New Zealand Law Society - Sir Ian Barker QC retires after more than 60 years in the law

Sir Ian Barker QC retires after more than 60 years in the law

Sir Ian Barker QC retires after more than 60 years in the law
Ian Barker

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Auckland-based former High Court Judge Sir Ian Barker QC has had a remarkable career that stretches back to the late 1950s.

It’s a story that reads and feels as if two men were doing his law work as his immense contribution leaves you pondering whether it was possible for one man to have achieved so much.

Perhaps this suggests that law was more than just a job for Sir Ian. It’s a profession that he was, and still is deeply passionate about.

It’s worth considering how many people would retire as a Judge of the High Court following over 20 years of service behind the bench to then build and carry out a third career as an arbitrator and mediator for a further two decades. A career that would also see him involved in law reform in the Cook Islands, work that will shape their society for many years to come.

And let’s not forget that he had a 20-year career as a lawyer before making the move to the bench.

Drifting into the law

Sir Ian was born in 1934 in Taumarunui. He went to primary school there, then attended boarding school in Auckland before entering the University of Auckland to study law. Other than a great-grandfather who was a solicitor in Manchester in the 19th century, he says there wasn’t any family law connections.

“I rather drifted into the law at my second year at university because I was too clumsy to be a medical practitioner, not mechanically inclined for engineering and related professions and I did not want to be a teacher. In those days, there was, I think, one scholarship in the whole of New Zealand for overseas legal post-graduate study. The many opportunities for young lawyers today to study and work overseas just did not exist back in the 1950s,” he says.

Sir Ian was admitted to the Bar in 1958, and began his life in the law as a barrister. These were simple times and the law was very different to how it is now. The Beatles were four years away from releasing their debut single, Love Me Do, and technology played little to no part in law compared to where it fits in today.

The year 1958 was when Sir Edmund Hillary became the first person to reach the South Pole overland since Robert Scott’s tragic journey of 1912.

Sir Ian’s career has been a law adventure. He has worn practically all of the law hats a person could don: barrister, judge, law academic, arbitrator and mediator.

He was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1973, 15 years into his career.

“I’ve had three distinct careers in law. I’m really surprised. At no point do you actually know how long you’ll have. Back then (1958) the turn of the century seemed like a long time away but looking back, it all happened very quickly,” he says.

So, perhaps the answer to gaining a long career in law is about keeping it interesting and letting those skills develop.

“Something I’m blessed with is a good memory. It’s very helpful in the law. I’m also a reasonably adaptable person. Practising law has changed a lot since 1958. In our graduation class there was only one woman out of about 23 of us.”

Sir Ian was a Judge of the High Court from 1976 to 1997. He is a man who appears to relish assessing highly detailed cases, for example, a case he recalls known as the Securitibank Case (Re Securitibank Ltd (No 2) [1978] 2 NZLR 136).

“It lasted over 10 years and produced a huge number of judgments on obscure points of company and liquidation law. My last case – Shell (Petroleum Mining) Co Ltd v Kapuni Gas Contracts Ltd (1997) 7 TCLR 463 was very interesting. It involved competition law and splitting the gas field between two parties instead of one,” he says.

Sir Ian also enjoyed administration work and he was an executive judge for about six years.

The third career

So, after 21 years behind the bench, Sir Ian still had an appetite for law work but didn’t anticipate it would lead to another two decades of work.

While Sir Ian was no longer on the bench in New Zealand, he did sit on the Cook Islands Court of Appeal as a Judge until recently. He also sat on other appeal courts including those in Fiji, the Pitcairn Islands (held in Auckland), Samoa, Vanuatu and Kiribati.

“That was really interesting work. The Cook Islands – while it has a lot of ordinary and mainly criminal appellate cases – does have other interesting cases such as fishing rights where the Cook Islands entered into treaties with the European Union about fishing inside their exclusive economic zone. Because the Cook Islands has so many small islands, its exclusive economic zone is quite a huge area. That case is actually going to go before the Privy Council to determine whether the Cook Islands went through the necessary regulations before it entered into these treaties,” he says.

Another case that went to the Privy Council involved the Cook Islands superannuation scheme, and he says there were numerous land cases that went before the Privy Council too.

Recently, a final sitting was held at the Cook Islands High Court to farewell Sir Ian.

He also spent four separate periods at Wolfson College at Cambridge University as a visiting fellow.

“You had to have a project so I took on a Cook Islands law reform project each time. The last one was the Crimes Act.”

He also worked on drafting the Family Protection and Support Act.

Fiji was also a place he enjoyed visiting and working at the Court of Appeal.

“The population was much bigger [than the Cooks] so there was much more variety in the work than you would get in a smaller jurisdiction. I was one of an international team of five Court of Appeal Judges who had to decide on whether the George Speight coup [of 2000] had changed the Government of Fiji and abrogated the constitution. We held that it hadn’t changed the constitution. The late Sir Maurice Casey and I were the Kiwis, there was also a judge from Papua New Guinea, Sir Mari Kapi, who has since died, an Australian judge and the Chief Justice of Tonga who was an Englishman,” he says.


In the early 2000s, Sir Ian, who was knighted for services to law in 1994, set himself up at Bankside Chambers in Auckland.

He was a foundation member of Bankside Chambers which started in the old Grand Hotel Building in Princes Street in about 2001. They moved to Lumley Building in 2007.

But retirement doesn’t mean he completely cuts his ties with Bankside.

“I’m what’s called an associate member now. That means that I can still pop in for morning tea and generally socialise. It just means I’m not there on a regular basis in that I don’t have my own office anymore. I had a really nice farewell and my colleagues insisted that I come and see them, so I will. They’re great people and have just opened up another half floor to accommodate more lawyers. People such as Christopher Finlayson QC are there now,” he says.

During his career after retiring from the bench, Sir Ian was also the chair of the Banking Ombudsman Commission. He has also been the patron for the In-house Lawyers Association of New Zealand (ILANZ) since its inception. He has been a World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) panellist for domain disputes for almost 20 years and was one of the first experts appointed by InternetNZ for .nz domain disputes.

There were also various inquiries that Sir Ian carried out; in particular, he headed the investigation into the controversial Holocaust thesis written by Joel Hayward.

What does retirement look like?

A certain momentum and pace is generally synonymous with practising law. There are few who leave the game not feeling somewhat jaded from the journey.

Sir Ian is well travelled. Law has taken him abroad many times and something he has always enjoyed was journeys by rail.

He still takes the time to travel this way, even in Auckland on a day-to-day basis.

But the overseas experiences are a little different in that the journey takes you several thousand kilometres across vast areas and you stay aboard the passenger train overnight.

“Last year I went on the Indian Pacific from Adelaide to Perth with a friend. There was also the Ghan train from Darwin to Adelaide with one of my children,” he says.

There have been trips on trains in South America, and if in Europe, train has always been the choice of transport for Sir Ian.

But it’s not merely the convenience that appeals. Sir Ian grew up during a time when trains were the king of transport, so it’s a hobby.

“Being brought up in Taumarunui, it was a railway town, so steam trains were common. It was part of life. I was president of the Railway Enthusiasts Society at one point,” he says.

But railways and trains won’t be taking up a huge amount of Sir Ian’s retirement. He also has writing plans, which includes articles for LawTalk. There are also memoirs that he is writing for members of his extended family.

During his long career Sir Ian Barker was involved in teaching law and he was the longest serving chancellor at the University of Auckland, from 1991 to 1999.

“It was hard work but I enjoyed seeing the faces of students being capped on completion of their degrees,” he says.

And education remains a strong interest. Along with two other retired High Court judges, and a retired District Court judge, he attends Otahuhu College once a week to provide remedial reading assistance. Another retired High Court Judge, Sir David Tompkins, does the same sort of work at One Tree Hill College.

Sir Ian has five children and an 11th grandchild on the way.

All of his children have university degrees. Three are lawyers, which includes a Queen’s Counsel and a specialist wine and beverage lawyer, along with a specialist researcher at Gilbert Walker, litigation and arbitration specialists.

Sir Ian and his wife have been married for 53 years. They’ve both travelled extensively but these days prefer to visit both Italy and France.

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