Twelve Questions: Peter Williams

Peter Williams, QC, turns 80 this year and is finishing a new book of stories from his long legal career. The former head of the Howard League for Penal Reform was diagnosed with cancer eight years ago and is still undergoing treatment.

Peter Williams on his boat with his dogs, Kafka and Ariki, at Westhaven Marina. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Peter Williams on his boat with his dogs, Kafka and Ariki, at Westhaven Marina. Photo / Sarah Ivey

1.Why is your new book called The Dwarf that Moved?
It's one of the stories in the book, about a dwarf in an Auckland circus whose wife was committing adultery with another guy in the circus. They had a sharp-shooting booth where she would shoot something out of the dwarf's mouth and she hits him one day and is charged with attempted murder. He has to give evidence in court - he can hardly see over the dock - and he's asked by the prosecutor if he'd moved when the wife was shooting. He says, 'Yes, I moved'. The prosecutor says, 'You said you didn't move before, why have you changed your story?' And he says, 'Because it's the truth. I moved.' The stories often have a bit of a moral point to them.

2. Where did your moral compass come from?
I was brought up a Methodist. My father was a teacher and the advice he gave me was to do what's right. And I keep it as simple as that. I don't pretend to know the Bible questions about the resurrection and so on and I don't criticise people who have beliefs.

They are entitled to them provided they don't harm others. I don't really believe in the miracles of the Bible so I'm not religious in that sense but I'm religious in that I think people should help each other and weigh up each decision they have to make to work out what is right or wrong. I believe human beings have an innate obligation to help each other.

3.What do you believe is the greatest evil?
I hate to see people suffer. Animals too. The other day I was interviewing a man in Spring Hill Prison who has been there for 14 years. He's a good person. Highly qualified. The sort of person whose company you would enjoy. He was convicted of murder and is serving a life sentence and he was telling me about being in the high security part of the prison and said he nearly went mad. He suffered from claustrophobia and the walls and ceiling were coming in on him. These severe conditions that people are put in in some parts of our prisons are in my opinion too severe. They cause suffering.

4.Have you ever experienced prison from the inside?
When I was 18 or 19 I was about to go into compulsory military training and after being in a pub in my hometown of Feilding, I rode my motorbike around the square. I was arrested for being intoxicated in charge of a motorbike and sentenced to 10 days in prison. Whisky Bill was the magistrate and he was renowned for his stupidity. I learned so much in those 10 days, I saw the bullying and the mental illnesses and it's stayed with me all my life.

5.Did you stay on the straight and narrow after that?
When I first came to Auckland to finish my law degree I was living in boarding houses for a few years and I wasn't playing any sport. I was lucky I didn't get involved in things then. There was always the possibility I could have because I loved going to the boxing, and gambling. I like the knockabouts. It was luck, really. And then sport kicked back in and that kept me on the right side.

6.You wrote your autobiography 17 years ago: was that a bit early?
I find writing concentrates the mind and in some ways it's therapy. I've had cancer for eight years and the writing has given me a raft to hold on to at times. I've had doctors tell me I have got however long to live and when you're ill you can wake at 3am and get depressed if you're not careful. Depression is always hovering around and writing has helped me through that. Writing and my friends and my boat and the wonderful woman who is my strength.

7.You've had a number of beautiful women in your life - how did you attract them all?
I have had a lot. Well, when I say a lot I mean I've been very lucky. They've all helped me in their own way. I don't regret any of them. I treasure memories of them all. [Partner] Heeni is my strength. She takes wonderful care of me. Cancer is a terrible, degrading thing. If you're not careful you lose any sense of self-value. At the present moment I have very little to offer a woman. I've got cancer. I'm 80 this year. I've lost my physical strength. So I'm very lucky to have a good woman.

8.Has the practice of law changed much in your time?
There's been a downward trend as far as oratory is concerned. Many years ago there was a very famous lawyer who was struck off and he ended up lecturing in Shakespeare in Australia. The erudition of lawyers in those days was something else.

9.You've led the defence in hundreds of trials: do you miss it?
I really miss the drama of the big trial. There's nothing like it. Getting up for the final address and having it all in your head and burning to say what you're going to say. You've listened to the prosecutor and hated every word they've said, you're just waiting for your turn.

10.You have three adult children: were you a good father?
I don't think I've been the greatest. I was away a lot at trials and I probably should have spent more time with my family in retrospect. Law is not a nine-to-five job and family is one of the things I missed out on.

11.Have you stayed friends with many prisoners and clients?
I write to ex-prisoners and they write to me. I correspond with quite a few long-term prisoners. In some ways you can't help but get close to your clients.

12.Has ambition been one of your drivers?
I think I've been more competitive than ambitious - in sport especially. I'm not socially ambitious. Oh yes, there has been money. It's enabled me to eat in good restaurants and I've had a fairly high standard of living. I've spent a lot of it on boats. Money and the law go together really. And every lawyer enjoys a good fee.

- NZ Herald

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