Working across a broad range of areas Isaac specialises in trusts, relationship property, South Pacific law, electoral law, public law and sports disputes. He appears in Court and tribunals throughout New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, including as lead counsel in the Privy Council. He is also a member of the Law Society’s Rule of Law Committee.
A passion for unusual work in unusual places
I joined LeeSalmonLong straight after university. I had considered becoming a Judge’s clerk but the variety of work that the law firm offered was more appealing.
More than a decade later I know I made the right choice – I have had some really interesting opportunities, particularly working across the Pacific. I’m actually a permanently admitted member of the Cook Islands bar, have previously been admitted in Samoa and am currently also admitted in Texas – so I get around!
I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time near the end of my first year with LeeSalmonLong when the call went out for help with a case in the Cook Islands so I put my hand up. It was a judicial review of a decision made under the Environment Act. Since then I’ve been involved in quite a number of cases in the Cook Islands. In fact, I once cross examined the Cook Islands Prime Minister which was quite an experience.
In Samoa I was very privileged to work with Helen Aikman QC challenging the constitution on electoral petitions. She was an incredible woman who died far too young. I’ll never forget being in Samoa just after the 2009 tsunami. I’d never fully comprehended that a tsunami is much much more than just a big wave. We visited some of the affected areas with the then Minster of Works and the devastation was quite overwhelming.
Closer to home in New Zealand some of the cases that stand out to me are acting for organisations like Greenpeace, iwi and NGOs in the environmental space. I feel there has been a real sea change in the area of environmental law as judges start to take a longer-term view in their decision making. I would be really interested to revisit some of my early cases to see if we would get a different result now.
Evolving the law whilst maintaining the Rule of Law
One of the fundamental things about the law is that it doesn’t stay still, and in fact it can change at a much quicker pace than other areas of society. I am particularly keen to see the details from the Supreme Court on the decision to allow former Christchurch Civic Creche worker Peter Ellis’s appeal against charges of sexual offending to continue, despite the fact he died in 2019. This followed submissions based on tikanga.
I strongly believe that tikanga has a place in every aspect of the law, even areas where it may not be as obvious, such as trust law. This is an area of law built on principles that go right back to the Crusades – so how do you marry that to te ao Māori? But it can be done. After all, every civilisation has needed to develop governance frameworks and has sought broadly similar solutions to societal issues. It’s one of the things I have seen working across multiple jurisdictions – that essentially most cultures have built legal frameworks that have more similarities than differences.
One of the things I enjoy most about working in other jurisdictions is seeing where legislation is similar but is being applied differently. A good example of this is that the Cook Islands has a waka jumping Act – although of course there it is vaka jumping. What was even more interesting with that is that I was involved in a case where the Crown actually said the law was unconstitutional – I’d never seen that before!
Ensuring we have the legal frameworks to be able to question and test the law and how it is being applied is critical to maintaining the Rule of Law. People must have confidence in the system, and a large part of that is having the checks and balances that allow fair opportunities for questions to be asked and behaviours to be checked.
A love of the arts fulfilled through legal knowledge
The law isn’t always seen as the most creative of professions but what it has allowed me to do is to take my skills and experience to support organisations that I’m passionate about. I’m currently a trustee of the Royal New Zealand Ballet and a director of the Auckland Theatre Company.
It’s been a wonderful way to stay connected with art forms I love. It’s also allowed me to develop skills and experience in governance.
Like the law certain arts can seem a closed shop to large sections of society – I’ve been working in particular on how we can work more with Māori and Pasifika artists and communities. I’m really keen to see us tell our own stories but it’s a slow process. As I’ve said, I think we can often make changes to the law quicker than we can in the arts – for example it’s going to take years to train enough Māori and Pasifika ballet dancers to achieve cultural parity.
My whakapapa and a rather unusual childhood
I whakapapa to Taranaki, though was born in Wellington. My koroua was of the generation that was stopped from speaking te reo and told to abandon his culture. It was really sad as he often only ever really spoke te reo in his sleep. On the rare occasions I could hear him speak it was like listening to the te reo equivalent of Shakespeare’s English. It’s amazing how quickly te reo has evolved with new words and phrases.
My father became a police officer after studying law at university (although he did go into the law later on, becoming a judge in 2004). My mother worked as a nurse – she was originally from Ireland moving to New Zealand as a child. I have a younger sister who has gone on to do far more exciting things than me like working in film and television and for charities in places like Yemen and Syria.
From Wellington we moved first to the Bay of Islands and then to Switzerland. I did correspondence school as I didn’t speak any European languages. Switzerland was a very antiquated place. The laws in particular felt like they were stuck in the last century, if not the one before that. For example, in the Canton where we lived residents were not allowed to put laundry out on a Sunday – and this was a serious law where you genuinely faced penalties for breaking it! There was also this tradition of ringing the church bells every hour so people knew the time – though by the mid-nineties they had progressed to having someone go up the tower at night and call out the time rather than ring the bells. But in hindsight that was a really odd thing to do!
After Switzerland we moved to Ireland to reconnect with my mother’s family. I went to school in Ireland. The main thing I remember was the horrendous bright orange uniform – troubling not only for the complexion but its historical connotations.
When we returned to New Zealand I was accepted into Auckland Grammar, and then got a scholarship to study law at Auckland University.
Using my early experiences to support greater diversity in the profession
There is no question that we need greater diversity across the profession. As a section of society, we are not representative of the wider population. There are a lot of reasons for that. Supporting our Māori and Pasifika students better at university and earlier is one of the key things we can do to ensure that more students reach graduation. I have supported students through tutorials and moot coaching in the past and I’ve found that hugely rewarding.
I do worry about the culture of our profession and I’m pleased to see things like the new Rules coming in to really spell out what is unacceptable. Although we should know that already. What I’d really like to see is a change in how we treat young lawyers – there is no reason they should be consistently working such long hours. They should not be expected to do that.
One of the things I’m really interested in is how we upskill students from different backgrounds about all sorts of aspects of the law and general life – for example, some young people coming into the profession may never have come across a mortgage because their families have never owned a property.
We need to have more people from diverse backgrounds at the top of the profession so that young people coming through can see someone like them. As a Partner it’s my responsibility to ensure we use our hiring processes to bring in diverse candidates. If we always appoint solely for the top grades then we will inevitably get people who work and think in a similar way. They are great minds and very hardworking but who are we missing out on?