QC shows no sign of slowing

By Doug Laing

There's a certain amount of irony in veteran barrister Russell Fairbrother being made Hawke's Bay's first Queen's Counsel in 35 years - even if he does quip that he can't see it.

As a Member of Parliament from 2002 to 2008, he was part of a Labour government which did-away with the honourable title of QC, but is now one of 26 bestowed in the first appointment round since 2007, a "catch-up" following Lawyers and Conveyancers Act restoration of the title last year.

Parliament was "a part of another life," he says and to a degree sidesteps - not wanting to "incriminate" himself.

The appointments were announced earlier this month by Attorney General and Government minister Chris Finlayson, who along with Solicitor General Michael Heron was made a QC in December in a Prime Ministerial announcement heralding the changes.

The 68-year-old Mr Fairbrother is the only new QC from outside the traditional four main centres, with 16 "Silks" being appointed in Auckland, six in Wellington, two in Christchurch, and one in Dunedin.

Raised in Wairarapa, Mr Fairbrother, who left school at 15 - "I don't even have U.E." - graduated in law from Victoria University in 1977 and arrived in Hawke's Bay the following year to work for the region's most prominent criminal defender of the time, Jim Donovan (later Judge O'Donovan).

It was also the year of the last Hawke's Bay QC appointment, that of Rodney Gallen, latter Sir Rodney Gallen, later a Judge of the High Court, the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal.

He came with strong references - high-profile 1970s and 1980s Wellington barrister Mike Bungay QC "got me the job" - and similar weight was gathered in four referees as he prepared his application.

Noted author James McNeish, Cambridge University Professor of Law Paul McHugh, psychiatrist Dr Barry Walsh, and Auckland barrister Peter Williams QC were all in his corner, but nothing was certain, even when he "got the call" after his merits were determined by members of the Judiciary.

It came from Mr Finlayson who left a message while Mr Fairbrother was doing a trial in Gisborne.

He left returning the call to his former Beehive sparring partner until the end of the week, and says that even after the call he wasn't sure whether he'd been appointed or not.

He had to "text back the next morning," a situation highlighting the wear of a week in the intensity of the legal battle.

He's done hundreds of trials, in many parts of the country and in some of the country's highest-profile cases, defending more than 100 people charged with murder, and says the "colonising" of the mind in each means it's at least a week after each before he's functioning again.

Tall and retaining a semblance of a youthhood from which he graduated to become possibly the only truck driver and rodeo rider made a QC, he works from home and from the Wellesley Rd chambers run by wife and fellow lawyer Pam, and regards himself as "semi-retired".

It's a dubious self-channelling for someone who's just represented Tame Iti in the Urewera 8 trials, and has gone over all of the 100,000 pages of documents he can access on the iPad which has allowed him to all-but abandon the briefcase and the mountains of files which have been the bane of the legal profession for as long as they've had wigs and gowns.

He plans to continue practising, and be around to do something none of his peers have been able to call themselves in almost 70 years - a King's Counsel.

As it happens, he'll be dispensing with the current gown , and he awaits the arrival of the new QC silks on order in Australia in time for his calling to the Inner Bar in the High Court in Napier, on a date to be fixed.

That "Inner Bar" is about the only practical change he will see, apart from the gown and the letters after his name. He will be allowed to sit at the front of the court if he chooses.

As for which bar will host the after-match, the jury's out. A true "Republican" and "socialist" it's not likely to be the Hawke's Bay Club, he concedes. "Trade Union Hall," he suggests.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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