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Barristers Behaving Badly - And Other Legal History

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

An academic legal research team recovering information about the decisions of this country's mid-19th century Supreme Court discovered a colourful episode of barristers behaving badly.

On a summer evening early in 1844 Hugh Cokely Ross, a Wellington barrister, fired a shot at fellow lawyer William Brewer. A week later Brewer died from the infected would inflicted by Ross's bullet.

New Zealand's first death from duelling is just one of the incidents recovered through a major research project undertaken by a team lead from Victoria University's Faculty of Law.

A conference at Victoria's Law School at the end of June will highlight particularly important decisions of the early Supreme Court from the two and a half thousand decisions recovered by the research.

In 2007, a team from Victoria University's Faculty of Law (Associate Professors Shaunnagh Dorsett, Professor Richard Boast and Geoff McLay) along with Mark Hickford and Damen Ward from Crown Law, received a substantial grant from the New Zealand Law Foundation for the research.

The team asked New Zealanders to search attics, notebooks and family records for early legal history: "Some of the records lay in archives and with law societies, but some was in private collections - for example, judge's notebooks, an important source of information - are often handed down to family members," says project leader, Shaunnagh Dorsett.

Dr Dorsett says: "We have been astonished at the response. The two and half thousand decisions recovered are from 1841 to the mid-1860s. The amount of material we have gathered has far exceeded our expectations and there remain its cases through till 1883."

In a parallel project, Professor Richard Boast is writing a book on the significant decisions of the Native Land Court, which is to be published by Brookers.

Internationally renowned legal historian Professor Jim Phillips, from the University of Toronto, starts the conference proceedings with a free public address, the second Salmond Lecture. Also presenting a paper, with her son, is New Zealand's Chief Justice, Dame Sian Elias. Former President of the Court of Appeal, Sir Ivor Richardson, is another eminent speaker.

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