Justice Bill Wilson shocked the legal fraternity this week by resigning from the Supreme Court. Until now, he has refused to respond publicly to allegations of bias. Today he speaks exclusively to Deborah Coddington.

It was 2006, and Bill Wilson QC had just been told he was to be appointed to the bench of the High Court.

One of the first things he did was talk to Chief Justice Sian Elias about his thoroughbred business, Rich Hill Ltd near Matamata. Would the business relationship with another QC, Alan Galbraith, be a problem? Not that Wilson had much to explain.

"The Chief Justice was well aware of that interest," he says. "But also relevant were three horse-breeding partnerships, the members of which were the Chief Justice, her husband Hugh Fletcher, Alan Galbraith and myself. For many years those horses were kept at Rich Hill. So she was very familiar with the situation because she'd visited Rich Hill several times."

As barristers, he and Galbraith had appeared in front of Sian Elias on many occasions, initially when she was a High Court judge and subsequently as Chief Justice. "And, quite rightly, in my view, she never raised with the other party the joint partnership interest. It just wasn't an issue.

"So it was a matter of my confirming that she saw no difficulty in Galbraith appearing before me as counsel and she confirmed that was the position. I would not have accepted the appointment if it was a problem."

This week, Justice Wilson stepped down. As a Supreme Court judge, he had been the subject of three separate complaints alleging inadequate disclosure of the Rich Hill business relationship with his friend Alan Galbraith QC - with the suggestion of bias.

Wilson was one of three judges hearing an appeal against a judgment in favour of Saxmere woolgrowers, represented by Sue Grey. Galbraith represented the opposing party, the disestablished Wool Board.

So why didn't Wilson tell the Supreme Court about his conversation with Dame Sian Elias when it twice investigated the bias complaints?

And wouldn't a beleaguered judge expect his boss to stick up for him publicly and acknowledge the aforementioned conversation?

Wilson, 64, says it is not his practice to shift responsibility on to others. "The responsibility for identifying and managing any conflicts was mine and mine alone.

"In fairness to the Chief Justice she wouldn't have known the detail of my financial arrangements with Galbraith, and there was no reason she should have known."

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He is, however, angry with Judith Collins, acting Attorney-General, whose announcement of his resignation was - he reckons - made to look like an admission of guilt. Wilson says he chose not to continue fighting for several reasons, one of which was to save taxpayers' money.

"But, more importantly, when the Judicial Conduct Commissioner recommended a Judicial Panel be convened to investigate further, we challenged that in the High Court. My counsel argued enough was enough.

"If the judges found the commissioner was wrong in law, that was the end of it because the matter had been fully investigated. As an alternative the High Court could refer it back to the Chief Justice.

"We won, but they sent it back to the Commissioner, to give him a second chance. We could have kept seeking judicial reviews of his ruling. Plus, given the adversarial position the Commissioner had taken in the High Court, we had no confidence in his ability to reconsider the whole issue in a neutral way.

"So Judith Collins says she doesn't know why I resigned but we gave her all that information."

Collins, who assumed responsibility for this issue when Attorney-General Chris Finlayson stepped aside because he'd been in the same law firm as Wilson, said his resignation was the best thing for the judiciary. If his case continued, she said, it "would have caused incalculable damage".

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Nelson lawyer Sue Grey, who acted for Saxmere, is also angry because Wilson's resignation halts the legal process. Grey wants a public inquiry. She says questions still need answering - but Wilson says she could have asked them all when he offered himself for examination under oath in the Supreme Court. Grey declined the offer.

Back at home now in central Wellington, Wilson says Grey has been "strident in her campaign" against him.

"It's not the first occasion I've dealt with extravagant allegations made by her. When I was senior counsel for Ministry of Fisheries in the scampi inquiry into corruption she made serious allegations and they're very easily made, but required huge effort on behalf of the Ministry to disprove."

Grey is no stranger to the issue of conflict. In 2003 when she represented one of the scampi fishers appearing before the Select Committee inquiry, Grey began a romantic relationship with Green MP Ian Ewen-Street, who was forced to stand down from the committee after MAF complained.

Five years later when Grey was a lawyer for the Conservation Department, she was sacked for conflict of interest because she was also acting for Saxmere. Her partner, Ewen-Street, complained to the police about her dismissal and Grey unsuccessfully appealed to the Employment Court.

In March an out of court confidential settlement was reached between Grey and DoC.

Anger and disappointment aside, Wilson expresses relief it's all over. He and his wife Eva are grandparents. The long battle has taken a toll on himself and his family.

"I think I'm a very resilient person, but I found [the publicity] very stressful, the effect on my family and friends. Looking back, I only got through because of support from family, friends and counsel, plus a number of judges who weren't involved in the Saxmere litigation, members of the legal profession who could speak with me about it."

Couldn't he have saved his career simply by taking advice to hand over Rich Hill's financial accounts to the court?

Wilson doesn't accept that, "because as the Commissioner noted in his report, and the media have chosen to ignore, I was in no doubt I did not owe Alan Galbraith or Rich Hill a cent, so there was no question of debt.

"Nevertheless, against that background I considered producing the financial statements. There was an issue over confidentiality with the statements which the court couldn't guarantee.

"My counsel advised me either produce the statements or make yourself available for questioning on the financial relationship. I chose the latter course." He thought producing the accounts would be "misleading".

"They needed a lot of explanation and are difficult to follow because of the informal expenses arrangements with my paying for the house and stables costs.

"They have subsequently all been given to the Commissioner anyway.

"But I thought it best to come along to court and be questioned by the Saxmere interests and the judges - but both declined that offer."

In hindsight, why didn't he just excuse himself from this case?

"Let's be absolutely clear. What is conflict of interest? It is when you have an interest in the outcome of the case."

Clearly, he says, Rich Hill could not have been affected in any way by the outcome of this particular litigation: the case was about the wool industry; Rich Hill was a thoroughbred horse business. So, in accordance with his knowledge of established New Zealand practice, he says he saw no difficulty in sitting on the case.

"Just as important as judges not sitting where there is a clear conflict, it is important they don't take the easy way out, excuse themselves and say, 'oh, I might have a conflict there so I shouldn't sit on that case'. That is just as bad. I felt it was my duty to sit, so I did."

But now he feels he's been hounded out of office by legislation that needs changing, if nothing else, to save another member of the judiciary going through the same ordeal (complaints against judges are up 60 per cent to 233 this year).

"I totally accept the theory of a complaints process but the publicity is a media circus," he says.

"No responsible judge would want to go through it; there's no sanction against it, so the Commissioner and the Attorney-General have a mechanism by using the threat of it to force a judge to resign.

"I have no objection to publicity when a case is resolved, but unproven allegations stain a judge's career forever. My story would have a very different history if [complainant, retired Court of Appeal judge] Sir Edmund [Thomas] hadn't chosen to get involved. It would have been well below the radar. It made it very much more unpleasant."

Wilson will take a break, then seek some arbitration work. Former Attorney-General Michael Cullen, who appointed Wilson and considered it a coup, "given his standing in the profession", has previously said his business relationship with Galbraith "would not itself have been a barrier".

Cullen told the Herald on Sunday he didn't want to get involved in the politics over Wilson's resignation. "I think it's all very sad. He could have been a great asset for the Supreme Court."

Disclosure:

Deborah Coddington's husband Colin Carruthers QC led Justice Wilson's legal team.