Congratulations on being appointed Queen's Counsel, what was it like receiving that honour and how has it been since?
First of all, being made a QC came as quite a big surprise to me. When I was told (by the Hon. David Parker) I had already booked to visit my sister in Sydney for Christmas, and so it was lovely to go together with her and my children to buy the new bar jacket and gown.
The Admission ceremony at the High Court was in March, just before New Zealand went into higher alert levels for COVID-19. I was very nervous because there were so many senior judges and lawyers there, including of course the Chief Justice. It was incredibly special to see everyone gathered together for the occasion and we were all very lucky to do that before the lockdown. I was also very fortunate that my family was able to be there. We still haven’t managed to have a Bar dinner yet because of COVID-19 but we are still hoping to be able to do that at some point.
Since taking silk, it has been a truly amazing experience for me. I have had more work opportunities, the chance to do more committee work through Auckland District Law Society, and I’ve been presented with more speaking opportunities. There are many more duties which I take very seriously but also when I go to court, my cases get called on first, which is a perk!
What path led you to becoming a QC?
I started my career as a criminal barrister in England in 1991. Early on in my career I had the opportunity to work on a case involving a very senior member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) who was charged with murdering one police officer and attempting to murder four others. This offending in England had occurred whilst he was on the run having escaped custody while on trial in Northern Ireland for his part in the murder of an Special Air Service (SAS) officer. The defendant (and his co-defendants who also escaped) were convicted in their absence of that murder.
The escape had been effected by assaulting and kidnapping their lawyers and some guards, taking the clothes and walking out of the court building. He had been on the run for a number of years and his arrest and trial on the new charges also had some heavy political overtones. The escape had been very embarrassing to the Government at the time. I should add that I was not given all this background when I was asked and I agreed to check the chain of custody of all the exhibits in the case. The other lawyers had not seen any issues with my involvement, but I thought differently.
Coming from Northern Ireland the case was initially a cause of some concern to me. I had left Northern Ireland largely because of "the Troubles" and was not sure about all of the potential repercussions of my representing this particular client. It really made me think hard about what it means to be a criminal barrister. The fact is that as a criminal lawyer we have to represent all sorts of people charged with criminal offending, and we do not choose those who we prefer. Everyone deserves the right to a fair trial, irrespective of the allegations or their political allegiances.
I suggested to the more senior lawyers in the case that we should also check with the defendant about me, in case he had an objection to my being involved with the case. Being English, they had not seen the issue until I raised it. The IRA were usually always represented by Gareth Pierce when charged with serious offending in England and were known to be quite particular over legal representation. I was obviously playing a very junior role, but nevertheless, I thought he should know I was involved, that I am from Northern Ireland but not Catholic. He did not object to me, and an interesting professional relationship developed from there.
The trial at the Old Bailey had the highest security level (as you could imagine) and also received a lot of tabloid and media interest. It was a huge and formative experience for me. The footnotes are that afterwards he also tried another (unsuccessful this time) prison escape from Her Majesty's Prison (HMP) Whitemoor and then was eventually released under the Good Friday agreement. I would also add that I never talked about this case in Northern Ireland and I did not tell my family for many years, as it would only have worried them.
I was certainly very fortunate to be in Chambers with amazing lawyers who often were involved in high profile cases (Rosemary West and also on a lighter note - Pete Doherty, REM and George Michael). You never knew who you would bump into at work on any given day!
I loved going up to the Bailey as much as possible to watch the trials there. It is a stunning building, steeped in history and there was usually some fascinating trial to follow. It was fantastic experience and I still love watching great advocacy where I can. We can always learn and improve.
Then on one fateful night I met a Kiwi in a Blues bar and that is how I came to live in New Zealand. I arrived in New Zealand in 2006, and in 2007 I started working as a Senior Solicitor at Meredith Connell prosecuting on behalf of the Crown. I joined the Independent Bar in 2013 and for the past five years I’ve been a member at Blackstone Chambers.
Was there anyone who inspired you along the way?
There have been so many role models and mentors that I will never be able to mention them all. I have always been very sociable and enjoyed listening to the war stories of other lawyers. It is a great way to learn over a meal or a glass of something cold. I do think it is an important lesson for young lawyers to try and build those relationships with all levels of lawyers. We all need support and advice at every level of practice and these relationships are vital.
In England I was in the Chambers of Richard Ferguson QC, who was a formidable and charming advocate. I was also fortunate to work with Sasha Wass QC. Some here may have heard of her - as she was the prosecutor on the Chris Cairns match fixing case as well as the Rolf Harris case. What I admired about Sasha, was her sparseness with words. She was so concise with her language. I also try to be succinct in court and get to the point because I think if you say too much you can lose your audience and there is only so much they can take in, whether that be the Jury or even a Judge!
Since arriving in New Zealand I’ve also been really grateful to work with so many at Meredith Connell including Aaron Perkins, Rachael Reed QC, Natalie Walker, Justice Christine Gordon and Justice Moore (before they were High Court Judges). When I came to the defence bar Marie Dyhrberg QC has been incredibly supportive to me as she is with many lawyers. All of my colleagues at Blackstone are amazing, especially Emma Priest and Sue Gray, who were with me the founding members of Blackstone. I would like to acknowledge Gerard McCoy QC too who passed away last year. It was an honour to have known him he had so much life about him, there should have been more time.
How can senior lawyers support people starting out their legal careers?
There is plenty that lawyers can do to help others get a good start. I’ve been a mentor in both formal and more frequently an informal way for young lawyers. I know the New Zealand Law Society has a mentoring programme for example, and that can work very well for people. I also think that you can benefit from the informal and ad-hoc interactions you have with people you work with. I would encourage younger people to just say “hi” to more experienced colleagues. Just introduce yourself at any occasion that you can, and don’t be afraid to ask for help ever. Everyone needs help and remember that senior members of the Bar have sought and seek advice and support. It’s crucial when you’re starting out to have others you can talk to and rely on. We all should remember how it is to start out and remember – there is no such thing as a stupid question. I’d really like to think that for all the support I’ve received, that I pay it forward.
What’s it like at Blackstone Chambers?
I must say my colleagues at Blackstone Chambers are very supportive of each other. And we have grown in five years and have 13 members and clerks and juniors as well. I appreciate working with all my colleagues because we can talk about our cases, what has happened in court and provide day-to-day support to one another in a very practical way. So that collegiality is extremely important.
Having worked on both sides of the courtroom, do you think this helps your trial strategy?
When I started working at Meredith Connell I came with a lot of experience of being both prosecutor and defence counsel in London. In England the Bar is a lot more fluid and I am used to that. You could be in court one day representing the Crown in some cases and the defence in others. I think it’s important for all of us in the courtroom to have experience with the other side, whatever side you’re on, so that you can appreciate first-hand the pressures and understand how it actually works. Doing so, I think, leads to greater understanding.
I would love to see an exchange programme between PDS and Crown Solicitors, although I appreciate that there are practical objections to that idea. Ultimately though we are all part of the same process. I don’t think it helps to become firmly entrenched in one side or the other because the process is meant to be fair, and unless people have integrity on both sides the process will inevitably not be fair, and that’s not in anyone’s interest.
For me, working on both sides has been useful in helping to shape my mindset. I cannot but help running both perspectives through my mind each time I read about a new case. I’ll be thinking “if I was a prosecutor I would approach the case this way,” and if I’m prosecuting I would think “the defence they’re likely to do this or that.” So I’m constantly wearing both hats as it were. I think it makes me better prepared and more reasonable about what is and isn’t realistic. I’d certainly recommend young lawyers try both sides if they can and gain that experience early on.
You’ve worked on some high-profile cases, what did you learn from that?
The IRA trial was my first experience of a trial with a lot of media. The exposure opened my eyes to the role the media play in the justice system. Since then, I feel strongly that lawyers need to communicate with reporters in court and make sure their reporting is fair and accurate. In cases where there has been media in recent years, the journalists who know me know that I will keeping an eye on their reporting. It’s not about swaying the narrative, I encourage journalists to speak to the prosecutor as well but their reporting does need to be balanced and accurate. They cannot get away with just talking about the Crown case!
New Zealand is a relatively small country so when there’s a saturated level of reporting like there was on the Lundy case, this can be very consuming and unfortunately not always conducive to fair process in my opinion. Whilst of course the press have an important role to play in society, the trial process can sometimes be in conflict with some types of reporting.
The “Grace Millane” case is a good example. The middle ground might have been for the press not to report all those intimate personal details about Ms Millane. Just because it is of public interest, does not mean that it is in the public interest for it to be reported. It’s important to always remember that the jury will be getting much more information than will ever be reported.
What have you enjoyed most about your move to Aotearoa New Zealand?
I feel very fortunate that I had the choice to move here. New Zealand is a wonderful country to be an immigrant. The people here could not have been more friendly and welcoming, and after 16 years here I can honestly say that I’ve never felt more at home anywhere than I do in New Zealand. I would also have to mention how much better the weather here is than in Northern Ireland or England! I love the summers and hate snow. Auckland is perfect for me.
Something else I love about this country as opposed to England or Northern Ireland is that it’s so much easier to become involved in effecting change. We have an incredible amount of access to people who are involved in legislative change and whether or not they agree with us at the end of the process, it is still fairly unusual to have that access and be able to participate in it.
My colleagues and I have recently been trying to impact changes to the Sexual Violence Bill, which went through its second reading last month. We have been trying hard, speaking to various ministers, members of Parliament and journalists. We are genuinely concerned that there will be miscarriages as a result of the proposed changes while not actually achieving the aims that it is said to achieve. Despite all the work it looks likely to become law and if it does we will have to do our best to work with it. We have been assured that the implementation will be closely watched and I hope that will be the case.
I hear you’ve also been working on the Criminal Process Improvement Project, can you tell us more about that?
Like many other lawyers I’ve been involved with the Criminal Process Improvement Project lately. It’s a nationwide Ministry of Justice initiative to improve the systems in the District Courts with practical interventions. They’ve set up a number of workstreams and there’s involvement from all court users, which includes Corrections, lawyers and judges along with others.
We’re collectively looking at every stage in the process and trying to improve it for everybody, because efficiencies are better for all of us. My colleague Iswari Jayanandan and I work across all workstreams on behalf of ADLS. It’s quite exciting because it’s a nationwide project and one of the things that it’s highlighting is what works in big centres like Manukau and Auckland, where I work, isn’t always suitable for smaller centres. One size doesn’t always fit all. So it’s surfacing an important discussion about what works best where.
The aspiration is that at the end there will be a more streamlined process that makes every court hearing work more efficiently. It’s not in anyone’s interest to have inefficient hearings with unnecessary or avoidable adjournments, that’s just a waste of time and money. It’s very rewarding to be working on something that can make an impact.
It sounds like you have a fairly busy schedule, how do you keep on top of that?
Honestly, I just like to be busy. I guess it’s a personal preference, but being a lawyer often is a fast-paced career. I have a junior barrister that helps me in the office, who I honestly couldn’t do without. But all the lawyers I know are in similar situations. They’re juggling busy calendars, so I think it does come with the territory to a certain extent. I enjoy the dynamic and vibrant work it brings which keeps things interesting for me.
It is important to recognise though when it’s getting to be too much, and to know when and how to ask for help. It’s okay to ask for help and vital to take breaks! We all understand the pressure that comes with working in the legal profession.
The Law Society has a range of services it offers including a Legal Community Counselling Service and for situations with bullying or inappropriate behaviour the Lawyers Complaints Service is available too. Often employers will provide confidential Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) so you should check if your employer has signed up to one of those services too. I would always encourage all colleagues to speak to someone when things feel overwhelming. You are not on your own.
What would you say to other lawyers who might be thinking about applying to be a QC?
I would recommend that aspiring future QCs think about what they want to get out of it and why they’re applying. There is of course the recognition from others but it’s also so much more than that. You should think about what it means to you personally, why you are actually applying and what you would do if you were given that recognition. It is such an honour that you cannot just accept it and walk away from the table. It bestows on you a responsibility and a duty to make sure that you live up to the title. You have to be considered a leader to be in the running at all, but then you also need to make sure that you fulfil that role that has been bestowed upon you. It’s not to be taken lightly.
With that said, take advice from those that you respect about your application. The process itself makes you look at the work that you are doing, and that may be a helpful process to you in your career as well. We don’t often get the opportunity to look over and reflect on what we have done as we are so busy with the day-to-day matters. Best of luck!
Applications are open between 1 March 2021 and 31 March 2021. They must be sent electronically to the Solicitor‑General.
Appointments are expected to be made in June 2021.