Nigel Hampton

Companion of the NZ Order of Merit for services to law

Veteran and internationally-applauded criminal defence lawyer Nigel Hampton has been involved in the justice system for more than 53 years.

He was admitted to the bar as a shy 21 year-old and hasn't looked back, and he's still practicing. Hampton, 74, says he has no plans to retire.

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"While I've got my health, my mind and while my memory doesn't get too slippery I think I'll keep on going," he says.

Hampton has today been made a Companion of the NZ Order of Merit for his services to the law.

"I feel quite pleased and proud, and all of those things," he laughs.

"A little bemused, I suppose."

Hampton says two defence cases shaped his law career - representing Ronald David Bailey who was on trial in Greymouth for the murder of his wife, later found not guilty, and representing former Labour party MP Gerald O'Brien, who was charged with indecencies.

"Those two cases between them made me, for better or for worse, a reputation as a criminal defence lawyer, and my practice really grew from there," he says.

Hampton grew up in the Canterbury countryside and says at school he had brief thoughts of getting into medicine before deciding on law.

While at university he worked at Christchurch litigation firm R A Young Hunter & Co as a law clerk, and stayed on with the firm after he qualified.

"They took me into partnership there within the first 15 months or so, and because of the work they did I started doing court work," he says.

"I'd never thought about doing court work. I was a shy, nervous country boy with a stammer trying to enter what I thought was a far-to-big-a-league for me."

Hampton did his first jury trial within months of admission to the bar.

Over the course of his career Hampton, who is based in Christchurch, has acted for hundreds of family, civil and criminal litigation cases.

Ten years ago, he took time out due to back problems. He had surgery but was later unsure if he wanted to go back to doing criminal trials.

"I decided in my mind that I wasn't going to," but the Christchurch earthquakes and Pike River Mine disaster in 2010 intervened, reshaping his practice.

"Primarily, I acted for the miners' union in the Pike River Mine inquiry and got very involved in that so that took a considerable period of my time ... that has flowed on to more recent work for the Pike River families, including last year in succeeding in the Supreme Court," Hampton says.

He's also acted for those affected by the collapse, and subsequent death of 114 people, in the Christchurch Television building.

Hampton says the most challenging moment in his career was standing up in court for the first time, to engage in public speaking for the first time, at the age of 21.

And he says it hasn't got easier.

"If you're not strung-out and nervous for a case, you won't, I believe, adequately perform and do [that] justice."

Making sure the justice system is fair keeps him at the job.

"Doing litigation work, which is to some considerable extent driven by your own ego and personality, you have very dark days at times and you have correspondingly very high days on a personal level," he says.

"Sometimes what you can achieve for an individual has wider ramifications. If you can achieve fair and even-handed treatment in front of the courts then it's worth your while, keeping on stressing yourself out."

A career highlight, he says, was working as Chief Justice of the Kingdom of Tonga.

"Traditionally, Tonga used judges from the United Kingdom and they were looking for the first time in Australia and New Zealand, for someone to take that post.

"In 1995, I was at a low point; I saw this, applied, got it and it meant that Jenny and I went to Tonga and lived there for two and a bit years with our two youngest children. That was, for me, a refreshing and eye-opening time in my life."

While I've got my health, my mind and while my memory doesn't get too slippery I think I'll keep on going.

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Hampton is a judicial officer for World Rugby, South African, New Zealand and Australian Rugby, and New Zealand Rugby, chair of Okains Bay Māori and Colonial Museum Trust, a board member of KidsCan, and patron of the New Zealand Howard League For Penal Reform.

Being a rugby lawyer has taken him to "most of the Pacific Islands", Australia, South Africa, and other legal work has taken him to the UK, and more recently, to The Hague, where he worked extensively for the International Criminal Court (ICC).

In 2017, he became the first disciplinary commissioner of Counsel before the ICC and in 2014 was elected as an alternate member of the Disciplinary Appeals Board for the ICC Counsel.

Hampton says the legal profession is "much more diverse and inclusive" nowadays, compared to when he started out.

"Women have achieved near-to, if not, parity in numbers in terms of persons entering the profession," he says. "The profession, and the judiciary, has become far less hierarchical and patriarchal. The days of bullies occupying the Bench have gone.

"One of the great and refreshing things, for me personally, which is now done, is for older lawyers, experienced court lawyers, to collegially give time, effort and expertise, for free, to teach inexperienced aspiring court lawyers litigation skills. The best of collegiality, the best of a profession, in action."

Hampton was appointed Queen's Counsel in 1989 and Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1988.