New Zealand Law Society - Scots lass experiences culture shock in Godzone

Scots lass experiences culture shock in Godzone

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Joanna Murdoch
Joanna Murdoch

Glasgow-born Jo Murdoch found New Zealand somewhat different when she first arrived here after living her first few years in Scotland.

Jo moved to Dundee as a child, where her father Campbell was a doctor and an academic. The family came to Dunedin in 1983 when she was 12 and her father was made first Professor of General Practice at the Dunedin School of Medicine.

“New Zealand was a massive culture shock and nothing like Scotland.

Joanna (Jo) Murdoch
Glasgow, moved to Dundee.
Entry to law
Graduated LLB (Hons) and MA (Hons) from Otago University. Admitted in 2005.
Partner at Meredith Connell, Auckland.
Speciality area
Criminal prosecution.

“My mother found out that people here don’t dress formally to go to church. Bare legs and jandals. And we were horrified to find that turnips are fed to animals in New Zealand.

“I went to my single sex private school, Columba College, where I was head girl. How that happened I do not know - obviously I was a conformist, unlike my father.”

She is a senior lawyer in Meredith Connell’s Crown specialist group, with a background in prosecuting and defending serious crime at trial and appellate level.

Jo has prosecuted a significant number of criminal jury trials for the Crown in the District Court and High Court including historical sexual offending, violence, fraud and drug offending. She has represented the Crown in the Court of Appeal and during her time at Crown Law, in the Supreme Court.

As defence counsel, she regularly appeared for clients on all matters of serious crime as a legal aid lead provider.

Middle East inspired move into law

Jo says she experienced first-hand what she describes as injustices in the Middle East.

After getting a Masters degree from Otago University, Jo worked in the United Arab Emirates for two years teaching geography, speech and drama and physical education for the girls.

“A lot of ex-pats living there are having a whale of a time. We had an ex-pat friend of a friend who was arrested for having a party on the eve of Ramadan and ended up being imprisoned for a year. You didn’t really have any rights.

“That’s what got me interested in law, living over there. I really had taken democracy for granted.”

Her father made enemies at Otago University.

“My father did a lot of research into chronic fatigue syndrome, or Tapanui flu as it was called. Which made him very unpopular with the medical elite at Otago.

“He left Otago and went to the United Arab Emirates for 10 years, then to Malaysia, then came back to Southland where he worked in Winton for a while before going to Western Australia for about 10 years and getting into rural medicine.”

Professor Murdoch was head of the school of primary, aboriginal and rural health care at the University of Western Australia, in Kalgoorlie.

“Mum Annie was always a mother and home executive, as they say. They live in Blenheim now and Dad still thinks the law’s an ass. I think he’s maybe right.”

Jo studied Latin in literature. “It was the literature of the time and I was intrigued by it. I did my Masters in the Comedies of Terence, the Roman comic dramatist.

“I started university thinking I was going to be a doctor like Dad and soon realised that science was not my strong point - language and literature was.

“Dad ended up being sacked in the UAR and being told to leave the country within 72 hours because he had stood up to the American dean and disagreed with the way he did things. They had to leave but I stayed, I had to be sponsored to stay and stayed for another year teaching.

“When I came back to New Zealand I didn’t know what to do, and got a job as a teaching fellow at Otago University teaching first year Latin.

“I thought I would do a PhD in Latin and become an academic - until I realised it was probably like slitting my own throat.

“I went to an open night at teachers’ college. I wasn’t a qualified teacher but I had taught for two years and I had what I thought were good qualifications. I was told I had to go back to university and do an English degree if I wanted to teach literature, which I thought was ridiculous because I had a Masters in Latin.

“So I started working part-time in the law library as well as teaching and started teaching legal research. Then thought, ‘why don’t I do law’, so I did first year law. It was a very positive experience so I kept going.

“I loved being part of the faculty, it was awesome. An eclectic department and very collegial. Otago prided themselves in not being like Wellington and Auckland.

“They had a strong culture about judges and judging. Judges were there to apply the law – no judicial activism or cult of personality.”

Jo’s older brother, John, is principal of Mana College in Wellington, her younger brother Kyle is managing director of the Natural History New Zealand international film production company in Dunedin and her younger sister Laurie is a barrister in Blenheim.

Jo was clerk to former Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias for a year, was a New Zealand Pegasus Scholar to the United Kingdom in 2008, is a faculty member of the New Zealand Law Society Litigation Skills course, and the Meredith Connell Litigation Skills course. She regularly teaches law students through the Otago Law Faculty Summer School programme including Forensic Law and Criminal Procedure.

Jackson the boxer

“I’m not married - I am married to the law, how can you not be? It’s one of those all-encompassing career options. You get put into the category of ‘professional woman’. It just happens that it is a career that is very consuming.

Jo Murdoch and dog
Jo Murdoch and her dog Jackson

“I have a beautiful five-year-old boxer dog called Jackson and love taking him for walks. He is a new acquisition. I adopted him from a farm outside Auckland in the last four months in an attempt to insert some work/life balance into my life.

“He’s the central point in my life. It’s great to discover Auckland by walking a dog. When you meet other dog owners who have this long chat, you can be chatting away for half an hour about things you would never have thought about talking about. You meet so many people who are obsessed with their dogs, which is quite nice.

“This is boxer number nine for our family. We had Winston, a grand old male we left in Scotland, who retired gracefully with my grandfather. We had a succession of puppies in New Zealand and my sister has two in Blenheim. I love the breed.

“I’ve done lots of sport over the years but after a hip replacement six years ago it’s mainly a lot of walking with the dog.

“I used to do half marathons and triathlons. When I was in the Emirates I did short distance triathlons, came third in one in Dubai and got $2,500.

“I did a lot of tramping in southern Fiordland when I was at university.

“I haven’t travelled extensively. I went to Austria when I was 10. We emigrated when I was 12 and I have been back to Scotland five times.

“When we arrived in New Zealand it was the time of the Rainbow Warrior bombing. And Muldoon versus Lange. We couldn’t believe how political New Zealand was.

“We had come from Thatcher, the IRA, and all that terrible stuff happening. I couldn’t believe that for such a small country there were all these big things going on in New Zealand.

“I used to play the violin and piano. I like classical and all sorts of music.

“I like Tracey Thorn, one half of the English duo Everything But The Girl, German-born British composer Max Richter, PJ Harvey, New Zealand folk singer Aldous Harding, Courtney Love, Don McGlashan, Kate Bush, Leonard Cohen, Marianne Faithfull, Nigel Kennedy, Radiohead …”

Sam Hunt and his racy poems

“I enjoyed Colin Hogg’s book on Sam Hunt. Sam used to come to Columba College. When I was 14 he performed for us and we all fell in love with him.

“To the chagrin of the headmistress of Columba he started to recite a poem about a 13-year-old in a bikini on the beach. And another poem about smoking meth on Sunday because the booze shops were shut.

“I think he was quickly escorted out. We were just in raptures. I enjoyed his poetry. I like Timaru-born painter and writer Jacqueline Fahey and am reading her memoirs. I’ve been reading Australia novelist Tim Winton.

“I’m obsessed with The Handmaid’s Tale on Lightbox.

Peaky Blinders is a remarkable television series. Because I do so much crime I try not to watch programmes about lawyers or crime but sometimes I do. MotherFatherSon with Richard Gere and Helen McCrory, who plays Polly in Peaky Blinders, is good, and I like Homeland, with Damian Lewis.

“My car is a beaten up 2010 Skoda. I keep reversing at work and scraping poles, so it looks like a female owner car. And is completely destroyed with dog hair.

“But this is my first real car. I always used to have my parents’ hand me down cars. I think this is what happens when you are a mature student, you start work as a lawyer but you still live your life as if you are at university.

“Apart from my sister there are no other lawyers in the family.

“My grandfather, and my namesake, Joe (Joseph) Murdoch, also had a Masters in Latin and was headmaster of Ayr Academy in western Scotland.

“That was the school my father went to and he gave my father the strap. Joe was a dour man, very silent, tall, dark, with heavy-rimmed glasses.

“On my mother’s side all her five sisters were teachers. My brother is a headmaster. There’s still a working class background and a lot of the family are in trades.

“My other grandfather John Bryden, Mum’s dad, known as Jackie, was a weaver. He had his own notoriety because he used to cycle round Scotland every weekend.

“He had six daughters and every week he would give his pay packet to his wife Bunty, who ran the household, and he was off for the entire weekend on his bike.

“He never drank and cycled into his 80s. He was also an inventor and designed a particular method of weaving which the factory owners then took as their own. The family story goes he was ripped off.

“The grandparents lived in Ayr and Prestwick, so very close to each other geographically but on different side of the tracks.”

Haggis, stovies and oatcakes

“I go to Blenheim a lot for holidays. I like the landscape there and like the Marlborough Sounds. I favour the South Island more than the north. And I love to go to Fiordland. I like desolate, remote, misty - not lying on a beach.

“Dinner guests would include Sam Hunt, Leonard Cohen, Rita Angus, (NZ short story writer) Owen Marshall, Jacqueline Fahey – she seems to be quite outrageous – and Chris Finlayson QC, he is a great dinner party guest.

“I’m gluten free, not because it’s a fad, so there would be something healthy, seafood, and meat as a main. And something Scottish – haggis, stovies, oatcakes and cheese.”

There are many variations of stovies – a Scottish national dish - but they generally involve the leftovers from weekend meals including, but not limited to, potatoes, onions, salt pepper, neeps (turnip) and meat, heated up on the stove top.

“We used to have haggis for school lunches in Scotland. It’s terrible in New Zealand.

“My brother and I used to recite the poetry of Robert Burns and we both entered competitions in Dunedin when we were schoolkids run by the Burns Club. I won, he came second. I recited To a Mouse.

“My brother used to do Burn’s Address to the Haggis for the hotels in Dunedin.

“If I wasn’t a lawyer I think I would be a breeder of boxers, or maybe a florist. I don’t know why being a florist appeals because you have to get up at 4am and get the bloody flowers.

“I would do something with people because that’s why I always wanted to do criminal law.

“I have defended as well as prosecuted. I think it’s the stories that appeal to me.”

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