Defence lawyer Jock Blathwayt was a household name in the Wairarapa legal community. He practised law for nearly 60 years, working at the coalface of criminal law.
He represented people that many would feel uneasy about doing but that was his job. He did it with passion and defended the rights of his clients without hesitation.
Jock Blathwayt died on 4 February, just a few days after retiring at age 79.
He was ready to take it easy after a career that started with simple typewriters and landlines and ended with more complicated laptops and cellphones.
People close to Jock described his ‘laptop’ as a battered old and green suitcase which also contained a bottle of whisky, gin and brandy with water and some glasses. Jock was a man who enjoyed a drink with colleagues at the completion of a case and would generously offer something from the mini bar inside his case.
Jock was a traditional lawyer, ‘old school’ might describe him well. He was very much a people person. His health had been wavering over the past year and he died not long after a special sitting was held at Masterton District Court to pay tribute to his long service to law. Perhaps Jock was holding on until then, just a few more days. He certainly earned such praise. The sitting was convened by Judge Bruce Davidson.
Bloodline of lawyers
Jock Blathwayt comes from a strong bloodline of lawyers. His older brother Gerald Wynter Blathwayt who died in 2013 was also a well-known lawyer in Wairarapa and their sister Judith Fyfe, a well-known reporter and broadcaster, studied law in her 50s, was admitted in the late 1990s and practises as a barrister, based in Wellington. Jock’s daughter, Julia has also practised law in the past. Currently she is working as an investigator. And Jock’s grandson, Ben is in his fourth year of studying law at Otago University. It will be interesting to see what Ben chooses to do once he graduates.
Rewind the years even further and you’ll find the father of Jock, Gerald and Judith was Wynter Blathwayt who was a partner at a Masterton law firm, Gawith Wilson & Co but died suddenly in 1960.
At one point during Jock’s career, he was in a law firm partnership with his older brother Gerald. The firm was aptly called Blathwayt & Blathwayt.
Jock studied law at Victoria University in Wellington while he worked as a law clerk at Bell Gully. That’s how things were done back in the 1960s and he was admitted in February 1967.
A Police prosecutor and friend remembers Jock
You might be forgiven for thinking that a criminal defence lawyer could never be friends with a police prosecutor who worked in the same courtroom. But Sergeant Tom Andrews who was a police prosecutor in Masterton for five years and always on the opposite side to Jock in a case, also became a great friend of the lawyer.
Mr Andrews arrived in Masterton in 2015. Jock had been practising since Tom was only 11 months old. He had a reputation in Masterton and was probably the most well-known lawyer in the region.
“He had been part of the Wairarapa Police experience for several generations of police officers. Every officer in Wairarapa throughout that long time period would have crossed swords with Jock,” he says.
The two Jocks
One of the greatest qualities about Jock, Mr Andrews recalls is his ability to separate ‘Courtroom Jock’ from ‘Out of Court Jock’.
“In court mode Jock never gave the Police an easy ride and he fought fiercely for what he thought were his client’s best interests. Another officer told me Jock always answered the phone when he was duty lawyer, when others didn’t. Even at 3 o’clock in the morning he would always get out of bed and answer his phone and give legal advice to a person we had in custody,” he says.
And here’s an example of ‘Out of Court Jock’:
“The CIB recalled an incident at the beginning of a murder trial in Wellington. At what was meant to be the start, Jock made a submission that he thought an interview was now inadmissible due to oppressive conduct by the interviewing officer. The trial was delayed for legal argument in relation to the interview. Immediately afterwards, Jock accompanied the same interviewing police officer to the CIB Christmas function,” he says.
Jock annoyed the police, but they respected him
Sergeant Tom Andrews remembers his first experience with Jock shortly after arriving in Masterton to work with the Police Prosecution Service.
“I wrote a list of five things we needed to do something about. The first four were administrative, the fifth was Jock! I told Jock about this before he died and he was delighted and hoped that he was still a nuisance,” he says.
As evident, Jock Blathwayt was passionate about his work as a criminal defence lawyer and he would send numerous letters and other communications to police about his various cases.
“These letters outnumbered those from other counsel by a factor of three or four. Letters about disclosure caused particular angst. Jock was convinced we had withheld material, even when we had disclosed all we had!
He recalls Jock thriving on major cases such as a drug bust that included intercepted communications or a homicide.
“It was a form of litigation Viagra, which turned him into a small whirlwind of excitement,” he says.
Jock’s sister remembers her brothers’ support and fondness for family history
Jock’s sister, and barrister Judith Fyfe describes losing Jock as "a huge chunk in my life lopped off".
“He was generous in all ways when I took on a law degree and set up practice,” she says.
Ms Fyfe has many memories of her brother to cherish. She says her brother was always fascinated by and enjoyed their family history.
The name Wynter (Jock’s father’s first name) goes back to to the 17th century when William Blathwayt married Mary Wynter.
“The Wynters, a provincial English Catholic family were, with Guy Fawkes, part of the failed gunpowder plot of 1605 – the attempt to blow up the houses of Parliament. A story all of its own and the time family transferred its religious affections to the Church of England.”
She says William Blathwayt was Secretary of State to King James II and William III and Mary. “Apparently he promoted the slave trade and benefited from gifts and bribes in connection with his office – the usual sort of practice of the day I am told. The mansion he built for himself, Dyrham Park, near Bristol, certainly has a magnificent collection of Delftware and gorgeous art and furniture. Jock loved to go to Dyrham Park – now National Trust - and always did when he was in the UK,” she says.
William Blathwayt was the beginning and end of flash ancestors – it was pretty run of the mill from then on, Judith Fyfe says with one branch of the family ending up in Nelson in the 1840s. Their grandfather, a vicar, was the eldest of 20 children.
“Jock was descended from early colonial lawyers on both the maternal and paternal sides, despite a steady downstream of reverends and vicars on the Blathwayt side."
George Wynter Blathwayt, was a solicitor in partnership with William Vitruvius Brewer – this was in 1844. On 26 February 1844, his partner, Brewer was involved in a duel with another solicitor, Hugh Ross. Brewer was killed. The duel which had numerous witnesses, one being Blathwayt, took place in the vicinity of Barrett’s Hotel where the High Court now stands in Wellington, across from the Beehive.
“The significance of this event aside from duels being a criminal offence, and terminal for one man, was that unknown to either party at the time, the two families, Brewer and Blathwayt, three generations later would become related when our parents married,” Judith Fyfe says.
A Judge remembers an unforgettable lawyer
Jock Blathwayt died a few days after a special sitting was held at Masterton District Court, when he announced his retirement. These sorts of functions are reserved for lawyers who have left a unique signature on the practice of law.
Jock had an aura about him that touched a lot of people. A Judge that he appeared before many times, Judge Barbara Morris, recalls.
“I will miss your dependable competency, your enduring courtesy, your ethical professionalism. I will miss your passionate belief in your clients and the closely associated look of incredulity when I convict your client of receiving $3000 worth of luxury goods rapidly purchased for $150 in cash from a balaclava wearing vendor positioned down a dark alley. I will miss your palpable love of beyond reasonable doubt, your dedication to defending civil liberties. I will miss watching you care for your clients in a humane human to human way, genuinely understanding their foibles and frailties and eloquently explaining them,” she wrote in a letter presented to the special sitting.
Criminal Defence Lawyer, Mike Antunovic remembers a great friend and colleague
Criminal defence lawyer Mike Antunovic knew Jock well. They had been friends for decades, forged through working together on many cases.
“I remember the day I first met Jock in the early 1980s in the robing room of the old High Court. It was Monday morning. I was a young green criminal defence lawyer, fortunate to be appearing in trial as junior counsel with Mike Bungay,” he says.
That event was some 35 years ago in the days of thick cigarette smoke and loud laughter while stories were being told by senior counsel who were at various stages of undress in anticipation of a new criminal case.
Mike’s first impression of Jock was that he likened him to a beautifully spoken country squire. The pair crossed paths regularly from that point and inevitably became engaged in the same trials appearing together as co-counsel.
“That happy arrangement endured for more than three decades and together we defended countless trials arising out of events in Wairarapa but tried in the Wellington Courts,” he says.
There were hundreds of murder trials, manslaughter, sexual offence and drug trials.
Once such trial during the 1990s was memorable not just because of the clients they were representing but also for a pre-swim event before the trial started.
“A large group of defence lawyers were defending a number of Nomad gang members in a long trial at Palmerston North. We arranged accommodation during the trial at Waiteriteri Beach where we all stayed, which resulted in little overnight preparation. Jock was the only one of us prepared to swim in the sea the next morning before Court. He kept warm in an old brown woollen jersey,” he recalls.
Mike Antunovic says Jock would drive from Masterton to Wellington and back daily to appear in trials. Some of these trials went on for weeks and Jock would regularly clock 1000 kilometres during a normal week.
Jock was inspiring
Jock Blathwayt was someone Mike drew inspiration from.
“He never turned down a case out of concern for his own position even when there was public loathing of a client and their alleged crime. He never turned down a call from a client who was phoning from the Police station during all hours of the day and night,” he says.
WCM Legal pays tribute to one of the hardest-working lawyers
Jock Blathwayt joined WCM Legal in 1987 and practised at the Wairarapa firm for 33 years. He was working full time until the end of 2018. He had reduced his working hours during 2019.
WCM consultant Keith McClure, who hired Jock all those years ago, says he was extremely dedicated to his work.
“He lived for his clients. He could never say no. That was how Jock was, in some ways I think he did too much and it took a toll on his health. I think work was a great comforter for Jock in times of grief, stress and distress.
And perhaps burying himself in his work was something Jock did more of when the love of his life, his wife Sally, died some years ago.
As Keith McClure notes, he was driven by criminal law.
“He was very much a criminal defence lawyer through and through. He did try other areas of law, but it was criminal law that appealed to him. He had a strong sense of loyalty to his clients. Many people said, how could he represent these people. He said, somebody has to and that it is his job and so that’s what he did,” he says.
Keith McClure says while Jock could be difficult for people on the other side of a case to deal with, he was just doing his job.
“Jock was also a very social person. He liked people a lot and he’d visit them if they were sick. He visited police prosecutor Tom Andrews at one point when he was in hospital. His sister Judith said Jock was a first responder. He certainly was. He was also fond of a drop of scotch, cricket and tennis,” he says.
A final reflection from criminal defence lawyer Mike Antunovic.
“It should not be forgotten that the job of the criminal defence lawyer is a hard one. It is demanding and relentless and in Jock’s case – he always had a lot of clients. It was not uncommon to see him down at the court with arm loads of files on any given day,” he says.
Jock Blathwayt will be a lawyer and personality that will not be forgotten in the wider Wellington legal community, and unfortunately he didn’t gain the retirement he had worked so hard for.
He is survived by his three children, Julia, Wynter and Robert. Jock’s funeral was held at St Matthew’s Church, in Masterton on 14 February.