Lawyer with a passion for the Pacific

Helen Aikman
Helen Aikman

Helen Aikman QC, lawyer:

b Wellington, December 6, 1955;

m Jone Dakuvula (diss) 1s, 1d;

d January 18, 2012, aged 56.

Helen Aikman, QC, was a lawyer who made a big contribution to the law and life in New Zealand and the South Pacific.

Her father, Dr Colin Aikman, who in 1968 became the first vice chancellor of the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji, had a huge influence on her life.

He was professor of jurisprudence and constitutional law at Victoria University between 1955 and 1968 and dean of the Law Faculty for much of that time. He also advised on the constitutional development of Western Samoa, the Cook Islands and Niue.

Ms Aikman began following in her father's legal footsteps when she graduated, aged 19, with a BA in history and politics from the University of the South Pacific in 1974.

She followed this up with three years working as a teacher in Fiji and graduating with an LLB (Hons) from Victoria University of Wellington in 1982. This in turn was followed by admission to the Samoan bar in 1992 and 2009 and the Tongan bar in 2010.

She was appointed a Queen's Counsel and Law Commissioner in 2005 and had a lifelong love affair with the Pacific. In the early 1980s she married Fijian man Jone Dakuvula, the current Registrar at the Fiji National University, in Suva. The marriage, which produced two children - daughter Alisi Varani and son Atunaisa Varani - did not last.

The couple separated in the early 1990s shortly before Ms Aikman, accompanied by her two children, took up a two-year secondment in Apia, Samoa, in 1992.

There, as Supreme Court Judge Sir John McGrath recalled at her funeral service, Ms Aikman took up the position of Principal State Solicitor in Samoa and head of the small Crown Law Office.

The experience was arduous. She undertook a wide variety of governmental legal work including prosecution of serious crime and criminal and civil appellate work in the Court of Appeal.

In court she dealt directly with issues concerning the Bill of Rights under the Constitution of Samoa and their practical application to its criminal justice process.

In 1994 she returned to Wellington to work at the Crown Law Office as Crown Counsel in the Treaty team. She represented the Crown in many Waitangi Tribunal hearings and assisted in the negotiation in some of the early Treaty settlements.

In 1998 she was appointed Team Leader of Crown Law's Commercial Regulatory Team.

During her time in this role she suffered a terrible personal tragedy. Her daughter Alisi, who was then a pupil at Wellington East Girls College on the slopes of Mt Victoria, contracted a rare illness. It resulted in the 17-year-old teenager's death, while she was still at school, and was a bitter experience for Ms Aikman, her ex- husband and their son to come to terms with.

They dealt with it in part by erecting a commemorative plaque and planting a kowhai tree on the top field of the college, near where prefabricated classroom buildings are currently being built. A special service was also held to honour Alisi 100 days after her death on the Cakaudrove Peninsula, on the island of Vanua Levu in Fiji.

Ms Aikman grappled with the most difficult task a parent can be called upon to perform - dealing with the death of a child - by once again throwing herself into her work. In the last decade of her life, before she was stricken by cancer, her attributes as an optimistic and caring person won out.

She was appointed Deputy Solicitor-General (Constitutional) at Crown Law with responsibility for advising the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the State Services Commission and the Justice Department (including courts), as well as litigation involving various human rights issues.

In 2004 she joined Thorndon Chambers and returned to practice as a barrister.

In this role she was completely fearless and determined in pressing her points on behalf of clients, including former Immigration boss Mary Anne Thompson.

From 2005 to 2008, she also worked as a Law Commissioner. At the commission she worked with Sir Eddie Durie on a study paper entitled Custom and Human Rights in the Pacific ("Converging Currents"), a work in which she proved her ability to cross cultural barriers.

Her final project, never completed, was an historical study of the Fijian constitution which she intended to write a book on.

Former prime minister and past Law Commission president Sir Geoffrey Palmer said Ms Aikman was "indefatigable in looking after the interests of the Pacific".

Sources: Aikman family, Fay Robertson, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, Sir John McGrath, John Burrows, QC, Karen Clark, QC.