New Zealand Law Society - Small town guy’s lifetime love of law, learning and the Ploughman Poet

Small town guy’s lifetime love of law, learning and the Ploughman Poet

This article is over 3 years old. More recent information on this subject may exist.

Royden Somerville
Royden Somerville

January is a busy month for Dunedin Queen’s Counsel, leading environmental law specialist and Burns-loving guardian of Scottish Heritage Dr Royden Somerville.

He takes on the prestigious role of Chancellor of Otago University, presides over the city’s annual Burns’ Supper (tonight Thursday) and joins a large number of lawyers, judges and other luminaries for the re-opening of the old Dunedin High Court (tomorrow Friday).

As if that is not enough, he is looking forward to the 150th anniversary in 2019 of the founding of Otago University. “It will be a great occasion,” he says.

Dr Royden John (Royden) Somerville QC
Entry to law
Graduated LLB (May 1971), LLM (1972) from Otago University. Admitted in 1972. Obtained PhD from Otago University in 2001.
Barrister based in Dunedin.
Speciality area
Public and environmental law.

Royden was installed as Chancellor of Otago University this month.

He follows in the footsteps of the university’s first Chancellor, his great great grandfather the Rev Dr Thomas Burns – a nephew of Scottish poet Robert Burns - and another member of the broad Somerville clan, Presbyterian leader the Very Rev Dr Jack Somerville, who was Chancellor from 1976 to 1982.

Royden studied at the university’s Knox College when Jack Somerville was Master.

As Chancellor, he is chairman of the university’s governing body, the Council, and as well as having ceremonial duties, he takes part in the governance of the university but not its active management. The Chancellor and deputy Chancellor are frequently drawn from the senior ranks of business or the judiciary and is one of the few jobs considered compatible with judicial service.

“As a student I was heavily committed on the university debating team and mooting for the university, was president of the debating society and president of the New Zealand Debating Council.”

Two of Royden’s former student colleagues, Sir Malcolm Grant and Dame Judith Mayhew Jonas, are now Chancellors, respectively, of York University and Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln, England.

He tutored and did his masters degree while working part-time at the Crown solicitor’s office in Dunedin. He later became involved with, and chaired, the Council of Knox and Salmond Colleges.

He was co-opted onto the University Council in 2010, continuing a long involvement in university affairs, and became Pro-Chancellor in 2017.

He has been chairman of the university’s health and safety and ethics compliance committee, convenor of the appeals board and a member of the capital development committee, the audit and risk committee, finance and budget committee, honorary degrees committee and trustee of the university’s foundation trust.

Appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1998, his contribution to environmental law was recognised in 2016 with a Resource Management Law Association lifetime achievement award.

A member of the original committee of the New Zealand Bar Association, he has served on various New Zealand Law Society and Otago District Law Society committees and is a former president of the Otago District Law Society.

The Caledonian connection

Royden’s Scots family from south of Edinburgh came to New Zealand in 1848 and settled at Waitepeka, south of Balclutha, where remains of the original family settlement are marked at Somerville Park.

The Somervilles were descended from Sir Gualter de Somerville of Normandy, a warlord knight of the company of William the Conqueror, whose son William de Somerville was created Lord of Carnwarth by David the First of Scotland in the 12th century.

Royden went to primary school at Lawrence and high school at Waitaki Boys’ High School in Oamaru, where his rector influenced him into a career in law.

“I was interested in debating at school and became the first lawyer in the family.”

His sister Annis and her husband Peter Rollo – who recently retired to Wanaka - were the first husband and wife to be appointed district court judges. Family Court Judge Somerville continues with some part-time judging while using her retirement to focus on the family’s Ngai Tahu connections.

“We are of Ngai Tahu descent on my mother’s side, which is interesting. They came down from Kaiapoi when Te Rauparaha was chasing them and settled around Otago. One of the first whalers to come to Moeraki married my great great grandmother. Her father was a tohunga for Ngai Tahu and her son married a Harwood from down the Otago Peninsula. Annis has been heavily involved in that side of the family.”

Royden’s wife Lee, a teacher who now does adult literacy teaching, also works at his chambers copy editing and proofreading his reports, “which is invaluable for me.”

They have three children. Sarah, an actress (among other roles, she played Emily Bradigan in Shortland Street in 2003), is now in senior management at the Museum of Transport and Technology (Motat) in Auckland; Anna is a teacher and Matthew is regional electrical supervisor at the Southern District Health Board.

Serving for a number of years on his daughters’ school board, Royden chaired Presbyterian Support Otago and is a life member. Church activities have included chairing the judicial committee and various trusts.

“My community activities - besides the university - are very much to do with the Scottish heritage and culture in Dunedin.”

As president of the Dunedin Burns Club - “which has been around since the 1860s” - the Otago Scottish Heritage Council and also president of the Burns’ Clubs Association of the Pacific Rim, Royden has a close interest in Scottish culture and maintaining it in the Otago area.

“I follow Burns and do some addresses – but don’t do the Address to a Haggis.

“There have been many trips back to Scotland, and the pilgrimage to Linton, where the old church visitors’ book seems full of Otago names and addresses.

“Our second daughter did her postgraduate work at Stirling University. We like Scotland and love the Western Isles and Edinburgh.

“I had a kilt given to me recently in Somerville tartan, having previously hired one.”

The Irish Connection

“I used to play tennis and social rugby for the law faculty years ago and am a passive sportsperson now. Walking is my main activity and I thoroughly enjoy the Highlanders and going to the University Oval to watch cricket.

“I did quite a bit of travel when I was the first Kiwi to chair the International Bar Association’s environmental law committee. I have a nephew in Wicklow, Ireland, and went there in 2017 and did a lot of travelling round Ireland.

“When Irish President Michael D. Higgins was here recently, Otago University’s inaugural Eamon Cleary Professor of Irish Studies, Professor Peter Kuch, and I had a private meeting with him.

“It was absolutely fascinating to meet him and he invited us to ‘just pop in’ next time we are over in Ireland.

“I’m not really musical, don’t play music and don’t sing and dance. I like classical music and love Scottish folk music – especially Eddi Reader – and Burns’ songs.

“I read widely and usually have a fair bit on the go. I’ve just finished Tom Scott’s memoir Drawn Out. I like Elspeth Sandys (a distant relation) and Fiona Farrell and I’m into Terry Sturm’s biography of poet Allen Curnow at the moment.

“I am enjoying Dame Anne Salmond’s Tears of Rangi, a great book. When I was at a Burns’ club event at Camperdown, near Melbourne, I ran into Philip Ayers, who wrote Fortunate Voyager - an absolutely fascinating biography of Sir Ninian Stephen, a judge and Australia’s longest serving Governor General.

“I’m also getting into A.N.Wilson’s book on Darwin – Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker.

“Lee and I have wide tastes in films and recently saw Victoria & Abdul and Ridley Scott’s remake of Murder on the Orient Express, both of which we enjoyed.”


“We inherited pets from our daughter when she was in America - a little Chihuahua thing called Rosco and a cat called Kevin.

“We have always gone to Central Otago since children for holidays. We had a place in Queenstown but sold it recently and have not decided what to do there yet. Queenstown doesn’t have the appeal it had before it became busy.

“Chairing an inquiry in 2010 into a proposed national policy statement for renewable electricity generation was memorable. I did most, if not all, of the ‘think big’ cases, mainly in Taranaki, and practised in Taranaki for a few years.

“My practice is very much away from Dunedin and there are so many big environmental cases which I have thoroughly enjoyed, especially when dealing with future generations and the ethical obligations in terms of intergenerational equity and stuff.

“Some of the biggest law and policy challenges are with climate change and you need all the horsepower you can get to try and deal with that.

“I’m not sure who I would invite to dinner, there are so many. I would be interested in meeting people like Sir Isaiah Berlin (Russian-British social and political theorist, raconteur, philosopher and historian of ideas). And some of the philosophers, although they may not be good dinner companions, and people in arts and sciences. Questions about what would be on the menu are the wrong sorts of questions for me.

“Being at the Bar has suited me but if I had to choose an alternative career it might be a mix of continuing education and a bit of teaching. I have managed to mix my practice with university matters and the mix has worked for me.

“I had an appearance in what they call the new justice precinct in Christchurch the other day, in the No 1 High Court. It’s a big and impressive building but you have to wonder about having the police in the same building as the courts.”

“Speaking about Lawrence, Jock, I find the small town thing quite interesting. I spoke at the Lawrence Anzac service in 2017.

“At Knox College I wrote an article about the importance of small towns. I am very much a small town guy, really.”

Lawyer Listing for Bots