Michele Hewitson Interview: Michael Reed

By Michele Hewitson

The prominent lawyer and QC who took on the David Bain case because he saw an injustice, is used to winning arguments

Michael Reed QC lives in the art-filled "Alan Gibbs house". Photo / Sarah Ivey
Michael Reed QC lives in the art-filled "Alan Gibbs house". Photo / Sarah Ivey

It really was very silly of me to ask the prominent lawyer and QC, Michael Reed, a leading question. It was: Did he think prominent lawyers were a bit eccentric? He said: "I don't think I'm eccentric at all."

He had been almost normal until that point. I'd stress that almost because he is a top lawyer and they are almost always a bit peculiar, in my experience. The other thing about top lawyers is that they have to have some sort of public profile, if just by way of the prominent cases they take on.

He is a bit of an anomaly, really, because he has done very few criminal cases in recent years, at least very few prominent criminal trials. He is, as he far too cheerfully reminded me, a number of times, a specialist in defamation. He is Bob Jones' lawyer, which tells you all you need to know about that matter.

How could I have forgotten this? I wasn't allowed to forget it for long. I had come to talk to him because he is David Bain's lawyer and thus the lawyer who got the result which got Bain out of prison. His lawyer would say that it was the evidence which achieved this result, but he may have had just a bit to do with it.

You wouldn't want to get too carried away praising him because he is supposed to have an enormous ego. He has really only come to be a prominent lawyer because of the Bain case. He does mostly commercial law. He is the Giltrap Group's lawyer and has been for decades and has a very nice black Porsche in his garage. Could we go and have a look at it? "No." We did. It was a bit dirty. He was going into Giltrap's later on; they'd clean it for him. There are some perks involved in being the lawyer of a flash car dealership.

Anyway he hasn't done much criminal law for years because "there's no money in crime". But he took the Bain case on because he saw an injustice and he didn't like it and, I suspect, got the bit between his teeth.

Now Judith Collins, the Justice Minister, has ordered a second opinion on the matter of Bain's compensation despite there already being a report by a retired Canadian supreme court judge. So you'd think his lawyer would be fuming, and it is entirely possible that he is. He is said to have a bark. "Only if people are behaving badly." He said what I thought was a peculiar thing for a lawyer to say, that: "Poor guy, he lost all that life of his, and lost 13 years - no wine, no restaurants, no travel, no sex, no girlfriends." Why do we have to think about such a thing as the no sex thing? "Well, I think you do actually. I think New Zealand is divided on this issue. There's a huge number of people who think David Bain is guilty and they don't want to pay him any money. And a lot of them don't understand what he suffered."

I don't think that being reminded about no sex is going to change people's minds. If you think he's guilty then you want him to have suffered, surely. I think I may have won that argument, but he'd never admit it, and it would be my only win. He told me I could be the jury, and make up my own mind about what he's like, but he was full of baloney. Here is what he's like: He is the nicest, kindest, most perfect person; wonderful to live with and so on. He told me so and I'm not going to argue with him about any of that. He's used to winning arguments and used to people going on to him about Bain. They go on at him on planes and at dinner parties. He must get fed up. "Well, what does anyone do at a dinner party when you don't like somebody? You try and ignore them."

He said: "I don't want to bore you with the Bain case." Good. I think we are all bored with the Bain case. He is, by the way, not friends with David Bain, although he likes him and thinks he's a nice chap. He is friends with Joe Karam. I said I thought Karam would be an exhausting person to have around for dinner but he says, no, he's not; he's good company. "Joe is a really good guy. He's one of the most caring people I've ever known." But he does get up people's noses. "Yes, he does. You've got to get to know him." They never talk about Bain when they meet socially. I suggested, fancifully, Karam might be like the QC's dog. The dog, an enormous german shepherd, (he claims it is a perfectly normal-sized dog but it's not; it's a beast) was locked in another room where it was throwing itself around and barking and baring its beastly teeth. This was because it was scared of me, apparently. The thing was a tremendous sook, and very sweet, really. So it might be like Karam: It'd take your leg off but be sweet as pie after that?

"Don't you print anything like that. He's a softy." I think he meant the dog, but I wouldn't swear to it.

He said I wasn't to write anything about the dog, but as he spent much of the interview telling me I was evil and "very horrid" while the photographer was "very nice", too bad. Also, he decided that he was going to put it about that I kissed the damn dog: "On his mouth." This is where we got into a completely mad argument. I said, parroting him, earlier: "Have you heard of the laws of defamation?" He said: "That's not defamatory." I said it most certainly was."No it's not." Yes it is. And so on. I can see why he's such a good lawyer; he just wears you down until you say: "I give in. You win. Can we all go home now?"

Just for the record, I did not kiss that hound. It was dragged out, on its leash, thankfully, to have its picture taken, after which he let the thing come up to me while I cowered in terror on the couch. It then licked my face. This enjoyment was, in my view, not altogether seemly for a QC. He chortled away, exclaiming: "He kissed you! Make sure you put in the article he kissed you!" I said: "I don't mean to be rude [although of course I did] but that dog smells." "Oh," he said, dismissively, "all dogs smell". The dog's name is Lord Admiral Nelson of Trafalgar, or "who's a good boy?" said in a soppy voice, for short. Why is that his name? "Well, he's so grand. And so important. He's a lovely dog. He's terribly gentle."

Is he really? Would he bite Judith Collins? "Yes!"

Earlier: "Don't mention the dog." Oh, he wanted to be mentioned. He's a publicity hound. Did he think owners became like their dogs? "Ha, ha. Possibly."

He is not, he says, much concerned with his public profile - whatever that is. It might be that he has that huge ego. That is an unfair question, he said, quite fairly. But he also said that you have to have some sort of ego to make it to the top in law, because you have to have self-belief to get there. So I think I can say he has ample amounts of self-belief. There was an idea being put about - by some in the legal profession and some from the media - that he wasn't up to the Bain case. "It was hurtful." I was a bit surprised by that. Perhaps even his enviable self-belief has a few cracks in it. "I don't think people like being denigrated, do they?"

Well, he showed them. I suspect he usually does. He's as determined as a donkey, a sturdy little fellow with a plum in his mouth - the legacy of his British public school education. His parents who were "even lower" than middle-class somehow got enough money to send him to Brighton College (posh; well-regarded) as a boarder at the age of 8 and to keep him there. It was horrible in the usual ways of posh boarding schools then (whenever "then" was; he won't tell me how old he is and asking earned me one of those "evils") but he survived it by being good at sport. He then, according to what I've read, joined the merchant navy and became a purser. "I certainly was not a purser," he said, in an even plummier tone than he usually employs. He was the navigating officer on a P&O ship, which is much grander, so I'm glad we've got that cleared up. Saying he had been a purser might be as defamatory as saying somebody had kissed a dog when they certainly had not.

He was always going to become a lawyer. The going to sea was his mild rebellion: He wanted to have a good time while he was young, before knuckling down. He hated the English weather and escaped to the Antipodes, to Australia first, before washing up here in pursuit of a girl and where he has obviously done very well. He loves art and we took a tour of some of it. He lives, with his "de facto flatmate" of 30 years, the district court judge, Nicola Mathers, in what he told me on the phone was the "Alan Gibbs house". It is a marvellous house, but I thought that calling it the Gibbs house was showing off. I may have intimated that I thought this. He snorted and said: "Well, it's got a big sign outside saying that it is and everyone calls it that. I'm not trying to boast." He is very against showing off and screwed his face up when I told him that the flashy lawyer Gary Gotlieb has a personalised plate which reads: Acquit. He said, loftily, "I don't approve of things like that." He might be a snob. "I'm not a snob. No. I don't want to advertise who I am. I know who I am."

I said, when we were looking at the art: "It's nice being rich, isn't it?" He said, looking pained: "I'm not rich." Hmm. I'm not certain he'd swear on the Bible to that, but as he is friends with some really rich people - Sir Colin Giltrap, Sir Bob Jones - perhaps it's relative.

As we were leaving, the very nice photographer said he could have let the dog out, as it turned out not to be such a ravening beast after all. He said: "Well, I could have done. But I was a bit concerned for my profile if you were eaten."

But of course he doesn't care about his profile. "A little bit. A little bit." He's the defamation lawyer. I agree whole-heartedly with almost everything he said - although he might just be a little bit eccentric. A little bit.

- NZ Herald

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