One of the more colourful and illustrious characters of trans-Tasman law, Graeme “Pinky” Little, returned not so long ago from the “heartbeat” of Sydney to the relative tranquillity of central Auckland’s Vulcan Chambers.
Tranquil, that is, until Vulcan Chamber’s legendary Friday hospitality, presided over for decades by Head of Chambers, Roger Chambers, kicks in.
At 76, Graeme – who admits he doesn’t know where his nickname comes from but has had it since primary school – shows little sign of slowing down as he and wife Vikki build a beach house at Matapouri, north-east of Whangarei.
“That takes me away a bit and I haven’t had to grapple with builders for a long time so I have the odd frustration.”
- Graeme Frederick (Graeme) Little SC (Australia)
- Entry to law
- Graduated LLB from Canterbury University in 1967. Admitted in New Zealand 1966. Called to the Bar in New Zealand in 1968 and in New South Wales in 1982. Took silk in New South Wales in 2000.
- Barrister at Vulcan Chambers, Vulcan Lane, Auckland and Elizabeth Street Chambers, Sydney.
- Speciality area
- Insurance and arbitration.
With 44 years at the Bar behind him, and the holder of New Zealand, Australian and Irish passports, Graeme is also an associate member of the Arbitrators and Mediators Institute of New Zealand, the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators and the Institute of Arbitrators and Mediators of Australia.
At the time of writing, he was waiting for a reserved decision from Justice Rebecca Edwards in an eight-day case of a woman suing the Crown for damages, arguing the Air Force failed to act on complaints about the behaviour of Robert Richard Roper – jailed for 13 years in 2014 for historic sex offending in the 1970s and 80s. Graeme argued that Roper’s misconduct – and complaints about it – was so widespread the Air Force was liable and his client should have some punitive relief. He says it will be an interesting decision.
Graeme began his career as a law clerk at Meredith Connell.
Invited several times to take silk in Australia, he agreed just after the Queen’s Counsel rank was changed to Senior Counsel (SC) in 2000.
“It was a bit of a closed shop and I was asked to apply for QC a few years before they changed, but I didn’t think I had enough experience in Australia at that time to accept, so turned it down.”
“It was SC when I did apply. There was a huge push three or four years ago to restore it to QC, with 75 percent of barristers wanting it changed back to QCs. But the very left-wing group that was in charge of the Bar Association said this isn’t a democracy and they refused to change it. There was a lot of disquiet about that. But in New Zealand, everyone, including Sir Geoffrey Palmer, changed back to QC.
“It’s unusual because when you go from here to Australia as a QC you get admitted in New South Wales and Victoria as QC and practise as QC, unlike here. I can put SC after my name but I’ve got to put Australia beside it.
“And nobody really tells you what your status is. I practise as a silk here, I wear a silk gown, and I won’t go to court without a junior unless there’s some reason. Some judges have me as Senior Counsel. The Court of Appeal asked me to appear as a Senior Counsel. It’s all a mishmash here and not in one particular person’s hands.”
“I was one of a group that had enjoyed considerable success with Professor A.G. Davis, an old Oxford professor who was professor of law at Auckland. He was replaced by Jack Northey, a gumboot-wearing fellow who had a degree from Toronto.
“Those who got on well with Prof Davis didn’t get on at all well with Prof Northey, and I had to complete my degree in Canterbury, where I graduated from. A few of us went down there at the time.
“The bulk of my degree was in Auckland except for two subjects that were taught by Prof Northey, which I failed with 48 in each. I managed to get a B pass in Canterbury.
“After very early doing a lot of criminal law in New Zealand, ACC came along and buggered the personal injury cases, which used to fund us while we did criminal law.
“Six or seven of us went to Australia in 1979, including Bob Adams-Smith, who was a silk, Mike Williams and Jim Farmer, when the last of personal injury cases finished here.
“When I went to Australia I went straight into personal injury and did mainly that most of my time in Australia. I acted for the coal miners in New South Wales for 10 years doing all their injury cases. Then got on to the asbestos disease cases – Australia having the highest proportion of asbestos caused diseases in the western world.”
Graeme’s notable achievements include establishing many of the principles in the asbestos diseases cases in Australia.
“Because the problem with the asbestos was the main disease comes on 40 or 50 years later, we were always running cases from the dim distant past. But we established cases as far as the High Court of Australia. Eventually I worked myself pretty much out of a job because all the difficulties had gone and now they all settle.”
He was appointed acting judge of the fast-track Australian Dust Diseases Tribunal for a period. “I would never have accepted a permanent judge’s job. I couldn’t think of anything worse than sitting there day after day being paid by the bloody government.
“The Tribunal had a very urgent hearing procedure because people would be fine for 35 or 40 years, then get a cough, pain in the chest, go to doctor, have an X-ray and they would have three weeks to live.
“We had a court where people could immediately file their proceedings and we would go and take all their evidence before they died. In most cases we delivered a judgment before they died so they would know their family was going to be provided for by the time they eventually handed in their cards.
“I get very frustrated here by the time it takes to get litigation on and how much bloody procedure there is. On the Dust Diseases Tribunal we used to go from start to finish in a week.
“The president of our tribunal once started a case on Christmas Eve and it ran through till one o’clock in the morning on Christmas Day and he delivered the decision with tears rolling down his cheeks on a 37-year old woman with three young children who had contracted it as a child playing in one of the asbestos factories in Western Australia.
“It was pretty gruelling stuff. I must have done hundreds and hundreds of those cases. I did thousands of cases for the coal miners.”
Landmark murder case
But it is a landmark criminal case he regards as an “outstanding success” in New Zealand, when, in a murder, the Court of Appeal in 1977 “set my man free without a retrial because of an illegal kidnapping from Australia in defiance of all the requirements for extradition”.
The New Zealand police had phoned Australian police and got them to pick up Graeme’s man and put him on plane to New Zealand. “A bit like the Americans do. They grabbed him and brought him back.”
“The Court of Appeal said this was an area of law where the end does not justify the means, and in spite of his conviction, they so abhorred the conduct of the Executive they quashed the conviction and set him free. That got followed all around the world.
“The Court of Appeal gave leave to the Crown to appeal it to Privy Council. But the QC they got an opinion from England that said they had no show and it would be kicked out of court because the PC had been waiting for a chance like this for about 30 years to discipline the Executive.
“I suspect the QC was one of those on the subsequent House of Lords when they followed the case.
“I never got a go in the Privy Council but I had plenty of goes in the High Court of Australia, which, for many of the years I was there, was regarded by many as the equal of, if not the superior of, the common law courts of the world. It’s not as good as it was – it hasn’t got the reputation now.
“I was at a conference in Australia when I bumped into an English gentleman who came over and said ‘Graeme Little, you’re a barrister are you?’ I said Yes ‘A Sydney barrister?’ I said Yes. ‘Were you ever a New Zealand barrister?’ I said Yes. ‘Were you counsel in the Queen and Hartley?’ I said Yes. ‘Oh good’, he said. ‘I’ve always wanted to meet you, I’m Nicolas Browne-Wilkinson, Nico to my friends’.
“He said ‘We’ve just followed your New Zealand case and we regard it as one of the most important constitutional cases in 200 years. Courts having the power to discipline the Executive.’’
Browne-Wilkinson was at the time President of the House of Lords. He is a former Senior Lord of Appeal, former head of the Privy Council and former vice-chancellor of the High Court of England and Wales.
“In a UK case they spent page after page dealing with the New Zealand case, saying it was the leading case in this area. It was followed around the world with one major exception – the USA. In a 4-3 decision the US Supreme Court refused to follow it and the minority said it was a black day for American justice. It would have stopped Guantanamo Bay.”
A great big club
“When I went to the Bar in Australia it was like a great big club. The New South Wales Bar Association had our own premises and we were very distinct from the solicitors. The Bar did all the work.
“At night everyone would meet in the Bar common room, have a few drinks and talk to the judges, who would frequently come down from the High Court and Court of Appeal.
“Everyone mixed absolutely freely, with great camaraderie and it was a great feeling to work in.
“It’s different here – everyone’s in different little chambers, and some are more up themselves than others. Roger Chambers’ Vulcan Chambers is about the nearest that I have seen in Auckland to the chambers in Sydney, they get together and have drinks in chambers.
“The other great thing in Australia is because of distance we had a lot of circuit courts and judges and barristers from Sydney would go to places like Broken Hill for three weeks sitting and deal with 200 cases.”
Graeme’s father started law in the Depression but worked on the land before becoming a manufacturer in Auckland. His mother – born of an Irish woman from Tipperary who came to New Zealand as a young girl – never worked, “she was a housewife.” Another grandmother came from Penzance, in Cornwall.
He went to Kohimarama School in Auckland and was a foundation pupil at St Kentigern College. His 88-year-old sister is “alive and kicking and living on her own”.
His wife Vikki is a former nursing sister and flight hostess with TEAL and Ansett airlines.
Son Timothy was a barrister in Sydney but didn’t like the stress and now works in IT in London. His daughter Victoria recently returned from Australia where she and her husband ran a 4,000 acre farm Graeme had for 20 years at Walcha, in New South Wales high country.
He has three grandchildren – one doing advance science and Asian studies, one studying engineering and a 12-year-old at school in Whangarei.
The farm in Australia, which ran breeding cows, calves and sheep, was sold this year to an English industrialist.
“My father – who died when I was about 15 or 16 – was a farmer in the Depression at Te Hana, near Wellsford, growing flax but the flax was set on fire by the train running between Auckland and Whangarei so he had to give it up.
“I always wanted to be a farmer but unless you are born into it the only way you can become one is to be successful at something else. Quite a lot of the New South Wales Bar were farmers.
“Vikki and I like to see shows. I read a lot and played golf and cricket in Australia, but never had time for hobbies because always, even at weekends, I would be reading briefs for the coming weeks.
“We had a bach at Matapouri for some years, where we are building a beach house now. I always wanted to come back.
“Sydney is exciting, it’s got a heartbeat. Auckland has caught up, but the traffic is nothing compared to traffic in Sydney or London. It’s a young person’s thing living in a big city, I think.”
He works from Vulcan Chambers in Vulcan Lane and lives in Auckland while building the beach house.
“We’ve done a bit of travelling, mainly with cases and conferences in the UK. I took an asbestos case in Texas for the Australian government and they were agog when all the QCs and SCs turned up. It was a big argument.
“I haven’t travelled extensively in Europe, but love Paris and have been to London a lot. We intend next year to do one of the longer canal and river trips and visit a relative in Tuscany.”
The accidental lawyer
Like several in the profession, Graeme turned to law because he was “hopeless at maths and science”.
“My family were quite friendly with a couple of lawyers and we had some live near us. Law was something the family suggested.
“I was one of the first from St Kentigerns to go to law school, along with Graham Hubble (later a district court judge). I thought the idea of going to university was overwhelming, I thought we would never cope with all these bright guys from Auckland Grammar.
“But much to my amazement I got very high marks in some of the early subjects like English and philosophy.
“I love the law. And while I acted for insurance companies and did some prosecuting at Meredith Connell, I much preferred acting for the injured coal miners and sufferers of the asbestos diseases.
“It’s a great reward to win a big personal injury action for people who have been seriously injured from their work and see their families properly provided for. Some of the asbestos diseases people would hang on till the very last until they got their verdict then die the next day.
“I love music. Some of my greatest memories were, after playing rugby on a Saturday afternoon, getting the ferry across to the Esplanade Hotel at Devonport, where a jazz band comprised mainly of navy band guys played.
“Benny Goodman stuff, and it used to be packed. The crowd would roar and stamp as though it was a try being scored at an international. Fabulous days. I love jazz. I played the piano badly and my father played the banjo. Two grandchildren are good musicians and I like to sing – badly.
“I like St Patrick’s Day in Sydney, not only because we consume far too much Guinness, but also get to sing large numbers of patriotic Irish songs, which are very easy to sing because the Irish have terrible voices, by and large.
“I like movies and have a pretty broad approach. The standard of movies these days is very, very good. I like Geoffrey Rush in The King’s Speech, spy movies and thrillers, but not James Bond. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a good film.
“I support the Auckland university football club and go out pretty regularly to watch, and go to their club for lunch. Vikki plays bridge, I do too, but I’m not very good.
“We’ve had cats and dogs over the years, we took a cat to Australia and brought one of our dogs back years ago, who spent his last days at my sister’s farm at Manurewa. We love pets but it’s not practical to have them right now.
“I drive a seven or eight-year old V8 diesel Range Rover and also have an Audi.”
“We have a small group of friends we have had for about 50 years, who all got married about the same time and are all still married to the same people. We go on trips around New Zealand together.
“I’d have our friends round for dinner, and from history I’d have Brian O’Nolan – a writer from the Irish Times who created the characters Flann O’Brien and Myles na gCopaleen – a screamingly funny man. TS Eliot too, he might have been a bit of a bore but he was well informed. With beef and Guinness pie.
“We started Bloomsday in Sydney, to celebrate the life of James Joyce’s through his great novel Ulysses. A judge friend of mine started it, and we kicked off at about 7am at a pub down in The Rocks.
“It became a huge success and so popular but after two or three years it got hijacked by the intellectuals and they had Gough Whitlam doing readings, so it lost all its fun and we gave up.”
Bloomsday is named after Joyce’s main protagonist Leopold Bloom and is celebrated on June 16 around the world.
“I don’t know what alternative career would interest me. I fell into law somewhat accidentally, but I don’t know what else I could have done.
“I couldn’t have been a doctor, I don’t have the stamina for that. As a student I drove trucks and bulldozers. I enjoyed that but I don’t think I could have made a lifetime out of it.
“One of the things I’ve always been quite pleased about is being briefed by Doug Graham, from the National Party, before he was Attorney General, and in the case of Hartley, being briefed by David Lange.
“I covered the field. I acted for insurance companies and the unions in New Zealand, as I did in Australia.
“I was not a one-track specialist, I appeared for all.”
Over a long career in journalism Jock Anderson has spent many hours in courtrooms and talking to members of the legal profession. He can be contacted at email@example.com