Old White Men: Pakeha Kaumatua


His family may not be aware of it, but I’ve seen the late Sir Ronald Davison QC in his pristine white vest. A superb example of shining white cotton clinging tightly to his angular and skeletal frame. Either new out of the packet or, a tribute to someone’s homemaking skills, glowing in the locker room gloom.

At that time there were no changing rooms for women in the High Court in Auckland. I cannot describe the look of shock and horror on Davison’s face as the mid-twenties me bounced into view, locker key in hand. Even more intense than the client who assumed I had to be the secretary or the library-using lawyers who assumed I was “staff” – there to put paper in the photocopier, fill up the water or pour the foil packs of putrid tasting powdered something into the coffee machine. Somewhere in New Zealand there is a male lawyer of my age whom I hope is still recovering from my response to the statement “there’s no paper in the photocopier”.  

Unlike many of the women of my generation in law, I didn’t start out as a “woman lawyer” or a member of the Auckland Women Lawyers Association. I always said “I was a lawyer”, not a woman lawyer, not a migrant lawyer, or…. I belatedly joined the AWLA when it became apparent to me that other young women lawyers did not have offered to them the same opportunities and advantages that I did.  And, by then I’d also been approached by two of my female colleagues (one an arts student, the other a young working lawyer) both of whom were subjected to ongoing sexual harassment.

It was Peter Doogue, the first lawyer I worked for as a secretary who suggested I go to Law School. It took time for me to act on his advice so, I had the advantage of starting my law degree in my mid-twenties, after I had worked in the world, completed one degree as a part-time student and I had married. I can’t recall being sexually assaulted or harassed by any senior male legal practitioners. But I can still recall the absolute shock of being anonymously assaulted (in my late fifties) in a crowd of fellows in a service club I belonged to.

As a young female lawyer I was privileged to meet old white men like Daniel Finnegan, from whom I acquired my ancient green-black, threadbare Court gown and fraying horsehair wig labeled “Chrisp Esq” on white tape in quavering Indian Ink. Barristers of the day such as the late Roger McLaren and Simon Lockhart who juniored me on their cases. The late Mr Justice Mahon with his Shar Pei wrinkled face and grey trousers peppered with tiny cigarette-burn holes, whom I met in the coffee-room.    Suburban lawyers like the late Colin Amery who worked the daily grind of the District Courts. Senior lawyers whose names I cannot now remember who would take my calls and assist me to resolve issues.  

The old white men who offered me Tribunal positions and specialist practitioner roles: which I refused. Old white men like Justice Ted Thomas who supported advocacy for social change and lawyer Robert Ludbrook who promoted the development of specialist youth advocates. And, on the day after I was admitted to the bar, Mr Justice Vautier, who “took me into chambers” to acerbically explain why the injunction I had applied for was an inappropriate application and I wasn’t going to get it. Those old white guys were the Pakeha Kaumatua of my time and they shared their knowledge, wisdom and legal experience with me.

Don’t get me wrong, there were some total shits: both male and female. One of the rudest and nastiest phone calls I ever took was from another female lawyer who also assumed, because I answered the phone, I was the secretary. Bullying and rudeness were not and are not a male prerogative.   And bullying, street fighting and brinksmanship were an inherent part of law.     And like most lawyers I had a mental list of colleagues I wouldn’t entrust with my packed lunch (even if I’d eaten it).

I functioned within the systemic attitudes of the time. The contract law lecturer who openly expressed his amazement to our student class that the first five examination places went to women!!!   The fat middle-aged lawyer who raced through one of the heavy wood and beveled High Court glass doors slamming me aside as he importantly strode past. Men on “the other side” who couldn’t or wouldn’t listen because I was a “girl”. All those requests for paper, photocopying, coffee and water, representative of the implicit belief of the time of gender-based roles. Two of my male friends who tried to take bullying to a new height in an effort to get me to capitulate: threatening costs against me personally!  

I’m also aware of the unpleasant behaviours perpetrated by some of the judiciary either because of their personal life-limitations and lack of understanding of other human beings or the direct result of persistent underfunding, overcrowding and overworking of the system. I clearly recall the shock on the face of my protection order respondent when the small, red faced and choleric Judge, who towards the end of a hearing day, was dragged by staff from another Courtroom and with spittle flying, screamed from the bench at us all. My shocked client, sitting there with me because of his unacceptable behaviours, wondered whether that Judge had a psychiatric disorder.   At the time I laughed but now I’d say a level of stress suggestive of a sabbatical.

The best piece of advice I got from any lawyer was from the late Dame Augusta Wallace – an absolutely hard shot practitioner and Judge – “start at the end”.   It’s not so apparent today with the development of alternative dispute resolution and the rising cost of legal fees but in my early days many lawyers were trained to enter a process and follow the yellow brick road to an end.    Gussie Wallace made it clear that if you asked the client “what they wanted” then you could find the most direct, effective and cost effective pathway to that result.   I called it “helicoptering”.  

The second best piece of advice also came from the Wallace Family, but not Dame Augusta: “remember Rosemary, everybody lies.”   I eventually came to realize that everybody doesn’t lie but that every one of us sees and hears and understands words, behaviours and events through our own, unique life-lens.  

I applaud the current disclosure of abusive behaviours within the contemporary legal system and the acknowledgment of the inappropriate and criminal behaviours towards co-workers. Next I would like us to realistically address contemporary issues of access to justice, access to legal representation, access to legal aid and differential sentencing patterns: the ultimate contemporary abusive behaviours of our legal system.  But remembering there have been many Pakeha Kaumatua within the legal profession and the judiciary: good old white men.

Rosemary Balu. Rosemary Balu is the founding and current Managing Editor of ARTbop. Rosemary has arts and law degrees from the University of Auckland. She has been a working lawyer and has participated in a wide variety of community activities where information gathering, submission writing, community advocacy and education have been involved. Interested in all forms of the arts since childhood Rosemary is focused on further developing and expanding multi-media ARTbop as the magazine for all the creative arts in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand.




Join us every second Wednesday of the month,

6.00pm to 8.30pm

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Read your own poems or poems by your favourite poet.   Enjoy the power of the spoken word!

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Here’s a poem I wrote as part of a set prompted by my work in the area of domestic violence. At the time of this incident the processes regarding the criminal prosecution of family violence matters were not as thorough and organised as they are today. The Criminal Court would often not be aware of the severity of an assault against a woman or a child and unknowingly immediately release “offenders” back into the community. With the client’s consent, we “appeared” with a group of Refuge Workers and shared with the Judge the reality of the assault and opposed bail. The “offender’s” lawyer was even more enraged than his client.  

I’d checked with two senior colleagues about the unconventional appearance I proposed. One eventually wrote to me and told me such an appearance was not permitted. On the day, the other, a longtime advocate of the rights of everyone, told me to just do it: it was a new Judge and he’d be too scared to stop me: and he was.   On the second occasion this matter was called, I again asked this lawyer what I should do.   He laughed and told me, the Judge had heard me the first time; he had therefore acknowledged the importance of the information, my standing and right to be heard.   Everyone, including me, owes a debt to unconventional, persistent and justice-focused lawyers like the late Colin Amery.


My friend pushes me hard against

the wall as he rushes past

“You’re a witch with a pack of dogs”

spits from his contorted face

The women in the courtroom

foyer are both surprised and

accepting of his violence

Together we have returned

his client to the cell of custody

we have thwarted bail

We have shown the reality to

the newly installed judge and

the lawyer didn’t like it

after all he is a man

and we are only women

witches and dogs

Rosemary Balu


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