The two law firms which appeared to make the biggest claims for wage subsidies both say they have paid the money back.

On Wednesday morning Simpson Grierson, which initially claimed $2,335,108.80 said it has repaid the money after demand for its services in April was stronger than expected.

This afternoon MinterEllisonRuddWatts, which also claimed more than $2 million in wage subsidies, said it had repaid MSD on Wednesday.

On Tuesday evening the firm said "nothing would please us more" than if its performance would allow it to repay the money, but it made not commitment to do so.


Meredith Connell, holder of the Crown Solicitor warrant in Auckland for almost a century, has indicated it is likely to repay the subsidy it applied for. It was paid $1.6 million in subsidies for 236 staff.

In a statement Simpson Grierson, which describes itself as one New Zealand's leading commercial law firms "and also one of the largest" said the money was repaid on Monday.

According to the MSD website Simpson Grierson had claimed $2,335,108.80. A search of the names of New Zealand's leading law firms suggests Simpson Grierson's claim for the wage subsidy for 335 staff was probably the largest of any law firm.

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According to its website, Simpson Grierson has 43 partners. It has offices in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

"We applied for the subsidy at the beginning of the lockdown in late March, based on a forecast decline in revenue due to the impacts of Covid-19 and in order to help protect the jobs and incomes of our people," the firm said.

"While Covid-19 will continue to create significant challenges, we are now forecasting less impact on our revenue and in line with this we have repaid the subsidy."

An official at the Ministry of Social Developments said it could not comment on its dealing with individual companies for privacy reasons, so could not say whether any particular money had been repaid, but names would be removed from a searchable database when they did so.


MinterEllisonRuddWatts' second statement said that an analysis conducted this week "indicates that the firm is performing better than originally forecast" and would not see the drop in revenue it expected. The firm claimed $2,069,265.60 for 300 staff.

"For that reason, the firm has now repaid the full subsidy." Chief executive Andrew Poole said MSD was repaid today, adding that the firm had hoped to repay the money "from the outset".

MinterEllisonRuddWatts said the firm's partners had left "a considerable amount of last year's profit in the business" with payments deferred until cashflows recovered.

"Our partners also fully expect to see a reduction in their income this year."

'Not the drop we expected'

Separately, in response to questions from the Herald, Meredith Connell chief executive Kylie Mooney praised the scheme as "absolutely fantastic" but said because the downturn in work was less than it expected, it was looking to repay the money it claimed.

"It gave us the confidence to guarantee our entire 240-strong team that there would be no redundancies or pay cuts during the crisis, except for equity partners," Mooney said in a statement.

"We haven't experienced anything like the downturn in April we feared back in March," Mooney added.

"We've been careful to keep the taxpayers' money in a trust account and, especially if the country moves to Level 2 next week, it's most likely we'll be paying it all back soon."

Not all of the firms have been prepared to discuss the subsidy.

Malcolm Harrington, head of business development Duncan Cotterill said the firm "won't be making any comment or statements on your questions" about the wage subsidy.

Duncan Cotterill claimed nearly $1.5m under the scheme.

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Anna Buchly, chairwoman of Bell Gully, the only of the so-called "big three" law firms to claim the subsidy, did not directly say what circumstances it might repay the money, but said the firm was "regularly reviewing utilisation of the subsidy as the situation evolves".

Bell Gully claimed $1,810,718.40 for 260 staff.

"We're doing everything that we can at this time to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on our business and support our people, clients and suppliers, including significantly reducing partner draws and reviewing all costs and discretionary spending," Buchly said.

"We have not reduced the pay of any of our staff, or reduced their hours of work."

Bell Gully's decision to take the subsidy was based on discussions with clients and international contacts about the likely impact of Covid-19 on the economy, Buchly said.

"We believe that the application for the subsidy was in the best interests of our staff given the significant risks that Covid-19, the lockdown and the associated consequences created for our firm.

While the wage subsidy scheme has been hugely successful in terms of adoption - more than $10 billion has been paid out in the weeks since it was introduced - there is increasing public debate over whether all companies should take it.

On Tuesday National Party leader Simon Bridges said that while he praised the Government for getting the scheme up and running so quickly, the result had led to criticism that it was not sufficiently targeted.

"Big law firms, like I used to work for, don't need this money. Small shopkeepers, tourist operators, some of those players who are not only struggling, but could well go out of business, they need it."

Miles Hurrell, the chief executive of Fonterra lashed out at a rival company, Chinese-owned Mataura Valley Milk, questioning why it deserved the subsidy if it was choosing not to process milk which the co-operative giant is required by law to provide it at a subsidised price.

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor said this week that the size of wage subsidy claims from some primary sector companies allowed to keep operating in the Covid-19 crisis prompted him to ask for extra policing by Government officials.

Silver Fern Farms ($43.3m) and Alliance ($34.4m) are among the largest claimants. Economist Cameron Bagrie has called on the supermarket groups to favour products from companies which did not demand the wage subsidy.