Michele Hewitson Interview: Lorraine Smith

By Michele Hewitson

High-profile lawyer Lorraine Smith tells her young clients to turn their scars into stars. Photo / Steven McNicholl
High-profile lawyer Lorraine Smith tells her young clients to turn their scars into stars. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Having met a few high-profile lawyers, I think I can get away with saying they tend to be an eccentric lot. This is a good thing for my purposes, obviously. The other thing about high-profile lawyers is that they know they're not boring, so they like talking about themselves - which is another very good thing.

When I phoned the high-profile lawyer Lorraine Smith, she said: "Who would you like to interview?"

"You, Lorraine," I said.

I thought she might have guessed. She had something of a win last week when an Independent Police Conduct Authority report into the police investigation of the Kahui twins' death showed errors of judgment. She might have crowed, but she said she "didn't want to put the boot in".

On the phone she said she wouldn't be able to say much more than that, but that she'd talk to me on the condition that if she was as boring as she suspected, I was to dump her and find somebody else and that she wouldn't be offended.

I do believe her, although you imagine she must enjoy some aspects of her high profile. "I'm like all lawyers, I think you enjoy seeing your name in the paper. I mean, obviously there's something in my ego that makes me think, 'I wonder how I'll do in your interview'." Yes, quite. But I've never met anyone who has stated the obvious so starkly, so you have to admire her honesty.

You see her on the television, or in the papers: a small blonde woman in the centre of media scrums. I've never been able to quite place her in the company of those swaggering, high-profile lawyers. I had an odd image in my mind: of her holding her client Chris Kahui's hand. She certainly put her arm around him, she says, in the midst of a media scrum and that he was terrified and utterly overwhelmed.

So, she says, "I might have taken his hand." Instinctively? "Yes." In a protective way? "Yes." In a mothering way? "That would be taking it too far. I do feel a degree of protection towards Chris because he's so innocent in a lot of ways. I remember the police said they were going to arrest him and ... I rang him and said, 'You know, Chris ... the police are going to arrest you ... And he said, 'Lorraine, is that a good thing for me?' And I said, 'No'."

Well, what is that, naivety? "A simplicity, I think." Which is not the same as saying he's simple. "No, he's not simple. He's not naive, either. There's a quality about him, an innocence, really. "

This is as much a story about her. She believes in people, which might sound a funny thing to say, but it means that she is not in the slightest jaded or cynical, and you'd think she might be.

At her front door there's a plaque which reads: Peace to all who enter here. She works from home. Her clients come here. She hears terrible things in her job. She is "revolted ... but subjective". What does she do with that revulsion? "You give it to the thought police and get them to take it away in handcuffs and ball and chain. Oh, I'm not going to be burdened with that sort of negativity."

What a lovely peaceful house, with nice cosy carpets and the pictures of the four children and saints and a dour-faced Scottish minister she and her husband, Barry, both adored. We have tea, in proper cups, and crackers with cheese and tomato and salmon, served by her long-time PA, Christine. Christine said Lorraine came home "all grumpy" from court one day and "I said, 'Now you can have a nice cup of coffee with milk, or you can have a cup of tea with arsenic. The choice is yours.' And she immediately smiled and was fine!" When Christine gets a bit stressed, Lorraine tells her to go and sit on the steps with a cup of tea and a fag. "I'll give up smoking when I stop working for you, Lorraine," said Christine. Theirs is a relationship of mutual admiration. I admired them both.

Lorraine and Barry are both committed Christians. They met at Youth for Christ but she became a Catholic after going on a penitential pilgrimage in Ireland (no sleep for 24 hours; if you absolutely had to eat, you could have soup made of water with salt and pepper.) She says the pilgrimage "clears all the junk out", and she was able to talk about their son Gregory, who committed suicide, and deal with the guilt she felt about his death and she "fell in love with the Catholic Church". She said, if I could put just one thing in, could it be about how wonderful Pat Dunn, the Catholic bishop, is?

I said: Did she know the bishop keeps crates of beer in his hall? I know this because I saw them. She said, "I didn't know that! Is it for the media?" That was sharp, and funny. Somebody once wrote about her that: "There is a sincerity in Smith that might be mistaken for naivety." You'd mistake her for naive at your peril.

She is certainly sincere about her faith. She has, twice, taken her case files to St Patrick's Cathedral, placed them on the altar and "just asked God that the truth would come out". That sounds eccentric. "No, it just aligns itself with what I believe."

I wonder what her clients think of her when they first meet her. Obviously she must be pretty tough given her job, but she is, at 67, a tiny figure with a girly little voice and a snuffly little laugh. She is given to sudden, startling movements - she leapt out of her chair when we were done, flung herself at me and gave me an enormous hug.

She might have been describing herself when she was talking about Chris Kahui: There's a quality about her, an innocence, really. But don't push your luck. "One of my clients said, 'Oh, you're mousey!' I said, 'Pardon?' He said, 'On television you're blonde, but in real life, you're mousey.' I said, 'Listen, kid, you've got a mouth with a death wish'."

Still, it would be easy to make her sound horribly pious - she's actually the opposite, whatever that is, joyous, perhaps - because what we mostly talked about was her great love of God, and for Barry. It was Barry who said she should go to university and she said she couldn't because she had been made to leave school at 15. But she did go and now she has three degrees and tells her young clients: "Turn your scars into stars!"

It was also Barry who told her women couldn't be lawyers. That made me shriek, but she said it wasn't a sexist idea, neither of them thought women could be lawyers and that she is, is all thanks to Barry.

I wanted to meet him because I had to meet a man who had proposed to his prospective wife, then 16, on top of Mt Eden by interviewing her about her views on raising children. She knew nothing about children, but must have given the right answers because Barry said, "Very well, I think we'll get married," and they shook hands. There was a kiss, but not a passionate one. That doesn't sound very romantic. "It wasn't at all romantic. I didn't love Barry when I married him."

She knew she wanted to spend the rest of her life with him, but why did she, when she didn't love him? "Because I liked and respected him." He gave her stability which you can see was more important than love.

She'd hate me to bang on about her childhood, because she isn't bitter about it, but it was ghastly. Her mother was violent; her father, the broadcaster and "Eye-in-the-Sky" man Bill Mudgway, left the family and she didn't have much contact with him for about 20 years. "We're getting to know each other a little more now." About her mother, she said she didn't want to "demean her memory. I'm here now because she gave me life".

So you think, thank goodness she found Barry and of course she did fall in love with him, and he, presumably with her. She told me a funny story. "Somebody once said to Barry, 'Isn't Lorraine lovely?' and he looked startled!" He didn't! "He did! Well, I can be difficult."

I asked him the same question: "Isn't Lorraine lovely?" He said, "Yes, she's very good."

She works hard at it. She wakes at 5am every morning and reads her Bible, or St Thomas a Kempis, or St Thomas More or from her Book of Saints. "It reminds you of the need to be the very best sort of person that you can be. Every day I think, 'May I make no mistakes today', because at that stage I've done nothing wrong."

So, who reads Wilbur Smith? I asked, looking at the book cases. Wilbur Smith is very fond of very bad sex scenes. I couldn't imagine either of them reading him.

"Oh, both of us," she said, about liking Wilbur Smith. I told her I'd met him and she said, "Oh, what's he like?" He was fantastically rude, I said, meaning he told rude jokes. A bit later she said she had out-grown Wilbur Smith, but I think it was the rude jokes that did it. She had taken against him on my behalf. "Because that's demeaning and that would have demeaned you and you wouldn't have appreciated that."

I really didn't mind the rude jokes a bit. But I appreciated her minding for me: she was putting out, instinctively, a protective hand. I do think she's lovely.

And so, of course, does Barry.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 01 Nov 2014 23:36:53 Processing Time: 387ms