New Zealand Law Society - Childhood murder trial prompted career of defence work

Childhood murder trial prompted career of defence work

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Brett Crowley
Brett Crowley

His grandfather’s trial and acquittal for murder sparked an early awareness in Wellington Public Defender Brett Crowley which developed into a lifetime of criminal defence work.

“When I was a young lad in Cairns my grandfather was charged with murder,” he says.

“He was a doctor in Cairns. The Crown successfully applied to have the trial moved to Brisbane because they reckoned they could not rustle up 12 of the citizenry who would consider convicting him. He was far too popular a person.

Brett Anthony (Brett) Crowley
Cairns, Queensland
Entry to law
Graduated LLB, BA from Victoria University in 1990. Admitted in 1992.
Public Defender with Ministry of Justice in Wellington.
Speciality area
Criminal defence.

“The trial was a big deal and on the front pages of the papers. I still have the press clippings. I mulled it over for some time.

“It was quite an unusual thing. My grandfather denied it on the basis the killing had been accidental and he was acquitted on that basis. He had about three days off at the end of the trial then went back to work and carried on as if nothing had happened.”

Brett was appointed Public Defender in Wellington in 2018. With more than 20 years’ experience in trial and appellate work, he has also been a litigation skills instructor with the Institute of Professional Legal Studies for some years, and also practises as a youth advocate.

The only lawyer in a family of Australians, he is the only member of his family still living in New Zealand. His parents Bruce and Rosemary – who recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary and are now retired to the Sunshine Coast - came to New Zealand when Brett was 14.

“My parents were both teachers but my father worked in insurance most of his life and got transferred out to New Zealand to manage a chunk of the country. I don’t think management agreed with him so he drifted back to Australia after a few years.”

Brett’s oldest brother Bob runs a second-hand/antique shop in west Sydney, while another brother Albie is in mining, dividing his time between Queensland and Papua New Guinea.

Brett is married to Carolyn Heaton, an employment lawyer at Bartlett Law in Wellington. Their son Thomas (20) is studying chemistry, and 18-year-old daughter Kate is at Otago University “having a crack at health science, which will probably turn into a BSC”.

Retiring from football leaves time for baking

“I don’t have any hobbies to speak of but I have done a lot of cooking and am keen on baking. The PDS staff bake and they are bloody good at it.

“I want to bake something that someone can eat but so far I’ve been an utter failure. All my baking has gone to the dogs. I’ve tried everything and it’s been a disaster. But I’m ambitious and I want to bake something I’m proud enough to bring in to work.

“My sporting interests are mainly football, the round ball kind, and I have played for a long time – about 45 years, with clubs around Wellington.

“Some people would say that’s too long. My mates are very gentle and subtle about it. You could say I succumbed to public pressure and decided to retire. I used to be very mediocre but then I got a lot worse.

“I moved backwards the longer I played. I started as a centre forward and ended up as a centre back. One more year and I’d be in goal.”

Brett and Carolyn took a couple of separate years off after finishing university to travel in Europe, North America and Asia, with the usual bar work in London. Their travels have recently included Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Denmark and Croatia.

“We took the kids back to Europe seven or eight years ago for six weeks and drove them around Europe, which was good.

“We are going to the UK next year. Carolyn’s mother is Scottish and I’ve never been to Scotland. My ancestry is mainly in Ireland.”

Honest career advice

When Brett confided in Annette Black, the careers adviser at his school, who later worked for the New Zealand Law Society and was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2015 for her services to legal education, that he wanted to be a lawyer “she laughed so long and loud I went off the idea for a while”.

“I remember her saying ‘these are the qualities a lawyer needs – in other words the opposite of you’. That scared me off for a while.

“I didn’t go to law school until I was about 22. In retrospect, and I’ve told Annette this, I think that was bloody good advice because I barely scraped through as it was and had a lot more focus in my early 20s than I had in my late teens. I think it was bloody sensible of her, and it all worked out well.”

Brett has done defence work his whole career, from when he started with O’Neill Allen in Hamilton. “The head of that firm was a magnificent fellow called Larry O’Neill, who died in 2016, aged 84.

“They were an old fashioned firm where you learned the profession in a good disciplined way. I was lucky. Whatever I wanted to do they let me do it, including employment law. I got as much supervision as I needed but also quite a lot of freedom.”

As Wellingtonians, Brett and Carolyn moved back there in the late 1990s after his stint in Hamilton. “She mainly wanted to be closer to her parents and I was also very close to them.” He worked in a couple of firms in Wellington, then went to the Bar for 20 years “before deciding to come to the PDS”.

Goth rock with humour

“I tried making music when I was younger but nothing stuck. Went to a lot of concerts and loud things when I was younger and damaged my hearing.

“I like Nick Cave - everyone thinks he’s so dark and gothic but some of his music is hilarious - and English singer Polly Jean Harvey [aka PJ Harvey]. I listen to them more than any others.

“I watch a bit of Netflix, Peaky Blinders is fine. I like The Let Down, a dry domestic comedy from Australia, and Fleabag. I found Fleabag alienating at first, but the second series is much better than the first. And The Sopranos is the best thing ever.

“I’ll read just about anything. The latest is Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan, about a young Caribbean slave. And I’m about to have another go at George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, a Man Booker Prize winner. It’s hard to follow but I’m giving it another go.

“Carolyn and I are keen on walks and decided in the last couple of years, to do all the nine great walks and various others. We have done five walks together, including the Heaphy Track, and canoed down the Whanganui River. I am a huge convert to walking tracks and am also keen to cycle the Central Otago rail trail.

“I was very close to my wife’s parents, who have now both died, and they are the people who come to mind as dinner guests. They were wonderful people. And my own grandfather, who died when I was an infant.

“I would not try baking on them. But probably produce a vegetable pie with some spuds. I’m Irish and like a pie. Something pretty basic, with a good Pinot Gris. And my father-in-law would like a good Pinot Noir as well.

“I have a nine and a half year old black Labrador called Cajun, who is the gentlest soul.

“I drive a very old red Japanese car, known as the dog car, a reliable Mazda station wagon. I am not a car person.”

A proud family man

“A lot of cases have had an effect on me. The thing I’ve done that I feel best about would be the way Carolyn and I have put our life together.

“Having a family and looking after the kids. Carolyn and I always saw it as a team effort. We both adjusted our work when we had children.

“We always wanted to walk them to school and be there after school, and one of us always did until they were in secondary school. It was just as likely to be either one of us because we tried to share it down the middle.

“I had time off when they were both born, which was pretty rare in those days. I decided I wanted to be a big part of their lives and their growing up. That way of running things has been the most rewarding thing.

“It was really difficult at times. I left the firm I was in at the time and went to the Bar when our son was born so I had more flexibility. And Carolyn negotiated more flexibility at her firm.

“We pretty much mixed and matched and patched it together. At some stages you wondered how you were going to get through the week.

“If I had a jury trial on she might ease back and vice versa if she had a big hearing on. I had to make sure my diary was pretty free. We had to work at it and plan it. That was the biggest and most memorable thing I have done.

“With a BA in English and History I think I would favour teaching as an alternative career.

“Before I came to the PDS I felt I wanted a change in my career. I was in with really good people for eight or nine years.

“I like team at the PDS and am impressed by them. It has grown since I came. They are a really good bunch and I have a lot of respect for them.”

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

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