As the great grandson of Louis Chemis - an Italian labourer convicted on circumstantial evidence of murder in 1889 – prominent Wellington lawyer Peter Chemis has long borne a desire to clear his ancestor’s name.
But with the passage of time Peter says it is now very hard to achieve anything, despite historic public outcry over the trial and much having been written – including a play, a documentary on the TV series Epitaph and numerous newspaper stories - about his relative’s controversial conviction.
- Peter Craig (Peter) Chemis
- Palmerston North
- Entry to law
- Graduated LLB from Victoria University in 1983. Admitted in 1984.
- Partner at, and recently retired national chairman of, Buddle Findlay, Wellington.
- Speciality area
- Employment law.
Peter, a senior partner in Buddle Findlay and the firm’s chairman for 10 years until his recent retirement, even named his first son Louis – who was one-year-old when the Epitaph documentary was screened in 1997 - so he could be proud of his name and Italian blood.
The trial of 34-year-old Louis Chemis for the murder of Thomas Hawkings, was a swift, controversial affair, heavy with prejudice against the Italian – who proclaimed his innocence to the end.
Hawkings was shot with a shotgun and stabbed many times with a knife described as a stiletto – prompting Chief Justice Sir James Prendergast to tell the jury the murder was “committed with a weapon (stiletto) which is in common use amongst the nation to which the prisoner belongs.”
Crown Solicitor Francis Bell claimed “such a horrible crime could never have been carried out by an Englishman.”
After Louis Chemis was sentenced to hang, public and political protest resulted in Governor Lord Onslow commuting the death sentence to penal servitude. He was released from prison in 1897 as part of an amnesty celebrating Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee.
But he couldn’t fit back into society and blew himself up with dynamite on Wellington’s Mt Victoria the following year. His devoted Irish-born wife Annie, who never doubted her husband’s innocence, bore him three daughters and a son. When she retired in 1926, Annie was the longest serving charwomen in the public service, cleaning Parliament buildings and government offices for 32 years.
After a flurry of publicity around the Epitaph documentary, “not a lot has happened,” says Peter, who was a similar age to Louis when he read his great grandfather’s story and reflected on the drama his relative’s life entailed.
“When the police took him away it was the beginning of the end for him. The case is very old now and hard to get all the records. It’s a well-documented story but we haven’t got a lot more ahead and it’s very hard to achieve anything.”
Ironically, Peter was helped in his bid to clear Louis’s name by now former Labour MP Paul Swain, whose great grandfather was a member of the jury that found him guilty.
“The poor Italian immigrant didn’t get any compensation,” says Peter.
“But context is everything. It was a white establishment with old fashioned mono-cultural views. If you were Chinese, Italian or Greek you were toast.
“The nature of the circumstantial evidence was astonishing as were some of the comments made by the judge in summing up. It was one of many similar cases in those days, I’m sure.
“I would definitely say we have similar situations today. Those roots of political and social systems remain the same. Issues don’t run so deep but they still exist.”
The first lawyer in his family – his older brothers started life as teachers - Peter and his lawyer wife Jane McDiarmid – a principal at Greenwood Roche – have visited Italy and the family’s ancestral home in Senigallia several times with their sons Louis and Finnian and daughter Francesca.
“I’ve also travelled in Africa, seen lots of South-east Asia and go to Japan a lot. Japan is culturally very interesting. You don’t get to immerse yourself so much from the outskirts. But it would be an interesting and complex society to live in. It is very ordered and people are very civil and helpful.
“South-east Asia, Italy, Japan, China - maybe France - are knocking out all the best cuisines in the world.”
Dalliance in the restaurant business – and one regret
Which opens up Peter’s other interest – that of entrepreneurial restauranteur.
With Taiwan-born business partner Dah Lee, he opened five restaurants – Paradiso, the City Bistro (where Al Brown was chef), Pravda and Armadillo in Wellington and Armadillo in Hamilton - between 1988 and 1997.
“I was five years into law when Dah Lee and I opened Paradiso – it was the hot thing around town in 1988.”
Peter says Dah Lee, who came to New Zealand when he was eight, has some fascinating stories to tell about being a Chinese boy in Invercargill, “Living off cans of spaghetti and not being able to stand the smell of lamb.”
Dah Lee now lives in Cambodia where he is founding president of the New Zealand Cambodia Business Association and a member of the New Zealand Asian Leaders Association.
“I wish I still had Pravda – that area became the centre of town. I always knew it would be.
“I had to make a choice to give up law or go fulltime running businesses and I chose the law. Probably not out of passion for the law, but more about the knowledge that the restaurant industry is a fraught and difficult one.
“I would occasionally do a gig on the bar, and did one night dishwashing but will never do that again, it’s the worst job in the entire world.
“Law seemed like a sensible thing to do. I don’t know why. You are lucky if you have a real passion and a desire that sends you in a direction.
“I didn’t have that, but law seemed something that would get me involved in the community and society generally and I feel it has achieved those ends - notwithstanding I’m locked away in my ivory tower a bit.”
“Human approach to life”
Peter has been with Buddle Findlay all his professional life, “although I didn’t intend to stay very long at all.”
“I didn’t see myself in a big law firm. I’m a social democrat and I didn’t see big law firms as being my natural home. But Buddle Findlay has a good culture and an eclectic group of people. We have a pretty open and human approach to life generally.
“I settled on employment law because of the intersection between life and the human dynamic in the law – you couldn’t get a better one. That’s probably one of the reasons why I have stayed in the law for so long.
“But I would probably still be a lawyer. I have had the privilege of working with some amazing people doing some amazing things and I never get sick doing any of them.
“What the chairman does depends on who you talk to. We have six partners on the management board as part of the management and governance team, who make core decisions in the business.
“I worked with the chief operating officer, dealing with issues of the day that arise. Many of my partners think 10 years is a long time to be chairman. It’s time for me to change and for the firm to change.”
Changing work environment
Peter has seen “incredible changes in the law and the business of law” in his time as national chairman. “Law firms just don’t do a lot of what we did 10 years ago. The type of work we are doing now compared to what we did 10 years ago would be immeasurably different.
“For example, churn work generally, lower end stuff and compliance stuff. Law firms don’t do that anymore. The client does that. And there has been a phenomenal growth of in-house lawyers.
“One of the big changes is working with other lawyers. A lot more is expected of you and for me the greatest change is working out your place in the world.
“Lawyers have been somewhat arrogant and ownership oriented in terms of their clients work and their clients’ issues.
“The privilege of being a lawyer is you get to play in all sorts of different sandpits and see the world operating. That’s why it is such an exciting and exhilarating career because you are doing law but seeing all sorts of other things unfold.
“But you have to understand – and not many lawyers do - we are just helping out. It’s not our gig.
“I see tension developing on some occasions between in-house lawyers and big firm lawyers. We’re helpers, we don’t own it, we don’t own the world and we have to understand what our place is. If you do that effectively you have better client relationships and more success.
“And these days it’s specialise, or add value at a higher level, or die.”
Stepping down as national chairman, Peter says it is time to refocus his practice because as chairman he was effectively working half time. He is succeeded by resource management specialist Paul Beverley – “a top man and a top person.”
“It’s nice to stand down and see my role go to someone who is very capable. I lead our national employment team so I will keep pushing that barrow. There are plenty of jobs to be done.”
“If money was no object it would be very cool to open another restaurant. If I did it would either be a good quality Italian restaurant or, preferably, a Japanese one.
“I enjoyed the creating and the building of restaurants. I wouldn’t want to be an architect but part of the attraction of restaurants was designing and building them.
“As Buddle Findlay has developed we have had to refurbish and change things around a bit here. So I have had an impact on redesign of office, and been able to use my aesthetic, which not all my partners enjoy.”
Keen on all sports, Peter played senior rugby in Wellington and provincial rugby to Colts level as halfback.
Between running a major law firm and family life he has also been heavily involved running Wellington College cricket club, and managed the First X1 for several years.
Brought up in Opotiki, he knows the East Coast and Bay of Plenty well. A family bach retreat is at Waikawa Beach, just a run up the road from Wellington in his all-wheel-drive VW Golf R.
“I’m not a musician – the children have their grandfather’s voice but their father didn’t get it.
“I read a bit of fiction – JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy - about a former marine and Yale graduate who speaks about his family life and decline of rust belt states, which ties in nicely with my broader non-fiction reading about American politics.
“I’m obsessed at the moment with American politics because of Donald Trump. And I read the Washington Post and New York Times regularly.
“I’ve been reading Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s, Kafka on the Shore. I like his writing.
“My family would be my dinner guests and a comedian of some sort to lighten the mood. I’d cook something simple and tasty and worry about whether everyone was having a good time.”