Following David Sparks’ memories of characters in the law in LawTalk 925 (February 2019), Don Rennie has cast his mind back in time. Don has had a long career in the law and is the convenor of the Law Society’s Accident Compensation Committee.
I was interested to read about some of the characters referred to in David Sparks’ item. I knew Len Leary and had met Mick Robinson during the time I worked in the Magistrates’ Court office in Auckland in the early 1950s.
Working as a clerk in the Magistrates’ Court in Wellington in 1954 brought me into contact with a number of “characters” amongst the lawyers and magistrates. I met many lawyers in some cases over the counter when filing documents and answering questions about their cases and hearings, and in other cases when I sat in front of a range of magistrates hearing lawyers pleading their cases.
Among the magistrates I worked with were Jim Hannah, Ben Scully, Brice Thompson, Bill Carson and several new magistrates who, when they were first appointed, cut their teeth in the downstairs No. 1 Courtroom in the Wellington Magistrates’ Court.
I remember one new magistrate (I won’t name) who had been appointed from a respectable legal practice but with very little court experience. I had taken the day’s list of cases with the relevant documents up to his chambers and discussed what would take place in hearing the cases. He was extremely nervous and I gave him what encouragement I could. We proceeded downstairs to the No. 1 Courtroom and I went ahead of His Worship and stood at the clerk’s bench. The Court Orderly called “silence all rise” and there was a deathly hush but no magistrate appeared. I looked back and His Worship was frozen to the spot with stage fright. I rapidly called “Court adjourned” and went back and took His Worship back to his chambers where I got him a cup of tea and calmed him down. When he was ready we reconvened the court and the second time he entered the court and stepped onto the bench and things went smoothly. That magistrate later became one of the best, fairest and most efficient I had experienced while working in the courts.
Magistrate Ben Scully was a different case. He was a forthright ex-West Coaster with firm ideas on how things should be done and how defendants, counsel and witnesses should be treated. I was in court with him the day the “Mongrel Mob” was founded. A young offender was in the dock being reprimanded by His Worship and as he was stood down from the dock his Worship said “you’re nothing but a mongrel”. This was picked up by the press (I think it was the Truth newspaper) which published the headline “Court calls Defendant Mongrel”. Before long a number of “prospects” had formed a gang and adopted the name “Mongrel Mob” which still exists today.
Among the lawyers appearing in the Welling- ton Magistrates’ Court no one was more memorable than Roy Stacey. I had seen Roy’s uncle Bill Stacey appearing before magistrates and I felt Roy learned some of his tricks of presentation from Bill, but Roy was something special. He was a former naval officer during the war and was colourful, always polite and had a way with handling witnesses and addressing the court. He had a wonderful flow of language and could always find the right expression or word to fit the circumstances. He was gregarious and often invited court staff to his chambers or home for parties and celebrations. He was memorable and a real character.
The Magistrates’ Court was the place where many new lawyers gained their early experience sometimes by watching experienced lawyers like Les Rose, George Kent, Harry Arndt, Frank O’Flynn, Roy Stacey, George Barton, Des Dalgety and many others who also practised in the Supreme Court jurisdiction. In the Supreme Court (now the High Court) judges were addressed as “Your Honour” but in the Magistrates’ Court the magistrate was addressed as “Your Worship”. I am reminded of the story of the young lawyer who had experience in the Magistrates’ Court but in appearing nervously for the first time before a judge in the Supreme Court mistakenly addressed the judge as “Your Worship”. The judge replied “Mr…… in this court you may Honour me but you must not Worship me”. An embarrassing lesson which I am sure he never forgot.
There seems to be an absence of real “characters” in the law these days but perhaps things have changed. There are numerous other characters I can recall in my time in practice but I think I have said enough to encourage the recollections of those who practised in years gone by.