‘I have always had a sense of justice’

by Clare de Lore / 08 October, 2015
Paul Davison, QC, who overcame a family tragedy to become an eminent lawyer, acknowledges the power of books to influence direction.
Paul Davison
Paul Davison with his horse, Wolf. Photo/Ken Downie

Paul Davison, QC, picks up a small brown leather diary, opens it and reads aloud an entry from the beautifully handwritten pages. “I will not mention casualties or sights – they will live in my memory forever.”

Davison is in his book-lined Auckland chambers, reflecting on his father, the late Sir Ronald Davison, who died in July, and his grand­father, Joseph Davison, who was a 27-year-old soldier in the trenches in France and Belgium during World War I. He kept three war diaries, which have now passed into his grandson’s care.

Sir Ronald was a towering figure in the law, culminating in his appointment as Chief Justice. Paul Davison has carved out a pre-eminent reputation as a lawyer, working initially in civil, commercial and family law, then as a prosecutor and defence lawyer in some of the most high-profile cases in recent legal history. His clients have included the estate of Captain Jim Collins, pilot of the DC10 that crashed on Mt Erebus; Kim Dotcom; dominatrix Renee Chignall; Judge Martin Beattie; and property investor Donghua Liu. He’s prosecuted Malcolm Rewa and Scott Watson and, early in his career, was junior counsel for the Crown in the Otara machete murder trials, as well as David Tamihere’s trial for the murders of Swedish tourists Urban Höglin and Heidi Paakkonen and the subsequent appeals.

Davison’s warm and engaging personality, combined with his formidable legal mind and track record, have earned him wide respect in the legal profession. At 63, he’s at the top of his game and in constant demand, but he still manages to lead an active, balanced life with his wife of 40 years, Anne-Marie, with whom he has four children. The couple recently moved from their central Auckland home to a 9ha property near Clevedon, where they keep horses and enjoy riding.

In the months since Sir Ronald’s death, Davison has been reflecting on the influence of his father and also his grandfather.

These diaries are family treasures. What do they tell you about your grandfather and his legacy?

As my father’s parent, he stamped some standards and attitudes on him that were brought through to me. There was a very strong Christian ethic, not necessarily a church-going adherence, although there was that in his case.

There are some amazing entries in the diaries, which are more significant in what they don’t say than what they do. Where he is actively involved in the trenches and describes the shelling and combat, the understatements are just amazing. There was considerable self-control evident in this. He was a very generous-spirited man and he influenced me in terms of his values and standards, but these days as an adult, having read his impeccably handwritten war diaries, I have gained an appreciation of his self-control and containment, and I think a much clearer insight of him as a man.

You lost your 11-year-old brother when you were 14 (David Davison died of arsenic poisoning after eating food served at a private social function held during a legal conference. The food had been poisoned by the hostess apparently as her means of committing suicide). How did his death affect you?

It was a tremendous tragedy. It stopped the progress of the family in so many ways. We [Davison, his parents and older sister] were all just trying to survive. I was at King’s College. It was very daunting. I played sport, but not to the top level; academically I was sound but not brilliant. In hindsight, I was unsettled by what happened with my brother’s death and that put me off my game for a while.

Sir Ronald Davison with his parents at his swearing in as Chief Justice in 1978. Photo/Davison family collection

Were you always destined for a life in the law?

My father was an enormous influence on me, and my mother, too, of course. She was very caring and vivacious, and is still with us. I brought these books to show you – Brief to Counsel and Brothers in Law, by Henry Cecil. They were lying around the house when I was growing up. There were lots of law books, books about barristers and their careers, judges and their careers. Brief to Counsel and Brothers in Law are stories of courtroom events and I think they were intended to be educational. My father bought them and read them, and when I started to take an interest in the law, I picked them up. I was living in a house where my father was a barrister and surrounded by his friends in the law. I was very influenced by that, but not in the sense of “this is where you should go”. There was never any pressure of that kind. My father didn’t patronise me and nor did we talk in any depth about legal matters. I didn’t want to achieve anything because I was his son. I got help from him, no question, with doors opening, but when you are doing legal cases, no one can help you make the right decision, to analyse something correctly; no one can help you formulate the questions that will produce the answers that provide the evidence you require for the closing address.

What have been your greatest legal victories?

I don’t have a greatest hits list; I don’t see life like that. Some of them are cases involving people with no profile, and you turn to them at the end and can say, “It’s over, off you go.” The sweetest moments are when you take a case that has all the appearance of being hopeless, and when that hopeless case turns out to be a winner, that is a very satisfying moment.

You were counsel for the Collins family during the Erebus Inquiry, and you have a framed photograph of Peter Mahon on your bookcase. What’s the significance of that?

Peter Mahon had a big influence because he was an example of someone who did what was the right thing, and it was an example of the law working. It was also courageous because there was a lot of pressure on him. The courage and commitment he demonstrated was influential for me. I have always had a sense of right, wrong and justice and the law as a tool, a mechanism by which justice can be achieved if you adhere to the process.

Davison with his wife Anne-Marie. Photo/Davison family collection
Davison with his wife Anne-Marie. Photo/Ken Downie

Your preparation for big cases involves a lot of reading. Do you have time or energy for recreational reading?

There is a lot of time taken up with pro­fessional reading. But I continue to develop an interest in historical work and would rather read that than fiction. I remember asking my mother to buy me Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey when I was about 12. I still have those books. I wouldn’t like to suggest I consumed them or understood them with any great perception. I have read Hemingway’s books and my father took me when I was a boy to a movie of The Old Man and the Sea. I enjoy Hemingway because of how descriptive the language is.

There’s a magnificent book called Into the Silence, by Wade Davis, about George Mallory and his era of young men at the end of World War I. They had seen so many of their friends killed, so much life and death, that their own lives were re-evaluated in terms of how they would live them and how close to the edge they would go. Recently I’ve been reading All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, about a blind French girl during World War II. Her father made her a model of the town where they lived, to enable her to become familiar with its layout and make her way around. It is a superb story. Our eldest son, Ben, is spina bifida and has been in a wheelchair since he was a young boy, so the idea of challenge and struggle and making things normal is very much part of our life. Our second son, Jonathan, went to an Outward Bound course while he was at Otago University, then did a mountain-climbing course. At some point I gave him a book I had just read, Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer – Johnny read it, was inspired, discontinued his university studies and before long had qualified as an alpine guide. He ended up guiding on Mt Everest, taking clients to the summit. So, books are powerful; they come along at the right time.

You describe yourself as an energetic person. What else do you do in your leisure time?

I took up surfing as a teenager and have continued to surf all my life. I don’t drive around looking for waves, as we once did, but I keep surfboards at our place in the Coromandel and I also surf if I’m in Hawaii. I took up bike riding at one stage and did a fair bit of cycling, including some riding challenges in Europe.

When I was a boy, my father introduced me to fly fishing in Taupo. Taupo was magical in those days and I have maintained that interest. I enjoy Brian Turner’s poetry and descriptions of fly-fishing, landscapes and people in his book Into the Wider World. He writes with descriptive clarity and captures so much of the New Zealand landscape and rivers that I love.

And the horses?

My wife has always ridden; she’s very competent. Now I have taken up riding and have a horse called Wolf. It’s relaxing and I just love the horses.

I’ve read that in the States, there is a prison that has an equestrian component alongside it, and to reward prisoners who have complied with the rules, they allow them to feed and care for the horses.

They’ve found that the psychological and rehabilitation effect is remarkable. They think, in part, that these people who may never have had an emotional attachment to any other person, can develop it with a creature as big and powerful as a horse.

The thing about horses is they tend to mirror the energy and emotion you bring to them. If you bring confidence and care, they really respond to that, and there is a lot of satisfaction one can get from engaging with them – they are such amazing animals.

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