New Zealand Law Society - Security watchdog on the bomb, frightened classmates and life after Voyager

Security watchdog on the bomb, frightened classmates and life after Voyager

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Ben Keith
Ben Keith

As a seven-year-old giving a morning talk at school about what his parents did, Ben Keith dropped a nuclear bombshell.

His father, distinguished international judge and an inaugural member of the New Zealand Supreme Court, Sir Kenneth Keith, was a member of the New Zealand legal team in the nuclear test cases against France before the International Court of Justice in 1973, 1974 and again in 1995.

Having picked up some of the talk around home about French nuclear testing in the Pacific, Ben shook up his classmates with graphic stories about nuclear bombs.

Benjamin James Roy (Ben) Keith
Entry to law
Graduated BA in French and German from Victoria University in 1995 and LLB (Hons) from Victoria University in 1996. Admitted in 1999.
Barrister in Thorndon Chambers, Wellington.
Speciality area
Administrative, human rights, public and international law.

“I knew just enough about what my father had done and how atmospheric testing in the Pacific had come to an end because of that case,” he says.

“I think I was sent home for traumatising my classmates,” says Ben, who recently joined Thorndon Chambers in Wellington after completing a three-year term as the first Deputy Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (DI-G) – a new appointment as part of “beefing up” intelligence oversight.

Heeding advice after finishing as Deputy I-G, Ben preferred not to discuss his family for this profile - or say what car he drives - and is limited in what he can say about what he worked on other than what is in official public reports.

“There are a lot of things I cannot talk about. It is an offence for me to disclose anything I came across other than through the mechanism of the Act. We have made reports as open as we can and the various agencies have been very good with this. They recognised that public confidence needed as much transparency as possible.”

Hiss and a roar

His attraction to the job followed a lot of advocacy and advisory work while at Crown Law.

“Moving into a tenured independent oversight role was a big step up and one I thought I was ready for.”

Ben says one of the first things he and Inspector-General Cheryl Gwyn were able to do was get a fully staffed office and bring a more systemic approach to the job.

His first assignment – the 2014 Goff Inquiry - was starting “with a hiss and a roar. The first thing you do is an official inquiry into things related to the prime minister’s office and leader of the opposition.

“I started in the job in July, the inquiry was in August, and we reported in November.”

In 2011 the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) disclosed information to the media and blogger Cameron Slater concerning consultations between the then SIS director Warren Tucker, and the Opposition Leader Phil Goff about allegations there had been Israeli intelligence activity in Christchurch at the time of the February 2011 earthquake. The I-G’s inquiry found the SIS disclosed incomplete, inaccurate and misleading information in response to official information requests, and to the Prime Minister’s office.

Ben is a past member of the New Zealand Law Society Human Rights and Privacy committee, the New Zealand Private Law Coordination committee and former honorary secretary of the New Zealand branch of the International Law Association.

“My parents are firmly of a non-interventionist philosophy and encouraged me to find my own path, so my becoming a lawyer was very much my own choosing,” he says.

“I have to confess one of my hobbies and outside interests is doing legal research and writing. I try to give a couple of conference papers a year and try to get to other jurisdictions when I can and have good friends in other jurisdictions I keep in contact with.”

Work and skiing

“I’m keen on the outdoors and tramp and ski when I can. You can’t beat Nelson for tramping and Turoa is handy for skiing, although I have ambitions to go south for some skiing.

“I once had a great conversation at a Law Society thing, with a guy from a firm with offices in the central South Island. He said their flexible working policy was not what you think. He said they watch the snow reports ‘and if it’s good then we are flexible’. And I know someone in Queenstown who shuts the office on a good snow day.”

Ben’s work as DI-G and at Crown Law involved international travel, including conferences or hearings in London, Canberra, New York (the United Nations) and Geneva (UN Human Rights) – but with limited downtime.

“I have managed to spend some time in art galleries in New York – I have some interest in art but am not well informed or well educated - and saw Pucini’s La Boheme at the Metropolitan Opera. My friends said it was one of the things they would only go to with a tourist.

“I’m very keen on American modernist painters such as Mark Rothko.

“We had a two-day fixture at the Privy Council some time ago (in London) and their Lordships were happy after the first day so we got some time off and went to a small gallery of French impressionists at the Courtauld Institute. It was quite extraordinary to see these things in real life.”

With an arts degree in French and German, Ben was drawn to the languages because they are used heavily in international law. “A lot of proceedings are bilingual, English and French, and scholarships tend to be in German.”

He has also started learning Māori. “In a Waitangi Tribunal case, and with my best efforts, it was suggested by a kuia - in a very kind, polite but firm way - that maybe I could find some really obliging person to come and help me at length before I inflicted that on them again.”

Bach and Bic

“I am a bad cellist, I go to cello performances and enjoy Bach. I grew up on the usual suspects - Crowded House, Dave Dobbyn, Bic Runga, people like that and still listen to them. And if there’s a good classical soloist I will make the effort to see them.

“I like Kate de Goldi, Elizabeth Knox and CK Stead – Stead’s essays and poetry are impressive. I’ve been reading Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, and follow former England and Wales appeal court judge Sir Stephen Sedley in the London Review of Books.

“Some of the papers I have given are pretty dry but three or four years ago I talked at an Amnesty International conference. It was interesting coming to an issue where they have one clear perspective and my professional experience is often what they would consider is the other side.

“You end up having a really good conversation because you can get very cloistered in your practice and with your immediate colleagues.

“I saw the David Irving 2016 libel film Denial, this year, based on Deborah Lipstadt’s book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier.

“Watching films about legal practice you keep wanting to mutter. But this is really well done. Timothy Spall as David Irving and Tom Wilkinson as Richard Rampton QC for the defence.

“A film I saw at the (Wellington) film festival was The Farthest – about the Voyager 1 and 2 space probes from 1977, an Irish documentary directed by Emer Reynolds.

“They are the furthest things humanity has ever sent into space and I’m impressed by that accomplishment. I have a friend who is an astro-physicist and I’m often quite envious of him. These people did intricate engineering and mathematical calculations and the film is exquisitely well done.”

Lamb for lawyers

“There are outstanding people I have had opportunities to meet and deal with in some way and would have some of those people for dinner to find out the things they have done and the way they thought about them.

“When it comes to dinner guests, I have had the privilege to meet Justice Ruth Ginsberg, associate justice of US Supreme court, a couple of times. She would be interesting. Also, the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, another associate justice of the US Supreme Court and the first African-American justice.

“And Lord Richard “Dick” Atkin. I suspect he would be extremely understated.”

In 1932, Lord Atkin delivered the leading judgment in the landmark case of Donoghue v Stevenson, known as the Paisley snail case, which established the modern law of negligence.

“If I’m cooking it would be hard to beat New Zealand lamb. I enjoy cooking for friends and people who have come a long way to visit New Zealand. And I would probably come up with a vegetarian option. I’m not a wine person, but perhaps a Mt Difficulty Central Otago pinot noir.”

In a career involving an extensive range of significant administration, constitutional and human rights cases, Ben picks out two.

“One was an appeal I was brought in to help with eight or nine years ago where the question was whether if someone applying for refugee status - and in the course of the refugee claim it became apparent they had or might have been involved in crimes against humanity – what happens next.

“It wasn’t easy and there was a second appeal. The Court of Appeal was split. It was a very good example of a hard question where you needed a very well worked-through answer. It was a Crown appeal and the Crown won. The Supreme Court held unanimously the information could be disclosed. There was a coherent principle to answer, it was not about choosing the least bad.

“The other was an Antarctic fisheries case involving a fishing boat misbehaving in the Southern Ocean. It was brought on very urgently and involved many people from the fisheries ministry, foreign affairs, lawyers, experts, and enforcement people. People who are competent at difficult jobs, who jumped out of helicopters on to trawlers and then gave very good evidence in court.”


“I have not appeared before my father - I think there might be an appearance problem. I would have an attack of nerves. I have faced some formidable panels. I have had both parents come to lectures I have given and that’s awkward enough.

“If I were smart enough - and I think I would find out quickly enough if I weren’t - being an astro-physicist has some appeal as an alternative career.

“I don’t have reservations about what I do. You get to be a part of some pretty important things. New Zealand has this great virtue that we deal with some difficult problems, if you are prepared to work hard and be flexible and pragmatic you can be part of it and see practical results.

“In a lot of the work I have done with my clients you can see how things have changed for the better. I don’t think I have a stronger preference not to do exactly what I do now.

“Coming back to the documentary about the Voyager probes and the people who worked on them. Because they are outside the solar system, the expectation is they will last longer than life on earth.”

“Just imagine having that as a career accomplishment.

“What did you do? I made something that is going to last longer than we will.”

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