‘Where Are The Characters?’ – Bob Jones Remembers a More Cavalier & Joyful Age in the Law

Bob Jones*  “As your Honour knows, when one enters a brothel…”

“I know no such thing Mr Stacey,” the outraged Judge barked.

That was a typical Roy Stacey courtroom incident which I confess I’ve “borrowed” for a novella I’ve written, along with three others for publication next year. With nigh on six decades of court experience, one thing I can say with certainty is that Roy Stacey was far from being the only “character” barrister in the ‘good old days’.

Incidents such as that were commonplace, particularly in the magistrate’s court, odd insofar as yesteryears’ magistrates, unlike today’s lower court judges, were a notoriously stuffy lot who were noted for their pomposity, aloofness and inflated sense of importance.

Here’s a couple of stories from yesteryear to enliven your day.

Colin Beyer

I was sitting as plaintiff alongside the late Colin Beyer in the magistrate’s court back in the early 1960s Hugh Williams, now Sir Hugh, who was subsequently to go on to the High Court bench, was appearing for the defendant.

The magistrate was the infamous Hangman Harry Rosen, this monicker saying it all about his reputation. Hugh was on his feet in full flight in front of us when Colin grabbed a ruler and thrust it hard up between his buttocks. Hugh let out a piercing scream. “Mr Williams, control yourself”, Hangman shrieked.

“Sorry your Honour”, Hugh mumbled and resumed his monologue. Beyer then repeated the exercise producing the same penetrating scream whereupon Hangman gave him and his client the boot until Hugh learnt how to conduct himself properly.

Such was the young lawyer culture at the time one took these indignities, as Hugh certainly did, on the chin.

Young Ron Brierley

Booted from a law firm in his first post-uni job, Colin hung out his shingle and had Ron Brierley and me for clients. The reason; no established law firm would accept us as being 21 and 22 respectively, we were plainly wide boys inevitably destined for prison while Colin had been sacked for agreeing to be a Brierley director.

John Tannahill

So he set up chambers with Mike Bungay, plus Des Deacon in partnership with John Tannahill, all but ‘Tan’ as he was affectionately known, now gone. All three desperately sought whatever scraps of work came their way. But my, we had great fun in their tumble-down old Lambton Quay building on which now sits a modern high-rise office tower, ironically owned by me.

Here’s a typical Bungay story.

One morning, minutes before 10am Bungay took a desperate call from the Police. They were about to prosecute a young maori lad for reasons we never did learn and they’d discovered he had no lawyer. Having accepted the brief  Bungay became delayed, thus he arrived after the case had proceeded without him and the charges and evidence were over. Mike didn’t even know the fellow’s name. But that sort of thing never stopped him.

He rose, apologised for being late then spun out a sorry fiction. The boy’s father was a long-term prison inmate, his mother had been murdered, his sisters were on the game, but he said, the defendant had seen the light, found God and was now active in his church, assisting with social work.

The magistrate was greatly moved and let the lad off, to the huge annoyance of the Police. But again, the mood of those times was such it would have been deemed unsporting for them to have protested at this fiction.

That said, it was not well-received by the defendant who did not hide his evident outrage listening to this account of his family. So Bungay fled having never found who he was or what he was charged with.

By comparison, today we live in much more sober times, probably for the good but I’m certainly grateful for the memories of a more cavalier and joyful age.

*Sir Robert Jones is a reader and writer and a retired businessman living mostly in Wellington. He still takes an active interest in the legal affairs of himself and others.

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