A man who met the lone protester, the day before he set himself alight outside Parliament, said he seemed lonely and frustrated.

Karl Pearce, 44, said he spotted the man on Wednesday protesting with a number of signs near the High Court at Wellington on Molesworth St. Pearce said he spoke with him for around half an hour.

"He basically just talked about how he had lost his children through [a decision in] the Family Court and had lost contact with them. He was feeling frustrated at the Family Court system and he didn't feel listened to."

On Thursday emergency services were called to the grounds outside Parliament to reports a man had set himself on fire.

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Witnesses described bystanders' desperate attempts to save the man, pouring water on him, with one sprinting back and forth to get more. Another man from the nearby Backbencher pub was seen running with a fire extinguisher to help put out the flames and security guards were spotted putting wet blankets over the injured man.

He was taken to hospital in a critical condition - but died in Wellington Hospital overnight.

Rotorua local Lee-Ann Allerby said the lone protester was a client at the company she used to work for.

She said he owned a workshop in Rotorua, which he closed about a week and a half ago.

Allerby, who had known the man for about five years, said he was a "happy-go-lucky guy" who was "always friendly" and "always liked to have a chat".

Emergency staff and personnel have responded to an incident outside of parliament today. NZN

The last time she spoke to him was a few months ago at the supermarket.

"He just seemed his same old self," Allerby said.

Several people reported seeing the man in the days before the accident, outside the Court of Appeal, carrying signs which indicated his protest was related to a child custody dispute.

Pearce said the signs, painted in capital letters in red and black paint, said: "Lies are heavy burden for children to carry for NZ the rest of their life" and "My vote no! to family court lawyers racket".

He said he seemed stable, and he didn't get any impression he was to do anything out of the ordinary.

"I got no sense at all. None. He was happy to tell his story, he was personable, he was just chatting. He wasn't overtly angry, but he was definitely frustrated at the system and was lonely," Pearce said.

"In fact quite the opposite. He was really happy to tell his story and tell what he was going through. Him standing there with the sign was the only way he felt he could be heard."

"He wasn't rambling, he definitely knew what he was talking about, but he was animated."

Pearce said he was "gutted" to hear the news.

"I was gutted, and still am. A little bit stunned. It's not every day you meet a stranger on the street and have a chat with him and make a connection in that sense."

Pearce said he had spoken with police about the incident.

The police investigation into the man's identities and motives were ongoing and the area had been treated as a crime scene.

Police have asked for anyone with footage to get in touch.

Where to get help

If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.

IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE:

• LIFELINE: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• SUICIDE CRISIS HELPLINE: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633
• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
• KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757