New Zealand Law Society - A really wonderful space to be in

A really wonderful space to be in

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Auckland lawyer John Barker finds that practising in the highly unusual specialty of food and beverage law "really gets me out of bed in the morning".

"I get motivated by doing things that I'm very interested in and care about and certainly in New Zealand, if you look at the wine industry it is a great example of what's happening," he says.

"In New Zealand we have all of these amazing products being created out of our environments that have unique qualities and that are in demand around the world.

"It's a really wonderful space to be in because there is so much innovation going on. It's so important to the economy.

"And when you're helping a client resolve a problem or get into a market or try and understand how to navigate particular obstacles, it's extremely rewarding.

"It's a very interesting area of the law."

Long-standing interest

Photo of John Barker
John Barker

Looking at Mr Barker's career, there seems a certain inevitability that he would become a food and beverage lawyer – not because his father, Sir Ian Barker QC, encouraged any of his children to become lawyers, which he did not, but because of his long-standing interest in the wine and food industries.

After graduating from Auckland University with a BA LLB in 1992, he took a year away from the law and worked in the wine industry. All through university he had worked in wine shops and then later, when he did his OE, he also worked in the wine industry.

A year out from graduation, Mr Barker started working at Simpson Grierson doing banking and finance litigation, which he found both interesting and challenging.

After being at Simpson Grierson for a few years, "someone sent me a listing for a job in Melbourne, where one of the big firms over there, Freehills, was starting up a wine law practice, and I thought: 'That looks like me'.

"So I applied for the job and got it and worked in Melbourne for a couple of years doing wine law for a range of clients – local Australian clients but also international clients, including the French government, protecting their geographical indications.

"Geographical indications," Mr Barker says, "is the defining wine law issue. It's the place name of a wine as a form of intellectual property.

"It's quite interesting because there's legislation going though in New Zealand now to finally protect geographical indications, which has been a work in progress for many years."

His move from Melbourne came following a conversation with Professor Mike Taggart, from Auckland University Law School. Professor Taggart had been talking to Professor Warren Moran, the head of the university's geography department, who was running a Marsden Grant funded programme looking at the wine industry and they needed someone to look at the regulatory side of things. Professor Moran asked Mr Barker if he was interested.

"I was ready to come back to New Zealand, so I took that up and had a really wonderful and interesting time doing my PhD wandering around the country. We had a partnership with the University of Burgundy, so I studied over there for a while."

Prize-winning thesis

His prize-winning doctoral thesis dealt with the international regulation of the wine industry.

"And then when I finished that I had got married and thought it was about time to earn some money, so I went to the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (which was quite new at the time, but which has now been absorbed into Ministry of Primary Industries) to be their wine programme manager.

"After a couple of years with the government, there was an opportunity to work with an industry organisation so I worked for New Zealand Winegrowers for 10 years.

"That was a very interesting role because we were rolling out the Wine Act across the industry and it is basically the same model as the Food Act which has just been passed into law in New Zealand."

There was also a significant international dimension to the role – representing New Zealand at the International Organisation Vine and Wine and other international groups, which was a "fascinating" part of the job.

After a decade at Winegrowers, Mr Barker found himself interested in going back into practice.

"I looked around and I thought food and beverage is really an important sector for New Zealand." And so, around two years ago, he established John Barker Law in Auckland.

"I had always had in my mind, and partly this is something I was really interested in when I did my PhD, the idea that if you are traditionally practising law, typically you are working in legal categories, so you are working in tax or you are working in mergers and acquisitions or you are working in commercial contracts and things like that.

Client viewpoint

"I really liked the idea of flipping that around and looking at it from a client's point of view and saying instead of specialising in an area of the law, specialising in an area of industry.

"I'd taught a course in wine law at Auckland University where that was the underlying theme, and I wanted to turn that into reality through my practice.

"I thought, well why not specialise in food and beverage.

"The industry was very keen, partly because it felt we needed some formal definitions and partly because they were concerned that geographical indications take a long time to register and then to protect in offshore markets. There was a concern that down the track that as the value of a brand like Marlborough continues to grow if you have geographical indications protection you are much better able to act than if it's just an unprotected place name. Geographical indications protection has status under one of the WTO agreements."

A bill is before Parliament right at the moment, Mr Barker notes. It will cover both New Zealand and foreign geographical indications. But it only applies to wine and spirits and not to other products. The idea is that it should come into force by the end of this year.

So that's what Mr Barker is doing now – working with the wine industry for both New Zealand and international companies, and also doing a lot of other work for the beer industry and cheese makers and tech food makers.

"You name it, I'm covering all sorts of weird and wonderful things. It makes for a very interesting and diverse practice," he says.

He has quite intentionally based his firm in Shortland Street.

"Because it was a bit of a different practice, you needed to anchor it soundly in the idea of being a lawyer. Obviously where you place yourself is important for that," he says.

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