New Zealand Law Society - Champagne, spies and paintings in the fast lane

Champagne, spies and paintings in the fast lane

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A member of an eighth generation unbroken chain of lawyers – including a long serving Edwardian High Court judge and a mid-Victoria Lord Chancellor – Queen’s Counsel Julian Miles’ career was pretty much plotted in the stars.

“It never occurred to me to be anything else, law is totally in the blood. I had no choice.

“Last year was my 50th year in Court, including 26 years as a QC and I love it. I still find it irresistible.”

Julian Grosvenor (Julian) Miles QC 
Palmerston North 
Entry to law
Probably graduated in 1966 (see explanation below). Admitted in 1966. 
Barrister in Richmond Chambers, Auckland. 
Speciality area
Commercial litigation, defamation, media law, intellectual property and information technology disputes.
Julian Miles
Julian Miles QC

His father and grandfather were country solicitors in Feilding but he says it never occurred to him to go into the family practice, never intending to be a country conveyancer.

His great grandfather was Sir John Denniston, an Edwardian High Court judge in Christchurch for 28 years.

His great great great grandfather was Liberal politician Sir Richard Bethell, who was made a Peer when he became Lord Chancellor in 1861. The hereditary peerage didn’t come down through Julian’s side of the family.

“It’s a mildly interesting history. Westbury married into my mother’s family, the Abrahams. One of his daughters married a cousin and their two sons came to New Zealand in the 1860s and kicked off all sorts of successful businesses in Palmerston North.

“They lived princely Edwardian lives and continued to produce lawyers, as did the Miles’s. There are all sorts of other lawyers dotted around among the uncles and cousins.”

Richard, the third Baron Westbury, jumped out the bedroom window of his seventh floor St James apartment in 1930 after a long illness – ruled a suicide while of unsound mind. His son Richard - a keen Egyptologist who was with Howard Carter at the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 - was found smothered to death in a Mayfair club. Richard, the fourth Baron, who never married and spent most of his latter life in Rome, co-authored an Italian cookbook. His brother, David, succeeded to the title in 1961. The title is currently held by Richard, the sixth Baron Westbury.

Formerly a litigation partner with Bell Gully from 1969 to 1990, when he went to the independent Bar, Julian Miles was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1991, later becoming President of the New Zealand Bar Association and President of the Medico-Legal Society.

Firmly established at the peak of a colourful and distinguished career, the art-collecting lover of beautiful fast cars is married to journalist, columnist and author Sue Miles. The couple have three daughters – two of them continuing the legal lineage.

Daughter Kate has a doctorate in international law and is a Fellow at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, Lucy is a school teacher doing a Masters degree in English and Jessica is an IP lawyer with specialist firm James & Wells.

The long degree

Julian’s entry to law involved studying for “the longest LLB in history - I was having so much fun. There was no game plane, just an assumption that all would work out well”.

“I went to a number of universities because I kept trying to find one that might pass me. I started at Victoria and had a few years there. I then went to Canterbury and had a great year there, then went back to Victoria.

“I finished up with 17 out of 18 units. Victoria would give you a certificate letting you practice in the District Court.

“I still needed international law so sat that in Auckland. I passed the English paper while still at high school - extra-murally at Massey University.

“So I claimed to have been at Massey, Canterbury, Victoria and Auckland, just for one degree. Each university seemed more fun than the last and I was hoping they might give me some units while I was about it.

“I had my 50th year in law last year, so in a slightly arbitrary way I chose 1966 for my graduation.”

Julian was a law clerk for a year in Wellington while trying to get his degree.

“On one of those Wellington winters, I was soaked from the knees down every morning. I thought, this is crazy, so I decided to go to Auckland.”

Art afficionado

In something of an understatement Julian says he spends some time at art galleries.

“I am an obsessive collector of New Zealand art only. I acquire. I started 30 or 40 years ago and have no idea how many I have. I never sell them – only about four I thought were mistakes. I have no wish to get rid of them.

“Where do I start??? Thirty or 40 years ago it was Colin McCahon, Toss Woollaston, Tony Fomison, Pat Hanley. These days it’s Bill Hammond, Andrew McLeod, Brendan Wilkinson and Michael Harrison.

“What I have done over the last 25 years since I’ve been at the independent Bar is fill Chambers with paintings.

“One of the conditions I insisted on when I was asked to come into Richmond Chambers was they had to have all my art. The entire Chambers have nothing else except my art. One or two of the barristers insisted on putting up their own paintings in their own rooms, so I could hardly object to that.

“A collection has to have a value for insurance purposes. It’s valuable, but I wouldn’t want to go into that.”

Dogs and fish

“I have a half husky-half border collie called Polly – she’s about 12 or 13 – and I love her dearly.

“I have a small aquarium at the office – my wife won’t let me have one at home. It’s full of corals and half a dozen tropical reef fish that require quite a delicate environment and ecosystem.

“I am not a particularly energetic person, I really like sitting in the sun. When not doing that I am still a very keen skier. We built a house in Wanaka 15 years ago and we spend a good deal of time there; Cardrona is my favourite ski field.

“I enjoy fishing, have always been a keen trout fisherman at Taupo for 40-odd years and have got into dry fly fishing at Wanaka.

“I used to be a keen golfer and am still a member of Middlemore golf club (Royal Auckland) but have not played for five or six years. I played tennis all my life, not competitive, God no. We have a court at home and there were always tennis courts when I was brought up.

“I like fast, beautiful cars. And no, I don’t clean them. I was driving an Aston for a few years but decided I needed a simpler car so I’ve got a little BMW coupe thing – which is a slight mistake, to be honest.

“The Aston was fine on the open road but tricky and not much fun to drive from Epsom to the office every morning at 8 o’clock.

“I had a Maserati coupe for six years before that and loved it. Maserati shouldn’t be into SUVs. Once Porsche did it they were all at it and that was a slight copout. I had Jaguars before that.

“Sue and I go to Europe every year and have often skied in Italy in the Dolomites. We nearly always go to Italy or Crete. We’ve been going to Crete for 30 or 40 years.

“It’s the history of the place. Every civilisation in the Mediterranean has washed up in Crete. The food and wine has got so much better. We love the climate and the spare beauty of the place, we love going back there.

“We go to Italy every year and love Italy. We’ve been to India two or three times and bought some beautiful carpets there. But we keep going back to Umbria and Rome – which is an astonishing, wonderful city, and Umbria is wilder and more interesting that Tuscany.”

Mozart and Homer

“We’ve been members of Chamber Music New Zealand forever and always go to their concerts. I don’t play any instruments. I would love to but don’t have any talent there. If there was one composer I couldn’t be without it would be Mozart. But I don’t have him in Chambers yet – not enough room, it’s a mess.

“I like novels as well as biographies - Philip Roth, Edward St Aubyn. I refuse to even consider onscreen reading. And I have got interested in Homer again.

“There’s a wonderful book by Adam Nicolson called Why Homer Matters. I’ve gone back to the Odyssey and Iliad - great reading. Homer matters because he defined how we look at society. What the qualities were that mattered – loyalty, bravery, commitment, madness in the Iliad. And then moving into Ulysseys who was more of a modern man, tricky, ambivalent, nuanced, in contrast to Achilles.

“We try to go to movies once a week with a couple of old friends. I used to be a serious film afficionado when younger – I loved those grainy Italian films.

“There was a time when I would automatically go to Fellini or Bergman. I don’t have that commitment anymore – my tastes are a little less demanding now. I’m not interested in them technically, I go there to be entertained.

“There are so few films that have been made that I have seen over last 10 years that are memorable. It may not be the film’s fault, of course. Dangerous Liaisons, and Raise the Red Lantern was an extraordinary movie.

“I fancy being an art dealer but not one of those Cockney shyster characters – that’s not what I have in mind.

“And no, Jock, being asked about dinner guests just so bores me. I can’t be bothered with that.”


What stands out in a career littered with important ground-breaking cases?

“Two stand out – appearing for the British Government in the Spycatcher litigation. We were on a hiding to nothing, of course.”

The UK government tried to block publication of former MI5 officer and assistant director Peter Wright’s autobiography Spycatcher. First published in Australia, its allegations proved scandalous on publication, but more so because the British government attempted to ban it, ensuring its profit and notoriety.

“The UK government lost all round the world. But in the Court of Appeal we debated issues of national security and the importance of secrecy when defending the Realm.

“Are there any limits to that secrecy? What if it’s abused? What if the secret agent is committing crimes all over the place? Where’s the balancing process?

“Those issues were quite important in determining that constantly moving balance between the extent to which the Crown and the government can dictate to you how you run your life and what are the legitimate limits to the government’s power to interfere with your life and interfere with information that should be part of your life.

“That was a day I’ve never forgotten.”

David and Goliath

“The other one was when I defended Joe Karam in 2000 when he was sued by the police for defamation after he wrote his first book Bain book, David and Goliath, accusing the police of committing perjury, obstructing justice, altering exhibits and just lying.

“Three detectives sued Karam. Back in those days if the police sued anybody juries tended to believe them. But in this case they didn’t.

“I remember saying to the jury that in the unfortunate event anyone of them was accused of some serious crime, they might hope that society might permit someone to defend them if the convictions had been obtained fraudulently. That they might be able to disclose that conduct by the authorities free from being sued.

“It is quite an important case. The jury agreed with me and the police have never sued anyone since.”


“But for sheer pleasure nothing much beats being instructed in 1990 by the Champagne makers in France to defend the champagne name. That was a great brief.

“I was acting for the champagne makers and they sued the Australians but were effectively also suing anyone in New Zealand who called their sparkling white champagne.

“That went to trial and the Court of Appeal, and the champagne makers succeeded.

“I had just gone to the Bar. They insisted I go across to Champagne, the region, to learn to love them. They kept sending me wonderful bottles of champagne. Half a dozen bottles of vintage champagne would turn up for years afterwards.

“Part of the sheer aesthetic pleasure of this enormously satisfying craft is knowing that the cross-examination has worked well and you have turned a judge or an appellate court that, perhaps, initially was sceptical.

“I’ve been approached occasionally off and on about going on the High Court Bench. My family thought I’d make a lousy judge. They thought I’d be a bit impatient and a bit tactless now and again.

“I threaten to write a book about my life and times but my wife, who is a journalist, refuses to ever countenance it. I often threaten her with it.

“I love lunches, I love food and wine and company. All of those are part of being a barrister.”

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