamata as a holiday spot. My mother-in-law has a house there and we go there a lot. It’s my peaceful place, with the beach and the river.
“I love white water rafting the Kaituna, in Rotorua, and black water rafting or caving in Waitomo. You go down on a rope into a cave then float along and go through the caves.
“We have a beautiful barkless six-month old cavoodle dog called Naomi. A mix of cavalier King Charles spaniel and a miniature poodle.
“I like crap cars. My clients have been convicted of stealing cars, so one car I would never buy is a Subaru Impreza – this seems to be stolen the most. I have a Toyota Rav 4 and a Mitsubishi Airtrek - cars less commonly stolen.”
Jesus and Jagger
“My dinner guests would include Jesus Christ, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius (both philosophers), Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, and Lennon and McCartney.
“Fortunately for me Leigh is a brilliant cook. I make what I consider to be the best coffee in the country. I would make the coffee, Leigh would make the dinner – probably salmon.
“My favourite dish to cook is spaghetti al pesto. I love red and white wine, and Drambuie, and single malt whiskies.”
John maintains a regular slot on The Rock radio station talking about law. He started talking law on BFM and then George FM and More FM and has worked with Clarke Gayford and Dai Henwood.
“I used to answer questions live but that didn’t work well. When I came to The Rock drivetime show we got people to text in a simple question, which works better. It turned out to be the most popular segment on the show - completely accidental. It’s fun doing radio, it is light in the darkness.
“I have a saying: It is a deejay’s job to make people’s lives happier. And it is a criminal lawyer’s job to make people’s lives marginally less unhappy.
“I had the pleasure to work with Mr Clarke Gayford, the First Gentleman of Politics and the father of his and the Prime Minister’s daughter Neve. He is a very cool guy. Who would have thought that drum ‘n’ bass would make you such a great father?
“I’ve always aspired to be a musician but have never been good enough. I am not a natural, it’s a learned skill. If I couldn’t be a muso, I would be in music management, or a newsreader – I would have made a good newsreader.
“Did you know that Simon Dallow is a lawyer and about 15 years ago he was at a crossroads in his career?
“I was a duty solicitor supervisor. Simon wanted to have a crack at being a lawyer, so I put him in court. He had a day in court as a duty solicitor and he was terrific.
“I have closed to a jury in a criminal trial and at the conclusion of my closing address the entire jury clapped me.
“I have cross-examined a witness in a criminal trial to the point where they fell unconscious then fell out of the witness stand, banging their head against the back wall, getting concussed and having to go to hospital by ambulance for observation overnight. To my eternal regret I reserved my right to cross-examine the witness in the morning upon his recovery.”
Singing to the jury
There is a popular story that John once sang his entire closing address to a jury. He didn’t.
“Not entirely, but never let the truth get in the way of a good story. I did sing a snatch of Wilson Pickett’s 634-5789. But only because a telephone number which featured in the evidence was similar to the song. And it worked.
“There were to be eight addresses to the jury and I was to be about the fifth. It was Wednesday afternoon, which is just the worst time in the world to address a jury.
“The only way to make a statement the jury would remember was to entertain them. Advocacy is a rule of primacy and recency. People remember the first thing you say and the last thing you say. The stuff in the middle kind of gets lost.
“You want to have an impact. They were tired and I needed to entertain them. So I sang a few bars, and they clapped me. More importantly, my client was acquitted on every charge. I would never do it again, however.
‘There was blood everywhere’
“I was once attacked in my chambers whilst giving some money to a street dweller who turned up poor, hungry, cold and destitute. My blood was splattered on every wall and carpet throughout the office. The assailant got three and a half years’ imprisonment.
“He wasn’t even my client. I turned to go to my wallet to give him some money and he blindsided me and then started attacking me for no reason.
“I think he had nowhere to go, it was winter, cold and raining and he wanted to go to jail. I went down and got a kicking.
“You have to have security in your office. You never know when something is going to go wrong. So I’ve been a complainant and a victim, and it gives you a new insight.
“When people go to court, you relive a terrible tragic experience when you give evidence. Even when they are sentenced you relive it again.
“I had to relive it at a preliminary hearing where my integrity was attacked and it was not a pleasant experience. So I have great sympathy for witnesses. To his credit, my guy pleaded guilty.”
Barrister, solicitor, therapist
“I take a holistic approach to every client’s predicament. I have a saying: There are no problems without solutions. Therefore, there are no problems.
“People forget that the criminal law is not about punishment - it is about behaviour modification. Criminal offending reflects society in general. You can’t change society but you can change attitudes. You can find a solution.
“It is a difficult and at times dangerous job being defence counsel. You are a barrister, a solicitor, a therapist, and at times if feels like you are an accommodation service and day-to-day caregiver.
“The roles required of the modern day criminal barrister are not reflected in the Law Practitioners Act 1982. The Act is written with the English practice in mind, yet we as criminal lawyers do not have solicitors to do the multitude of tasks that takes up most of our time well beyond our prescribed role as advocates.
“I would like it if every lawyer did one free case a year: I’ve done several lifetimes worth of free cases for every single lawyer in downtown Auckland.”
John has spent the last 15 years providing for his late mother Olga, who suffered a massive stroke, and he says it is time to make a greater contribution.
“The debilitating stroke stole my mother’s old self. It destroyed her quality of life and impacted directly on every single person around her. I have great sympathy for those who care for loved ones.”
He is eager to finish writing a book called The Secret To Advocacy: The Real Lawyer’s Guide To Persuasion. “It’s been 30 years in the making. Not that I consider myself a great advocate, but I have learned at the feet of the masters.
“Too many great lawyers are lost to us too early without writing a single word of their trial wisdom down. The late Sir Peter Williams QC – a truly great advocate – only officially did one talk on advocacy that was never fully transcribed.
“It is a stressful and at times unhealthy job being a lawyer in the 21st century. Too many of our colleagues are lost to cancer, heart attacks and strokes – more than the statistical average.”
Johnnie K also wants to create a course on control for prisoners based on the philosophy of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.
“I am greatly influenced by the practical wisdom of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus – the very first personal motivator and the Anthony Robbins of the first and second centuries.”
Over a long career in journalism Jock Anderson has spent many hours in courtrooms and talking to members of the legal profession. He can be contacted at email@example.com