New Zealand Law Society - Obituary: Robert Davidson 1951-2020

Obituary: Robert Davidson 1951-2020

The prominent Christchurch employment and immigration lawyer Rob Davidson has passed away after a long battle with cancer. He was 69.

Mr Davidson was regarded as a big character and a prominent member of the local legal profession, but had a tough upbringing, leading to him becoming a “right tearaway” and getting involved in the odd run-in with the police.

Rob Davidson

Tim Hill, a director of Davidson Legal, says Rob settled into work as a train driver with NZ Railways, but could see the writing on the wall with massive lay-offs looming in the mid-80s.That’s when he turned to law as a mature student, despite having left school the day he turned 15.

An annual preferential entry programme for 10 educationally disadvantaged students who had the potential to give back to their communities was the kickstart he needed.

After graduating and being admitted at the age of Mr Davidson soon established himself as a no-nonsense advocate within the union movement. In this work he met and later married Lianne Dalziel, a former Labour MP and minister, who is currently the Christchurch Mayor.

He moved to private practice in 1999, working with Neville Taylor, before setting up his own firm Davidson and Associates, which became Davidson Legal in 2015.

Mr Hill met Rob at the University of Canterbury where they were in the same profs class.

He says he got the impression from Rob that he was a “recidivist juvenile criminal”, however he thinks he would be called a ‘juvenile delinquent’ today, a ‘rocker’ in the days of the ‘mods and rockers’.

“I think Rob left school the day he turned 15 so that he could get a job to afford a motorbike.”

Mr Hill says his colleague worked in all sorts of jobs, including working at a bakery, for the Post Office as a junior linesman, and then he gained work at the railways where he was a train driver for many years. He was about 38 when he left due to state sector restructuring.

“He was a very keen union man and was a lay official in the engine drivers’ union. Rob was an active member of the Labour Party, having joined as soon as he was old enough to do so, although that commitment was challenged by ‘Rogernomics’, state sector reform and the impact on jobs including the railways. Rob was more of a socialist, although he never joined any other party, and was awarded Life Membership of the Labour Party in 2017.

Mr Davidson was admitted as a lawyer in 1994 but Mr Hill admits there was some controversy about whether he would be admitted or not “due to his record”.

“The Law Society would not sign off on his character, and yet when it went to the High Court, they didn’t actually oppose the application.

“Local lawyer, Mike Knowles successfully represented Rob, presenting references from a wide range of people, including Professor John Burrows and Professor Gerald Orchard. He was admitted to the bar the following morning.  It felt like Rob wanted to get it done before anyone could change their mind.”

Champion for people

After being admitted, Mr Davidson worked for the Northern Distribution Union and then the Engineers Union for five years, before moving into private practice in 1999.

He served on the board of the Salisbury Street Foundation for over 25 years and as chair of the Aranui Community Trust since its inception in 2001, fulfilling the investment his preferential entry to law school represented.

Rob and Lianne married in 2000. At that time Ms Dalziel was Minister of Immigration and later Minister of Commerce and Small Business in the Helen Clark government.

Tim Hill says Rob was “hilarious” to work with. “You always knew where he was because you could hear him and he would often use colourful language that he carried over from his railway days,” he says.

Rob, he adds, would always have time for clients, many of whom did not speak English as a first language.

“We would get people who would just turn up and say ‘I need to talk to Rob’ and he would always make time for them, and not just spend ten minutes then shoo them away but really engage with his clients.

“After the earthquakes we had a lot of people of Middle Eastern and African descent who would come in, and Rob seemed to overcome the language barriers to help them.”

Mr Davidson carried out a lot of pro bono work, particularly helping small businesses affected by the earthquakes, and even during the Covid-19 lockdown, Mr Hill says his colleague and friend was advocating for people with little money despite being very ill.

“All of us at Davidson Legal have benefitted from his strong belief that people should be able to reach their full potential.  Being joined by Sarah-June Wong as a full partner in Davidson Legal will fulfill one of Rob’s dreams of encouraging the next generation to succeed.”

President of the Canterbury Westland branch of the NZLS, Grant Tyrrell, paid tribute to Mr Davidson, saying he put the community first.

“Rob was a well-respected member of our profession not just for his skilled, practical and pragmatic approach to the law but his tireless work in the community.  He will be much missed by his colleagues and staff at Davidson Legal and by the wider profession,” he says.

“It would be no exaggeration to say that Rob had a positive impact on many people.  The thoughts of the Branch are with his wife, Lianne, and all of his family and friends.”

Away from work Mr Davidson was a lifelong motorcycle enthusiast.

Rob Davidson leaves behind two sons from his first marriage, Leon, a teacher in Wellington, and Mike, a city councillor in Christchurch.

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