New Zealand Law Society - Margaret Casey QC

Margaret Casey QC

It takes a while to coax Margaret Casey, QC, into an interview.

“I’m not sure if you can tell, but I hate talking about myself,” she says when we eventually connect.

Unassuming and direct, the Auckland barrister’s path to law school, and through the workforce, is its own tale of determination.

I’m a Casey from Taumarunui  

By Teuila Fuatai  

It takes a while to coax Margaret Casey, QC, into an interview.

“I’m not sure if you can tell, but I hate talking about myself,” she says when we eventually connect.

Unassuming and direct, the Auckland barrister’s path to law school, and through the workforce, is its own tale of determination.

A small-town kid from a family of six in the King Country, Ms Casey had two paths in mind at the end of high school: law or journalism.

Enquiries into both were not well received by the school’s careers officer, she recalls.

“He didn’t actually say it was because girls couldn’t do it. He just said our school wasn’t zoned for law school.

“I still remember thinking that did not make sense when we sent so many students down to Otago to do PE, and we sent the boys to med school, and he sort of tried to direct me into teaching at Waikato.”

Her mother stepped in and the pair drove to the University of Auckland to find out directly what the admissions process was.

It was 1978 and it turned out girls could go to law school, Ms Casey says.

The following year, she was among the cohort of keen-eyed first year students. It was an interesting introduction to Auckland, she recalls.

Getting to know the big smoke

From the beginning, there seemed to be a difference between the city kids and other students, and it was pretty intimidating for someone from Taumarunui, Ms Casey says.

“You kind of kept your head low and didn’t really say a lot, all the while thinking: ‘Is this really for me?’ Then of course in the holidays, you’d go home because that was where you could get work – in the shearing gang, the pub and the local council.

“It was great for that, but you never really saw the play side of Auckland. I think at times there was a parallel universe for many of the students who came from out of town – that was my experience anyway.”

After completing her Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Law degrees, edging into the workforce was another challenge to navigate. While the stories she tells about the process are light-hearted and punctuated with humour, it is clear Ms Casey’s rural background did not work in her favour. The competitive nature of the job market – which focused on top graduates – did not help either, she says.

“I applied for a lot of jobs and I still have all the letters actually,” Ms Casey says. “Because unless you were in that top percentile [of graduates], it was really hard to even get an interview. Then there was the fact that I was a female, and someone unconnected to Auckland.”

Explaining who her family was, in particular her father, were among some of the more memorable interview moments, Ms Casey recalls with a laugh.

“In interviews, I’d always be asked about my surname. My family name is a legal name, but I’m not from the legal family of Caseys,” she says.

“I would be asked: ‘Are you related to Justice [Maurice] Casey? Is he your father?’

“And I would say: ‘No, Peter Casey is my father’. They’d say: ‘Well, who’s he?’

“And I would say: ‘He’s an accountant in Taumarunui’.

“And they would be so underwhelmed – I can’t tell you. And then all the references from the manager of Cobb & Co, and a little law firm I worked for, and the local council – which had been great references – seemed not to carry much weight.”

A passion for family law

Eventually, she got her foot in the door alongside three other graduates at Fortune Manning. The group was hired because of a then-Government initiative to subsidise law graduates into firms.

After a stint there, Ms Casey took a position at the smaller firm Rennie Cox. It was here she began to explore more global career options – in particular, a focus on the evolving fields of family law and mediation work.

“I wanted to work on stuff that I could see were perhaps options in the future,” she says. “One of them was a more global view of how family law was working across other countries. The other part of it seemed, to me, to be mediation.”

At the time, children’s rights as a separate area of interest in jurisprudence was gaining traction, both in New Zealand and overseas. Related to that was the rising number of cases Ms Casey was being assigned as lawyer for child – a role she thoroughly enjoyed.

To broaden her skills, she enrolled in a Masters In Law studying the subjects of child law, alternative dispute resolution and comparative family law at the University of London (King’s College). The decision meant a stint abroad for her and husband Ivan Connell, who is a general practitioner.

“I wanted to find out more about how things were working, get a big-picture view of things,” Ms Casey says.

“For me, that was the biggest step change. I loved living in London and loved studying. I was about 30 then, and had been working for four or five years, post admission. I knew what the law actually did, or what it meant, so studying it felt more focused and it was so stimulating and interesting.”

On their return to New Zealand, Ms Casey set up as a barrister sole in February 1993. Her focus steadily shifted towards medical ethics, international family law issues, and reproductive law. She also became one of the first lawyers in New Zealand to work on international child abduction cases – an area she continues to specialise in.

The international scene

The early 90s, which marked the initial years of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction in New Zealand, were particularly interesting, Ms Casey says.

“It was a whole new way of working and you had to work really fast and I was involved in a lot of the early cases and appeals.

“Looking back, you can see those cases and see the principles developing in your own country.

“The most exciting thing about the early cases was that you were able to look at the other countries who had signed the same convention earlier than New Zealand and refer to cases from those jurisdictions. We were able to say to the judge: ‘Look this is how the convention was interpreted by the German courts, or in the UK in a case involving English and Australian parents. Those cases and the principles could be directly applied by the NZ court.’

“Conventions cases had universal application which made the research exciting and the legal discussions fascinating.”

More broadly, she talks about the evolving nature of family law and the implications of working across international jurisdictions.

Applications under the Abduction Convention have changed as views on the rights of children have developed. However, not all jurisdictions have the same level of understanding, Ms Casey says. Greater recognition of the far-reaching impacts of family violence, and the limitations legal frameworks often have in protecting victims has been another significant development over the years. Those changes continue to inform how the law is implemented in different places and what happens in cases, she says.

“The most fascinating part about family law is to see how it evolves as we start to receive more information from the social scientists around people, rights, psychology, and as we get a greater understanding of family dynamics.”

Her expertise in international parenting rights and surrogacy law saw her appointed five years ago to an experts’ group with the Hague Conference on international law. More than 20 different jurisdictions are represented on the panel, which is working towards creating an international framework or set of rules for determining parentage in cross-border situations. Working with this group has been one of the highlights of her career, Ms Casey says.

“One day, there will be a Convention like the Child Abduction Convention that gives countries a rulebook for assigning parentage in international situations. There are many situations where recognising parentage across borders is critical. For example, to establish inheritance, citizenship, or maintenance rights, as well as for the increasing numbers of children born through surrogacy.”

For jurisdictions like New Zealand, which is yet to pass surrogacy-specific legislation, it will provide an important framework for families and surrogates, she says.

“It’s very challenging work intellectually, but it’s worth it because I have access to a global view of what is happening in the fast-evolving area of medicine and law. And it’s the most current view of what’s happening in a field that I’m most interested in.”

Becoming a QC

Just before we finish, I ask Ms Casey about her appointment as Queen’s Counsel in 2015. She fires a simple and direct answer on its significance for her.

“I’ve always been busy over the years, but I suppose it gives you a gold standard, and other people who previously hadn’t thought about working with you suddenly start thinking that you might actually have some skills.

“It was also really good for family lawyers to see one of their own appointed. We’d seen it with Simon Jefferson in Auckland, and Anita Chan in Dunedin, so it had happened before – but it’s good for us as a specialist bar to have that recognition.”

The appointment was also announced just after Ms Casey’s mother’s death, and was particularly special for her family at a difficult time.

“My parents were incredibly supportive. Your parents help you make things happen when you’re a young person, so it was a really nice moment for our family to celebrate this when we were so sad. We all knew how proud mum would have been.”

Teuila Fuatai, is an Auckland-based journalist.

Photo taken by Claudia Chilcott

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