ACC specialist John Miller, of John Miller Law, has always been an advocate of “working in any area of law that helps human beings,” but he was particularly attracted to accident compensation work because of his father, who sustained serious brain injuries after a rogue stone flew into the train he was driving.
“My father’s injuries blighted his life early on and he felt the weight of the loss of his job and the privilege it carried. I could empathise with his struggles and I suppose I’ve always empathised with injured people and their families.”
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Mr Miller left school at 16 to work for the Admiralty; but restless and keen to see the world, he decided at age 17 to ship to New Zealand to work for the Government for two years.
He planned to return to Scotland to study at Leith Nautical College, but after meeting his future wife, writer and former nurse Stephanie de Montalk, they moved to the Hawkes Bay where Mr Miller became a social worker for Social Security and Child Welfare.
After two years in the Bay the pair set off on their overseas adventure, traveling in Europe and working in Edinburgh and London. Their trip was cut short when a family member in New Zealand suddenly fell ill. Instead of returning as they had planned with the financial backup of a sports car to sell (as many New Zealanders did then), they landed with two English pennies in their pockets, he says.
“I thought of returning to social work, but I had come across lawyers as a social worker in the Children’s Court and I saw that I could probably be more effective and do more for people as a lawyer. Also, financially speaking, the law seemed like a passport to freedom, to allowing us to continue to travel in the future.”
He worked full time in various legal jobs while studying law full time at Victoria University and upon graduating, he was appointed a lecturer. Teaching took him to Hong Kong but after three years and with a fourth child on the way, the family returned to New Zealand where Mr Miller set up his practice while again teaching at Victoria University.
With some significant and groundbreaking successes under his belt, Mr Miller was awarded a Millennium Human Rights Award for assisting the seriously injured, voted the Dominion Post Wellingtonian of the Year for Community Service and in 2006 he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians.
ACC is a wonderful idea, but it could be so much better, he says.
“It’s certainly been mangled by the politicians over the years, so one of the things the law firm tries to do is get better entitlements for people who are already covered by ACC or to bring those not covered within the ACC.”
Mr Miller says “there’s an illogical distinction in that how your incapacity is caused determines whether you have either reasonable or poor care.”
A person who is wheelchair-bound as a result of having multiple sclerosis is in a very different position to a person who is wheelchair-bound as a result of an accident. The person incapacitated by multiple sclerosis has to rely on the public health system and meagre Social Welfare benefits. This means that “they’re treated like a second class citizen, whereas the accident victim is covered by ACC and receives 80% of their previous earnings, a lump sum, rehabilitation and any many other entitlements.”
His firm’s task is to try and shift people into the different, more generous ACC category but within the parameters of the law, he says.
“There are so many heart-breaking cases. It’s a harrowing business but the mantra of our firm is that there’s always an argument to raise if you want to try and help the people who come through our doors.”
For John Miller Law, the 23 staff are inundated with work, mainly in ACC but also in mental health and criminal law.
“We’re the victim of our own success. Theoretically we are at the wrong end of the market financially, but you can’t turn people away even though invariably the people who need our help have no money yet often do not qualify for legal aid.”
Outside of the law Mr Miller likes to spend his time with his wife and with his grandchildren, with whom he’s found a particular interest in children’s movies that he finds to be “increasingly clever, amusing and filled with positive affirmations that need to be out there”.