Half century for tireless law teacher

19 February 2012

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Bernard Brown (centre) with his wife Gaynor and Professor Warren Brookbanks.

Bernard Brown, one of the University’s best-loved and most enduring identities, has clocked up 50 years since his appointment to the Faculty of Law.

To mark this rare distinction his friends organised a surprise lunch for him one Friday in February. Nearly 50 people — academic colleagues past and present, librarians and other professional staff, several judges and Queen’s Counsel — gathered in the Student Common Room to show their fond esteem.

And a total surprise it definitely was. “I was lured there by my colleagues’ threat of a peer review of my criminal law tutorial performance,” says Bernard, joking: “I came very close to taking a QC with me.”

Professor Warren Brookbanks opened proceedings by remarking that Bernard had begun teaching before some of the current staff were born. He mentioned how Bernard had mentored academic colleagues early in their careers, and spoke of the warmth and affection for him within the Law School and the wider legal community.

In the impromptu tributes which followed Bernard was praised for his prowess as an academic lawyer, writer and peerless raconteur, and for his kindness and humanity as a person.

Memorable snippets of his poetry and prose were read out along with the lavish accolade he received in the autobiography of his good friend David Lange. As senior lecturer Kris Gledhill put it: “It’s nice to remember that Bernard has a serious side to him captured by his thrilling ability with words.”

As well as writing legal texts which include his book on Crime and the law and the first printed text on Papua New Guinea law he has produced scintillating collections of poetry and prose, most recently Unspeakable practices and Sensible sinning.

The Law School celebration capped a memorable week for Bernard; the previous day he had been admitted as an honorary life member of the NZ Society of Authors.

Bernard’s arrival in Auckland half a century ago was more serendipitous than a planned career move. Born and raised in England he studied law at Leeds University intending to practise as a barrister.

However National Service intervened, taking him to pre-independence Singapore where he “combined court martial appearances and some part-time university teaching with riot squad control”. At the National University of Singapore’s new law faculty he found himself “lecturing on the rule of law to students against whom I had acted in the riot squad, fortunately disguised with a gas mask. Of the non-rioting students, one became deputy prime minister while another is still the chief justice.”

By 1962 Bernard “could see the game was up for those referred to by the then leader as being from perfidious Albion”. He telephoned the only New Zealander he knew, the legendary Professor Jack Northey, soon to be become Dean of Law at Auckland, to find that an appointee to a lectureship had suddenly “fallen by the wayside”. Bernard was invited to take his place, flying into Whenuapai a few days later.

“The University still owes me £27 for my fare from Singapore,” grins Bernard. “I pleaded for it for many years but when Jim Kirkness retired as Registrar it was conveniently forgotten by the administration.”

For many years Bernard taught criminal law and legal history, and he introduced criminology as a subject. He also took on the daunting task of lecturing in administrative law while Jack Northey, the redoubtable New Zealand authority in the field, was on sabbatical leave.

In the mid-1960s he was seconded to an academic position in Australia for three years. “Two rather piquant misprints” saw the Sydney Morning Herald advertise for a Fallow (sic) in Papua New Guinea law at the Australian Notional (sic) University. “I thought a fallowship at a notional university would do me very well.”

While at Canberra Bernard prepared a blueprint for a village court system. Implemented at PNG’s independence in 1974 it survives to this day. During fieldwork he picked up an arrow wound “of which my eminent HoD was rather envious” along with malaria.

As a mark of his calibre as a teacher Bernard received a University Distinguished Teaching Award in 1997. Three years later he was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the New Year Honours for services to legal education.

Bernard, by now an associate professor, stopped teaching full-time in 1998. “I spent three days trying to use my leisure time in a constructive way and just gave up. I desperately needed to come back. To my surprise, I found I needed the students perhaps more than the students needed me.”

His salvation was the then Dean, Professor Bruce Harris, who offered him a part-time tutoring position in criminal law along with a legal English course for international and domestic students needing help with their written expression.

Fourteen years later and designated Professional Teaching Fellow he is still hard at it at the age of 78. He comes in to the Law School every day and he has no plans to quit. “There is nothing worse than drawing the curtains on life.”

Bernard and his wife Gaynor, a recently decorated educator at Auckland City Hospital, are both still so busy that “we manage to meet to chat only four or five times a week during the day”.

His classroom contact with young people keeps him stimulated and challenged, and well grounded in the present, as do moots and social events. He also relishes the interdisciplinary contact of the Staff Common Room.

He finds his criminal law tutoring extremely challenging. “People are increasingly speaking their minds about what they see are the rights and wrongs of society. The debate is very interesting with a tremendous amount of morality and politics now involved in the criminal law.”

A major change for Bernard down the decades has been “the influx of women bringing a whole different set of values to law and the study of law”. One striking indicator is that the current Chief Justice, two Court of Appeal Judges and the Chief High Court Judge are all female graduates of Auckland.

Graduate study has advanced tremendously in Bernard’s time. When he started there were only four masters students, among them Bryan Gould who became a prominent British MP and later Vice-Chancellor at Waikato University. Now the Law School boasts well over 130 postgraduate students and a masters programme “which many law faculties throughout the world envy”.

Other noticeable differences from the early 1960s are the internationalisation of the staff and student body, democratisation of the Law School’s governance, and the much expanded presence of Māori and Pacific Islanders. In 1962 there was only one identifiably Māori law student, Mick Brown (later the University’s Chancellor), and just two Māori staff across the entire institution (Bruce Biggs and Matt Te Hau).

Bernard is pleased about the greatly increased degree of interaction nowadays between and the profession and the bench on the one hand, and the Law School on the other. A major catalyst for this is the Legal Research Foundation to whose council he has belonged since 1969.

Meanwhile the profession has become far more open to all comers and less dynastic although certain families produce their fair share of lawyers. “Two of the most bountiful who have come to the Auckland Law School have been the Barkers and the Peters.”