New Zealand Law Society - How Perry Mason opened door to Cohen-loving bridge player’s justice challenge

How Perry Mason opened door to Cohen-loving bridge player’s justice challenge

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Len Andersen
Len Andersen

Dunedin barrister Len Andersen was one of only four youngsters from his Napier high school class to study at Otago University – where 43 years ago he graduated with “the only real law degree”.

“The others did dentistry and physical education,” says Len, who is president of the Criminal Bar Association and involved with the Howard League for Penal Reform.

“My father was an insurance salesman, and my mother was an Otago home science graduate and deputy principal of Napier Girls’ High School for a long time. I see various lawyers around who were taught by her.

Leonard Andrew (Len) Andersen
Norsewood, Tararua
Entry to law
Graduated LLB from Otago University. Admitted in 1975.
Barrister in Barristers Chambers, Dunedin.
Speciality area
Civil, resource management and criminal law.

“Dad was brought up on a farm, left school at 13 and made to work on the farm. He went to war when he was 18. He suffered from that, was shell-shocked, and was one of those ones badly affected by the war.

“His older sister was a university graduate and that was how my mother met him - she was teaching at Timaru Girls’ High with my aunt.”

The eldest of seven children, Len has three brothers and three sisters. “A sister does PR, another has a doctorate in education and works for Auckland University, another is an accountant, a brother is a rigger in Sydney, another brother a scientist and a brother who was a teacher is deceased.

“Both my children have law degrees. Son James said he would never practise law and is now deputy ambassador in Thailand. Daughter Kate just moved back to Dunedin from Tauranga and practises in chambers with me. The lure of Dunedin pulled her back.”

He worked in Whakatane for 15 years after he graduated and Kate was born there. He returned to Dunedin in 1991 when his children were getting close to attending high school and his wife Moira works in his chambers.

“One of the things I loved about the Bay of Plenty was fishing and water skiing. I had a FiGlass Lighting, a tow boat and good for the fabulous fishing at Whakatane.

“But I also wanted to teach at Otago University. I developed a course in advocacy and I’m lucky because the university allows me to do it the way I want to.

“It is patterned on the concepts of litigation skills for beginners. Quite challenging for the students because it is a practical course and for a lot of them – the way the school system is – they go through school without really finding something they find very difficult to do.”

One of his ex-pupils is Palmerston North District Court judge Stephanie Edwards. “I also taught a forensic law course at summer school for a number of years with Arie Geursen – the scientist involved in the David Dougherty case. My brother has done a bit on this course, too. It was devised by me and Robin Watts, who is a somewhat eccentric scientist in Wellington.”

A bridge to love

“I play bridge, which is where I met my wife. I’m not an expert player but it can consume you. I am good enough to be roundly beaten by the experts.

“Moira and I play as partners, which is amazingly difficult, because very few husbands and wives play together as partners. It is very easy to upset your partner. When you have done something they think you shouldn’t have done, a black cloud appears. You have to be very careful.

“The trouble with bridge is you can always see with incredible clarity what the other person should have done. If you comment on what the other person should have done it’s not generally well received.

“I follow the Highlanders and Otago rugby teams, but never played since school. I wore glasses from a very young age and was much more a spectator. I was sensitive about my eyes and when I got to 38 I finally made the plunge and had contacts put in. It made a huge difference, I couldn’t believe how good it was.”

Len has had a long involvement with the Howard League, and with legal colleague Anne Stevens was instrumental in getting it going in Dunedin.

“We have a strong organisation which works as a lobby group trying to improve prison conditions and we are waiting to see if this government is a bit more responsive. Its interests are quite aligned to the Criminal Bar Association in terms of trying to get rid of double bunking. Remands on bail is the big issue at the moment because we have so many people remanded on bail.”

Ohope springs eternal

“I have travelled a bit and went to Germany when my son was in the embassy there. Moira is from England and we have spent some time there. And Europe, Australia and Thailand.

“I get the odd client from overseas but other than some conferences my legal work has not taken me overseas.”

As a barrister and solicitor in Whakatane, Len did everything in terms of court work. With a focus now mostly on civil, resource management and criminal work, he has a wide practice and continues to do a range of work. “I blame a low boredom threshold for that.”

“Ohope is my favourite holiday spot because of Bay of Plenty associations. And my favourite place in the South Island is Doubtful Sound.

“It is just such an eerie and unspoilt place, it is my favourite place in New Zealand in terms of going there. It is completely unspoilt, just an occasional fishing boat. Just the same as when Cook was there.

“Eerie because it rains all the time and there is about six feet of fresh water on top of the sea water. That has a refractive effect. You look down and it is black, the sea looks black.

“In terms of music I’m a Leonard Cohen groupie. I thought I would never get to see him. But then went to his concerts in Christchurch twice, Wellington three times, Auckland three times, Sydney once and Melbourne once. I just loved it.

“Now he’s dead and there’s no more opportunity. I went to his last-ever concert in Auckland as he finished about a five-year world tour.

“People say I like Cohen because I am tone deaf. I also like Adele and Imelda May. I was brought up in the era of the Beatles and the Stones. I was introduced to Cohen at university in 1970 and bought everything he has produced. I also like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. Not highbrow stuff.

“Tom Wolfe is my favourite author. Jeffery Deaver for forensic crime and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher to read quickly. I tend to read legal fiction. Anne Stevens and I swap books. It’s chewing gum for the mind.

“I always have a lot of books I intend to read. I tend to read on planes.

“When I was growing up there was a real snobbishness about what you should and shouldn’t read. It was all ‘you shouldn’t read comics, or this and that’, whereas my mother took the view that if children are interested in reading give them whatever they wanted to read such as Agatha Christie, which was not seen as literature. Read what you enjoy.”

Trump insights

“I am reading Michael Wolff’s Hell and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. I was put off it initially but it gives a real understanding of Trump.

“Once you understand he doesn’t read a thing, has the attention span of a gnat, is totally receptive to flattery and wants to be loved by everybody. The way he sees it is the way it is, so he sees great crowds at his inauguration, it doesn’t matter that photos don’t show it, they are lying. That’s what he believes.

“He surrounds himself with sycophants – the only way they are going to stay in their jobs is to support his beliefs. Like the phenomenon of Muhammad Ali and Elvis. Surround themselves with people who will support everything they say. So this whole engine takes over and they are in the middle of it. It’s given me an insight into Trump and I have a better understanding of him.

“Moira and I watch Coronation Street. And I enjoyed The Sopranos and Suits. I like quirky legal things - I’m a fan of Martin Shaw and have the last episode of George Gently to watch one day. I have a lot of Rumpole – JB Mortimer’s stuff is great. There’s too much choice now.

“From the time I was about seven or eight I wanted to be a lawyer. I don’t know why. Maybe because of Perry Mason and Ironside. I read the Perry Mason books.

“I liked the whole concept of there you are in court and you cross-examine. It never happens that way in real life.

“American jurist and writer Irving Younger was a well-known commentator and teacher of the profession in terms of how to do things properly, who said: ‘People will come from miles around to see a reasonably effective cross-examination.’

“It was what I always wanted to do. I went to a careers advisor at primary school and said I wanted to be a lawyer. He suggested I should look for something more within my natural talents, which made my father so furious. I never went to a careers advisor again. There may be one or two judges who agree with that. But I never had any desire to do anything else.”

Len and Leonard  

“I drive a convertible Holden Cressida, German or Polish-made based on the Opel. I used to have an Astra and this replaces it.

“We have two cats, Rosco is named after the saxophonist in Leonard Cohen’s band, and Alfie is named after Alfie Moon in Eastenders. Both were bought from the pet shop and Rosco turned out to be a Maine Coon breed. He’s big.

“Leonard Cohen would be my dinner guest. He would fill the room. We would serve blue cod. And a Central Otago Pinot from Judge Rock in Alexandra, or Terra Sancta from Bannockburn.

“The most interesting case I did was Gillies v Keogh, a 1989 cited case regarding whether de facto relation property is in a constructive trust. I was reluctant to do it. We lost in the High Court and won in the Court of Appeal in what was a significant decision.

“Doing appellate work can be quite difficult but every now and again you get a case where everything goes just right and that was one of them.

“Criminal cases are often quite memorable every now and again. It’s hard not to get some sort of feeling of what’s going to happen. The hardest criminal cases are those where you like the defendant, because it’s hard not to wish a good result. I’m sure that’s why people find criminal work so stressful.”

As head of the Criminal Bar Association  

“The main role of the CBA is representation and education. As a result of our conferences we have attracted a good membership and good speakers and that is working well.

“The Law Society is in a very difficult situation when it comes to challenging the government because it is also a regulatory authority. This caused a lot of controversy at the time within the organisation when the CBA decided to take the Justice Department on about fixed fees.

“The fact we were successful changed people’s attitude towards that. And helped to define that we have to be seen as people who will identify and stand up for things.

“There are all sorts of issues happening now in terms of criminal law. We have become much more punitive and the CBA says we are locking up too many people.”

The CBA is also involved in the Law Commission’s review of the Evidence Act.

“The problem is if you start to put in barriers in terms of people being able to challenge the evidence then you get into a situation where there is a real risk of false convictions.

“That’s one of the things we have to be very careful about. On the one hand understanding the importance of giving complainants a fair go in the court, but balancing that against the rights of defendants to have a fair trial - and not be hamstrung.

“There have been some concerns lately that the police do not seem to challenge complainants. They accept what they say even when the external evidence does not altogether match up.”

No other career path

“I have never seriously thought about doing anything else but law. I enjoy teaching but I don’t think I would want to do it full-time.

“Part of teaching students is it keeps your feet on the ground, keeps you young and you get challenged in a way you don’t necessarily get otherwise.

“One of the differences between lawyers and doctors is senior doctors rarely ever get challenged, whereas senior lawyers are always having to make their case, get challenged in the court and think about whether they are right in order to be successful. It helps keep you grounded.

“Teaching at university is the same thing. Students are there challenging and inquiring.

“I’m always happy with technology. I saw my grandparents in the age of television deciding they didn’t want to learn anything new. That’s never going to be me.”

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