WILLIAMS Peter Aldridge
Knights Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit Announced in New Year Honours List 2015 For services to the law. Mr Peter Williams is one of New Zealand's most well-known criminal lawyers and has conducted more than 100 murder trials in a sixty year courtroom career. Since being admitted to the bar in 1960, Mr Williams has undertaken some of the most significant trials in New Zealand's history, which have included representing figures such as Zion King, Arthur Allen Thomas, Terry 'Mr Asia' Clark, and the Bassett Road machine gun murderers. He was appointed Queen's Counsel in 1987. He established the Prison Reform Society after resigning as President of the Howard League for Penal Reform in 2011. He has been a relentless campaigner for prisoner rights, advocating for decent conditions during incarceration, rehabilitation and addressing the causes of crime. Mr Williams has argued for less focus on imprisonment and more on alternative residential facilities where offenders are involved in programmes directed at changing their behaviour.
Knights Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (KNZM)
Appointed Queen's Council (QC)
Born 1 December 1934
Died 9 June 2015 Auckland, New Zealand
An abandoned bike, sanded back, oiled and painted brilliant red, was the catalyst for a law career advocating for society's underdogs. Spanning 60 years, Sir Peter Williams' career covered more than 100 criminal trials, including some of the most high profile of their time. At the heart of them all was his unparalleled hunger for justice. It started in Feilding where a young Williams happened upon a rusty old bike, taking it home and refurbishing it with the kind of love young boys reserve for their first set of wheels, unaware the bike was stolen property. The police were hellbent on securing a conviction. They charged him with theft and he appeared, lawyerless, in the Children's Court where police assured him the conviction would never matter. However, the minor dealing came back to haunt him years later when he tried registering as a lawyer. With memories of his own case, Williams went on to become one of the country's most rigorous defence lawyers, representing Bassett Rd machine gun killer Ronald Jorgensen, drug smugglers Lorraine and Aaron Cohen, and the wrongfully convicted Arthur Allan Thomas. Born in Ohakune, Williams grew up in Feilding, the son of a schoolteacher whom he always remembered for the great pride he took "in helping a child who was having difficulties". The red pushbike was not Williams' only personal run-in with the law. As a 20-year-old, he also spent 10 days in Wellington's Mt Crawford Prison for a drink-drive charge, a period that he recalled as a brutal revelation about what really happened in prisons – homosexuality, bullying, violence and screaming at night. "It burnt an image in my mind I will never forget," he told The Evening Post in 1997. Williams began his law degree at Victoria University, living on wages earned at the freezing works during the summer months. He spent a large proportion of them on drinks at Lambton Quay pubs, where he became friends with the likes of poet James K Baxter. When his father became headmaster at a Sumner school, Williams transferred to the University of Canterbury, which he found a more social campus. He particularly enjoyed meeting and wooing "varsity girls". After a broken engagement, he married Zelda, "an absolutely beautiful girl". It turned out to be the first of three marriages. "I like women," he once told the Sunday Star-Times. "A man who has not had good, healthy, vigorous women in his life has missed out on a lot." Williams began his career as a law clerk for the Justice Department, then joined law firm Russell McVeagh before striking out on his own. The theatre of the courtroom always appealed. "The trial was hugely important to me in terms of my public image as a defence lawyer, because it was necessary to stand up, toe to toe, and punch it out with the top echelon of the police and prosecution." Some cases were obscure. He acted for a bachelor who chopped his lover's head off, and a mother who suffocated her child in the throes of what was then called childbirth fever. Others were hugely public and even controversial. In 1978, he defended Terry Clark – Mr Asia – after he was nabbed at Wellington Airport importing heroin. The Crown offered dodgy evidence and he was acquitted. After Clark was caught in Britain, Williams was later asked by the Auckland District Law Society to explain a $30,000 retainer he had received from the underworld kingpin. The explanation was accepted and he was later made a Queen's Counsel – "itself recognition of my integrity", he said in 2010. Williams recalled many of his cases in his memoirs, including his final book, The Dwarf who Moved, written while he underwent radiation and chemotherapy for the cancer he was diagnosed with in 2003. In the 1960s, he wrote, he witnessed a daily stream of up to 20 men arriving court, many found under the Grafton Bridge in Auckland or in other homeless shelters, and charged with being drunk in a public place. "Watching these semi-comatose prisoners being lectured by sanctimonious magistrates on the evils of alcohol was indeed a sad pantomime." Inspired, he advocated for prisoners' rights through his presidency at the Howard League for Penal Reform, clashing with such groups as the hard-line Sensible Sentencing Trust. Williams was puzzled and angry by what he saw as New Zealand's obsession with locking people up. He believed the tendency had worsened in recent years. "For some reason in this country, the majority of people seem to be very judgmental and very punitive. "Here we have a country that is blessed by nature with rainfall and plenty of fertile land, beaches and rivers and lakes and all the bloody rest of it – on the face of it we have good quality people, so why do we have this punitive attitude toward people who don't make the grade?" He sought to understand, but not excuse, even horrific crimes such as murder. "What is not sufficiently understood is that a man or woman at a particular point of time, mainly due to stress, can lose conscious control and for a period of time would do something not normally done. I believe there is a bit of that primitive stuff in us all." Such views were not popular, but he never shied from expressing them. There were other risks in being a prominent defence lawyer, too. At one point he and a former partner had to flee their house, when it was torched in the middle of the night by two men who were subsequently jailed. He learned later that they were contract arsonists paid by a former client then in jail. Top figures in the law field invariably describe Williams as "mesmerising", "a fighter for the underdog" and the "definitive defendant's alter ego" who "trampled" on the judiciary. "He didn't make judgments on people," NZ First leader Winston Peters said, recounting a trip to Williams' Great Barrier Island hideaway. "My favourite memory is that he was talking to everybody there. Some were wealthy and some were workers, it seemed to make no difference to him in that context. I haven't forgotten it." Among Williams' passions were dogs, poetry and yachting. A good sailor, he took part in the Sydney to Hobart race. He also sailed his yacht to Mururoa Atoll to protest against French nuclear testing. Williams received a knighthood at New Year. His investiture was brought forward to April due to his declining health. It was held at his home where an eclectic group of friends gathered - judges and lawyers and clients with their own red bike stories to tell. It was a gathering which gave testimony to Williams' ability to make friends no matter what their status in life.