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Saturday 11 April 2015


Justice Matthew Muir - My Life

Posted in: Hall of Fame
By High Court Justice Matthew Muir - 11th December 2014

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Justice Muir is sworn in by Chief Justice Sian Elias (GayNZ.com photo)
My forebears arrived in New Zealand in October 1842 on the first free passage emigrant ship from Scotland, the Duchess of Argyle. That was my family waka.

They were poor farmers from the Scottish lowlands whose only hope for a better life was to set forth with 300 others and basic rations on a 12,000 mile journey which 21 of their number did not survive. They landed at Mechanics Bay, settled in South Auckland and became farmers. Within 30 years they had prospered. I am the 5th generation of those hardy souls and the first not to farm.

I grew up in Te Kohanga, a small settlement on the banks of the Waikato River between Tuakau and Port Waikato. That is my home. My parents were dry stock farmers there.

My Danish grandmother, a force of nature revisited in my much-loved sister Virginia, owned the adjoining farm. It was the ultimately romantic childhood with orchards, expansive gardens (my grandmother had over 2 acres) swimming holes, streams full of fresh water Kura, clothesbaskets full of mushrooms in the autumn, long hot summers chasing the hay baler, all with the steady guidance of my parents and the unqualified love of my grandmother. It set me up for life. It provided me with my compass. It defines most of the things which, outside my career, I am most passionate about – in particular my love of environment and of gardens.


GOODBYE TE KOHANGA, HELLO AUCKLAND!

But my parents were perceptive. At a relatively early age they identified in me a little greater aptitude for the 3 Rs than for sheep farming’s 3 Ds (dagging, docking and drenching) and decided that, to give me the best future, a move to Auckland was required.

If truth be told my desire to star in every school play and musical was probably something of a give-away in terms of my farming potential but it was a major sacrifice for them nonetheless. My only sadness is that they are no longer here to see the fruits of that sacrifice and the fact that, although my life did not track entirely in accordance with their expectations and, in particular, the expectations of their faith, it hasn’t perhaps all been a disappointment either.

I arrived at Auckland University in February 1976 having just turned 16 but keen to get on with it. I had had 4 years at Auckland Grammar. I was neither a rugby nor cricket player but immersed myself in its active and well-resourced drama department and made lifelong friends

My time at Auckland Law School was marked by many of the greats – Jack Northey in Administrative Law, Bernard Brown, Jock Brookfield, George Hinde, Don McMorland, I emerged at the end of 1979 inspired that the decision to take law, made as a 6-year old watching Perry Mason with my grandmother on her black and white TV was undoubtedly the right one.

It was at that stage that I met one of my two great professional mentors – the Hon John Priestley QC who is a recently retired Judge of this Court. As a rather fresh-faced 20 year old, I arrived at Holmden Horrocks in February 1980 where John was the partner responsible for employing new graduates.

The work was diverse and stimulating and John was a patient and kind teacher. We went all over the country, often in the rather grand English motor car which he had acquired from his late father.

There were bizarre cases like the one involving 6 lawyers all being remunerated out of the estate arguing over the meaning of a handwritten will, prepared by a testator who wanted to save the then typical $40 fee for a solicitor to prepare one. It was my first introduction to the ironies of the law.

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Justice Muir looks on as he is welcomed to the High Court by gay Attorney General Chris Finlayson (GayNZ.com photo)
There was the Taupo election petition of 1981 with John and I led by the late Paul Temm QC, another former judge of this Court and whose cross-examination of various hapless and in some cases fraudulent voters eclipsed even my childhood TV hero Mr Mason. And throughout it all there was John’s very individual brand of humour and ready laugh to punctuate the inevitable tensions of a busy litigation practice.


ADMISSION TO THE BAR(S)

1981 saw admission to the bar and the resultant pay increase, from $84 net per week to $124, that every young graduate counted down the days to. It also meant that you were ready to take on the mantle of the AA Solicitor, representing sometimes fifteen or more members of the Automobile Association per day on their minor traffic infractions.

It was the best experience any young litigator could ask for. Within a year literally hundreds of hours of Court experience had accrued. It built confidence and it built skills. I lament the fact, talking to young lawyers today, that many hardly ever get to see a Courtroom prior to partnership.n.

By the beginning of 1983 my thoughts had turned to post-graduate work and here again John Priestley’s influence was strongly felt. He encouraged me to apply to the University of Virginia where he had completed his own doctorate.

Quite how this was all going to be funded was something of an unanswered question until, unbeknown to the partners of Holmden Horrocks, I secured a cocktail bar job which, with tips, paid somewhat more than my legal salary.

It was at the height of the Fluffy Duck and the Brandy Alexander. They were produced in their hundreds until I was sprung one evening by one of the partners who took a somewhat dim view of moonlighting on the part of their then reasonably senior staff solicitor. I can assure you that I have no similar plans at this stage of my career.

On my return from the US I re-joined Holmden Horrocks, becoming a partner in 1985 and from there moved to Buddle Findlay in 1988 where the work was challenging, the opportunities for appearances numerous... it had a large banking practice which kept the litigators very busy after the '87 stock market crash. Then in 1995 it was to the independent bar for twenty years.

A new and highly influential figure came increasingly into my life, the late Richard Craddock QC. He was the quintessential fearless and effective advocate but at the same time a model of civility and urbanity.


THE GREAT OUTDOORS

However, beyond mentor, he was also a great friend introducing me to a kaleidoscope of experiences in my 30s and 40s. With his encouragement I learnt to fly in a small training aircraft which he co-owned. Richard and his wife and I tramped and climbed together, including summiting Aoraki/Mt Cook when Richard was well into his 60s. We fly fished, we went on 4 wheel drive adventures, we blasted through Central Otago in his classic XK150 drop-head Jag. We drank single malt late into the night.


LEGISLATION AND LOVE

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Moments after the swearing in, Justice Muir (right) and partner James Peters (GayNZ.com photo)
There is however one person more than any other who I need to thank and acknowledge – my partner of 29 years, James Peters.

James, Jimmy to his siblings and old friends, and I met in the context of the great homosexual decriminalisation debate of 1985/1986. He was part of a small group including Don McMorland, retired barrister Alan Ivory, Bruce Kilmister, John Hughes and Peter Wall who were tasked with shepherding that controversial legislation through what was a minefield of prejudice, hostility and ignorance. David Lange once described it as one of the most challenging experiences in his political career. There were radicalised young elements to be managed, there was a constant stream of American evangelicals whose intolerance had to be countered. It was a place for cool heads playing the long game as public opinion polls gradually turned and with them the necessary conscience votes in the House. The legislation ultimately passed in 1986 by the slimmest of majorities.

It was my great good fortune that a particular legal issue emerged out of the work James was doing on the Bill. He was referred to me and I acted for the young man who James was endeavouring to assist.

With his rich background in literature, the visual arts and design James invited me into what Robert Dessaix calls in his latest book an “enchanted realm” of rapidly expanding horizons. He was and is wise, charismatic, kind and humane. He is effectively the co-author of my life. I would never have contemplated this role without his unqualified love and support and it is deservedly reciprocated. My greatest hope in this appointment is that I can do him proud.

In the current legislative environment, including the anti-discrimination amendments which followed decriminalisation and now Marriage Equality it is easy to forget that, barely 35 years ago when I was starting off my legal career, the landscape was very different. As a young graduate I had high levels of anxiety about how I would ever reconcile who I was with my desire to excel in my chosen profession. There were health problems as I grappled with the issue.

But my anxieties were, in fact, ill-founded. With views initially well ahead of public opinion, and reflecting the premium on human dignity the great leaders of our profession have always stood for, I have never had anything but support from my colleagues. I thank them for it. I hope that I can now in part repay the confidence they have expressed in me.


Editor's note: This feature has been slightly edited from Justice Muir's original writing by GayNZ.com.

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High Court Justice Matthew Muir - 11th December 2014