New Zealand Law Society - John Andrew Tannahill, 1938 - 2018

John Andrew Tannahill, 1938 - 2018

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John Tannahill 1
John Tannahill

Wellington criminal lawyer John Tannahill - known affectionately as Rumpole, due to his walrus moustache which struck a resemblance to the British fictional barrister of the same name - died on Christmas Day 2018, at the age of 80.

Admitted as a barrister and solicitor on 9 February 1962, he was regarded as a larger than life figure in the city’s legal community and a champion for those who needed heavyweight representation.

Long-time colleague and friend, human rights lawyer Michael Bott, paid tribute to John Tannahill at his funeral. He has kindly allowed the New Zealand Law Society to publish that eulogy.

John Andrew Tannahill

To John's beloved family, Vicki his wife and soulmate. Kelly & Rob, Andrew & Heidi, Julie & Peter, Brad & Kate, Paul and Amy & Carl, Jack, Sam, Charlie, Billie, Ella, Sam, Kaitlyn, Freya and Marleah. To John’s colleagues and his friends from all walks of life we come to celebrate an extraordinary man – John Tannahill - a husband, a father, a lawyer and a horse racing nut.

John was born in Taranaki on 29 August 1938 to John and Lavinia, immigrants from Northern Ireland. John senior was a construction worker, and Lavinia was a stay at home mum. He started his education at Fitzroy Primary School, then going on to New Plymouth Boys’ High.

The Wellington legal community will long remember John as a colourful larger than life figure, a champion for those who had none, who leaves behind a weighty legacy as an advocate who represented his clients without fear or favour.

But to those of us who loved him and mourn his passing, we know John, JAT or Tanners by the other titles he held: a good mate, a father, husband, grandfather, Uncle John.

I, like so many others in the city where he worked for nearly half a century, knew him as a colleague, a mentor, and above all, as a friend.

In fact, many of John’s friends, even those who stayed with him to the end, first interacted with him when they arrived on his doorstep seeking legal advice.

Just yesterday I met one of John’s client’s who has been falsely accused again, who has been a mate of John’s for close on 40 years.

I first met John 30 years ago, when I was working as a housemover and turned up seeking the services of counsel at Deacon and Tannahill, for Paul, the son of the director of the firm I worked for. I met this loud short, man with a walrus moustache wearing a waistcoat. The case involved Paul being charged with failing to give particulars. The offence occurred late at night and Paul was driving a tractor unit towing an entire house on a trailer through Lower Hutt. He was stopped by Police, who demanded to know his occupation? Well it was obvious what his occupation was, but for a bit of humour, Paul told them he was a florist. It turns out the officer didn’t share the same sense of humour.

John took the case, and it was heard in the Lower Hutt District Court, where it was eventually thrown out.


John met his first wife Janice Murray when she came to him to get a divorce from her then husband. They subsequently married in 1964. They had three children - Kelly, Andrew and Julie. That marriage unfortunately ended in divorce in 1974.

John then met Ms Vicki White and they eventually married on 30 August 1975 and three more children followed: Brad, Paul and Amy.

Over the past five or so years John, Bernie Brodie and several others would meet, roughly once a month for a Friday lunch. These would go on from one to, on the odd occasion, a number of hours. Stories would be swapped, stretched and advice dispensed.

Anyway, it was during these lunches that I met Vicki, John’s wife.

What struck me was the closeness and friendship that they had. There was no one dominant partner. They were a team. They would spark off each other, baiting each other and teasing. Their love wasn’t fawning, it was real.

Over the final weeks, when John could no longer attend court and was confined to barracks, I would travel up to Telford Way in Raumati to chew the fat and just spend time with John. Towards the end, John was anxious to get me some paperwork and he was in his electric wheelchair, as he was unable to walk and was extremely debilitated.

Anyway, he was at his kitchen bench making a show of finding a file. “Vicki, where’s that bloody file? It was here, have you been tidying?” John demanded. Vicki was within earshot and was out in the garden. “I haven’t seen it, it’s where you damn well put it!” she bellowed back.

John looked at me and even then he had the most wicked devilish glint in his eye and was grinning from ear to ear. He had put out the bait and had gotten the bite he was expecting.

When Vicki phoned me on Christmas morning to tell me that John had passed one of the things she said, was, “Who am I going to argue with?”

Vicki, you and John were together for over 40 years and cared for each other very deeply. In the latter years you were there for John as that illness slowly tightened its hold on his body. Even as this occurred that deep love you both had shone through and John’s spirit was undiminished. John’s death is going to leave a big gap. You were great friends and a great team. It was a privilege to be part of it and to witness it, and we are here for you.


“He was the best daddy for me :)”

Amy told me of the memories she has of being woken early by dad before school, before he headed off to work. It was always a nice wake up and goodbye kiss. He worked a lot (most/every weekend mornings!)

“But that became partly my fault because he took me to choir on Sundays. I enjoyed those days with him, chats in the car, checking the p.o box, just the two of us ....

“Although he worked a lot dad was never the absent father. Always home for the family dinner together. We always went on family holidays, every year. Some overseas! We were pretty spoilt kids and never needed anything and always had all we needed. Growing up on a farm and all the fun stuff we got to do made for a pretty awesome childhood.”

John had a fondness for junk and Vicki was always fearful when they went to the rubbish dump and would almost come back with as much as they took there. Other people's "treasures" you could say. John was ecstatic when the $2 shop opened in New Zealand!

John always encouraged his children to be cheeky, to approach life with a feisty nature, not to back down!

Amy tells me that that sometimes got her into trouble at boarding-school but it never stopped her.

As a father he always enjoyed a good laugh or cheeky comment with his kids.

Amy can recall being asked questions by her dad, that he always knew the answer to. Like all good lawyers! Apparently at the time it drove her and her friends nuts. 

But it is fair to say that he taught you to question and to be nosey. It is something that seems hard-wired in your Tannahill DNA.

I have been told by his children that he comes across as a grumpy old bugger.  

Amy tells me that as a girl a lot of her friends were initially scared of him, but soon realised he was all gruff and no harm and actually a lot of good fun.  

It was innate in John to question absurdity, and to challenge rules, when they did not make sense.

Vicki recounted the story about when the family lived on their farm up on Horokiwi and John became incensed that the local council prohibited the walking of dogs on Petone Beach. John challenged this by going with his daughter and walking Frank their pet goat up and down the beach.

In the days when I visited John, he told me how he was proud of all his children and how chuffed he was with his grandchildren.  

I know that it pained him, that he would soon not be here to see them grow up, but I know that he lives on in them too. When you see them challenging rules, or being inquisitive and asking a lot of questions, just think the fruit does not fall far from the tree! 

Paul described his dad as a wonderful father and a great lawyer, who helped so many people throughout his life, as a man who was selfless in helping others – the proof of this was the number of people who remained in contact with him after being clients – they remained as friends.

Someone once said that you learn how to treat others from the example set by your parents. Paul mentioned John and Vicki as having big hearts, and having a home where all were welcome, as having a home where the door was always open. The steaks and barbeques and of course the roasts were legendary and were always accompanied by engaging and lively conversation around the dining table.

John and Vicky Tannahill
John and Vicki at the Wellington District Law Society conference, The Chateau, 1988. 

The loss of your father will leave a huge hole in your family but you will have many, many happy and fun memories of your dad/grandfather to cherish. Hold on to them and enjoy life with all it brings with the same vigour that he did.

The law

John’s headmaster thought John should go into teaching, and in talking with his mum, they thought that an arts degree might help with getting into teaching.

So, at 17 John packs his bags and heads off to Victoria University and commences studying for an Arts degree. Bursaries were scarce and so he supported himself through holiday stints at the local freezing works.

"I did Arts the first year, got three - English, French and Geography. Went off to Australia. I applied for a post-primary studentship, I think I was in Darwin when I was told I had it, I said to the man at the time to get stuffed, I'm going to do Law. So I came back and did Law."

I asked John, where he wished to study law?

John: Vic of course.

While at Vic he was very involved in student affairs such as Extravaganza, a previous incarnation of the Law Revue, a show put on by the students, and was a regular in the male ballet.

While studying he distinguished himself as a scholar, winning the Archibald Francis McCallum Scholarship in Law, a scholarship which is still going. John said, "This came as a surprise to some. One fellow student who is now an academic and a QC was described as being 'very upset' when I got it (big chuckle). He'd say 'How could Tannahill get this?"

Anyway, John wanted to get down town and into harness:

First job

John’s first job was with a firm called Barnett and Cleary, which is a foundation of a firm called Barnett Corrie Watts and Patterson, which later was taken over by Rudd Watts and Stone.  That was his first job. His first case involved an agency matter where he entered a guilty plea for a guy that was charged with some offence of unfairly packing cabbages. Apparently, he used to put the little ones on the bottom, big ones on the top. John recounted what he did for this appearance, “ Pleaded guilty and that was my first court appearance and the press covered most cases in those days so I got a bit of publicity over that.”   

When John was admitted to the Bar, by the Chief Justice, it was Roy Stacey who moved his admission.  In a manner typical of the time, it turns out that John was junioring in a case with Roy – 10 o’clock the same day before Judge Hutchinson. It was a case involving a policeman charged with some minor offence.

Anyway, it was 1 o’clock and Roy Stacey said “Look I’m going to have to go to the Hutt”.  He said “I’ll try and be back by 2:30”.  He didn’t turn up till 4. So John, his first day admitted, found himself in the deep end, having to fill in time. Roy eventually turned up at around 4 and managed to save the day.

Within a couple of years of working for others John met Des Deacon and they decided to form a new firm – Deacon and Tannahill. John was around 23 years of age. That firm lasted for close on 35 years. The name was decided by way of a coin toss, which is how Des’s name wound up being first.

In those days there was no legal aid and the pair built their practice from scratch by going down to the Police Station every morning at 7:30am to see who had been arrested and offering their services to those who had money in their pockets.

In those days the papers would fill their columns with almost verbatim reports of what occurred in the criminal courts. John’s name would regularly appear on the pages of Wellington’s two dailies. A week of headlines from the Evening Post will give you the flavour of a typical week of appearances for John in the 60s: "Barman Was Refused Kiss So Struck Girl"; "Month’s Gaol For Stealing Pens"; "Society Parasite Again Gaoled"; "Threw Ashtray When Benefit Refused" and "Tried To Take Van Belonging to Constable".  

John and Des grew their firm and its burgeoning clientele base from scratch.

Shortly after being in harness and still in his early 20s John undertook his first murder trial with the case of R v Vincent. The crime was alleged to have occurred at sea on a ship called the NZ Star, with the body tossed overboard.

The referral came from another client of John’s who recommended this up and coming young lawyer to Mr Vincent, who was remanded in Mt Crawford. The case had a number of interesting features. The Chief Police Officer hung himself enroute on the NZ Star from Napier to Wellington and the trial Judge had doubts, two weeks out from trial, that someone as young as John was up to a murder trial. Undeterred, John hunted around for a leader. In the end Roy Stacey stepped into the breach. The witness list was split down the middle and after a two weeks trial, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

“We had to get this guy new clothes, he had long hair, we gave him a haircut and after the trial finished, he had nowhere to go, he had nobody in New Zealand, so I arranged to have him put up at the Midland.   Had a good relationship with the Midland.  All of us had access to a room there if I needed it because of after-hours drinking. And so we got him a room and in one of the bars we were sitting at the table and we were having a drink.  The press were right on to it and they came to a photograph of Vincent and John having a drink. First, page one of the Dominion the next day: Tannahill and Vincent.”  

A week later John gets a letter from the President of the Wellington District Law Society, demanding he turn up at this meeting to show cause why he should not be exterminated for allowing the photo to be in the paper.  A slap on the wrist eventually followed, but that marked John’s first encounter with the Law Society.

Over the years

Over the years John represented all manner of people. People ranging from Mandy Rice-Davies – a key figure in the Profumo Affair, a scandal that shook Britain in the 60s - to associates of Terry Clarke in the fallout over the Mr Asia drug matters – in both New Zealand and Australia.

In the 1970s he acted for one half of the Bushwhackers, when he was charged with possession of cannabis. John described the Police as being determined to get this bloke and went through his house with a vacuum cleaner to find the cannabis. This was pre-Bill of Rights. John played a key part in getting him a Residence Visa for the States, where he has been ever since.

Over the years John represented a number of people involved in New Zealand’s racing industry, including one of whom was one of our premier riders. One jockey was charged on several occasions with drink driving, and later with unlawful interference with another horse during a race. John would often win those cases, or at worst mitigate the damage his clients suffered.

John’s could succinctly describe his assessment of people. I well remember his description of one client, he was both counsel and a riding agent for: “He rides bloody well. He’s a magnificent jockey but as a person on the ground he’s bloody hopeless.”

John also represented Mr Watt who was charged with video piracy, one of the first such cases in New Zealand.  It was hard fought for a couple of years, going to a second trial and ending up with guilty verdicts on a reduced number of charges before Judge Unwin.

John also crossed-swords with the Serious Fraud Office.  He was counsel in the months-long student loan fraud scam and for a lawyer for a $1.16 million fraud, both prosecuted by the SFO.

John went on to bedevil the SFO, representing a Wellington lawyer and his father charged with defrauding their clients. Anyway, he eventually stoked the ire and suspicions of the SFO and the SFO executed a search warrant at John’s Wellington offices. John Billington QC tells me that those executing the warrant initially thought that burglars had been there before them, given the chaos which they found when they entered his premises. Ultimately, they located a few book-keeping errors which meant John had to take some time out of his practice for a while.

In relation to this John went to court for depositions and it was on day one of the Scott Watson trial, and he was snapped by the Evening Post photographer in a rather unflattering pose as he was getting out of his car. That was on page one the next day.

John Tannahill 2
John Tannahill posing

A day later, John wrote back to the paper, with a photograph that he asked them to print giving a more realistic picture of him!

It was dutifully published – I think on page 3 – it shows John, in a bush shirt legs apart, and scowling, holding a sub machine gun – ready to take on anyone.

For completeness it was taken in 1986, when John was visiting his cousin Willie, in Galway in Ireland. No-one quite knows why his cousin possessed the weapon.

To my mind it captures John perfectly, a fighter, who will stand to the last.

John eventually was convicted and lost his practising certificate. He was sentenced to 6 months imprisonment with leave to apply for home detention. In those days the sentence could be suspended to allow time for the Parole Board to sit to determine the home detention application.

Anyway, there was a difficulty getting a Judge to sit, so John was taken out to prison by the Court forensic liaison nurse Anne Begg and spent 54 hours in Rimutaka.

What amused him, was that as soon as he was there, the next morning there were 17 inmates queuing up to see him.  

In the wildness away from the Bar, John kept using his skills in tribunal work and other forms of advocacy.

Eventually, because of the high regard in which John was held, he returned to practice and carried on representing the less fortunate in our community.

Many of us would have given up, but John kept going, he never lost that sense of fight of that joy of living.

I was struck by this repeatedly as I say John slowly become imprisoned in a body that would no longer work as it used to. For several years John suffered from Inclusion-body myositis, an inflammatory condition that led to muscle degeneration. Still, John kept fighting.

Over the past two years on top of that John also fought the cancer that eventually spread to his liver. During that time John fought to the end, last appearing in court in early December.

My friend, in living your life, you have displayed a spirit of resilience and humour and have loved and lived your life until the end.

John, you had a passionate sense of justice, you had a wonderful sense of humour and you had a boundless enthusiasm for the practice of law. It is a privilege to have known you and to have been able to count you as my friend.

JOHN ANDREW TANNAHILL may you rest in peace.

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