New Zealand Law Society - Three New Zealand-born lawyers who shone abroad

Three New Zealand-born lawyers who shone abroad

Percy Valentine Storkey VC (1893-1969)

Born in Napier, Storkey attended Napier Boys’ High School where he excelled academically and in rifle shooting, cricket and swimming. He was Dux in 1910 and won the Navy League essay prize with “Why Britain must command the Sea”, but moved to Sydney in January 1912 after studying English extramurally at Victoria University College for a year. He worked as a clerk for a while before joining the administrative staff of the University of Sydney and then beginning to study law in 1913. The war intervened and he volunteered for the Australian Imperial Force on 10 May 1915, being commissioned as a second lieutenant in September. He embarked overseas a few months later and served on the Western Front, being wounded in November 1916 and October 1917. He was promoted to lieutenant in January 1917.

On 7 April 1918, Storkey’s company was sent to clear Hangard Wood, mistakenly thought to be “lightly held”. Storkey fell asleep and missed the attack, waking up when his company had advanced about 70 metres. He caught up, but heavy machine gun fire had wiped out a quarter of the company, including the commander who was shot in both knees. Storkey took over and led a small group of less than a dozen to get behind the German trenches and machine gun. The Germans were alerted when one of the Australians yelled and Storkey led a bayonet charge, killing or wounding 30 and accepting the surrender of over 50 survivors who believed they had been attacked by a much larger force.

Storkey was awarded the Victoria Cross for his action. It was presented to him by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 25 July. Before the war ended he was wounded again and promoted to captain in May 1918. Back in the colonies he made a triumphant return to Hawke’s Bay, where Mayoral speeches and other receptions celebrating his achievement flowed. Then he returned to Australia and went back to university. He graduated LLB in 1921, being admitted to the Bar on 8 June. He was an associate to Justice Sir Charles Wade while studying and then practised in common law, becoming Crown Prosecutor for the New South Wales south-western circuit. After 18 years in this role he was appointed a District Court Judge and Chairman of Quarter Sessions in the NSW northern district. He retired in 1955, shifting to Teddington, Middlesex in England with his wife. He died there on 3 October 1969.

Storkey’s Victoria Cross was bequeathed to his old Napier school. The medal is on long-term loan to the National Army Museum, although the school hall has a replica. The school awards the Storkey VC Prize for Excellence in Mathematics and Science each year.

John Platts-Mills QC (1906-2001)

Described, in relation to his political views, by The Independent newspaper in England as “a teenage revolutionary who never grew up”, barrister John Platts-Mills QC died on 30 October 2001 in England aged 95. The London-based New Zealand Lawyers’ Society held a memorial service for him on 24 January 2002.

Born in Wellington in 1906, John Platts-Mills graduated in law from Victoria University in 1927 and then studied at Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship, where more first class degrees and athletics distinctions followed.

He was called to the Inner Temple Bar in 1932, served with the RAF and in the Yorkshire collieries during the war and was elected a Labour MP in 1945. His dissent of Labour policies to rearm Germany saw him expelled from the Labour Party in 1948 but he remained in Parliament until 1950 as a Labour Independent.

His left-wing views saw him strongly support the Soviet Union and he acted as an envoy for the militant British union leader Arthur Scargill, when he sought funds from Libyan leader Colonel Gadaffi during the bitter coalminers strike in 1984-85.

Legally, as a junior, he got involved in constitutional debates, often involving the death sentence (he was always opposed to the death penalty), in 20 different jurisdictions in the West Indies, Africa, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand and the commercial courts of Romania and Bulgaria, until the local bars restricted such representation to London Queen’s Counsel. John Platts-Mills then applied for Silk eight times before being appointed in 1964.

His practice then changed, with him appearing at the Old Bailey regularly as defence counsel for such defendants as two of the convicted robbers in the Great Train Robbery, the Kray brothers and other “redoubtable criminals”.

John Platts-Mills wrote about his career in the evocatively-named Muck, Silk and Socialism: Recollections of a Left-Wing Queen’s Counsel (Paper Publishing, 2002) which was published after his death.

Sir Jack Rumbold QC (1920 – 2001)

Sir Jack Rumbold QC, who died in London in December 2001 aged 81, had a career which included being a principal legal adviser to British colonies gaining independence in Africa and president of the industrial tribunals of England and Wales.

Born in Reefton in 1920, he graduated LLB from Canterbury University in 1940 and became the youngest New Zealander to be awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. That was deferred because of the war, during which he served in the Royal Navy, surviving a sinking in the Mediterranean and being mentioned in dispatches for getting the surviving crew safely off the vessel.

After the war he completed a Bachelor of Civil Laws degree at Oxford and was called to the Inner Temple Bar in 1948 before returning to practise in Whanganui, where he became Crown prosecutor.

Sir Jack joined the British Colonial Service in 1957, serving initially as Crown counsel in Nairobi before working on independence arrangements with the Attorney-General’s office in Kenya.

He was appointed Attorney-General of Zanzibar in 1963 (the year he also took Silk), with the task of preparing a constitution. Just 10 days after independence in 1964, a bloody coup occurred and he and his family escaped by yacht to the African mainland.

He then returned to Kenya as an adviser to the Kenyan Ministry of Legal and Constitutional Affairs, helping prepare the constitutional arrangements for Kenya’s transition to a republic and he established the legal training programme that developed into the law faculty of the University of East Africa.

In 1966 he became the first academic director of the British campus of Stanford University of Los Angeles, a position he held for five years.

He also began his involvement in industrial tribunal work, becoming a part-time chair in 1968 and full-time in 1972. Later he became president of industrial tribunals for England and Wales and was knighted before his retirement in 1984.

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