Defence stresses take toll on lawyers

19:31, Oct 17 2013
Nigel Hampton
NIGEL HAMPTON: The 70-year-old Queen's Counsel was New Zealand's top defence lawyer at his peak.

Top New Zealand defence lawyers say they can relate to the pressures that left renowned Wellington barrister Greg King burnt out.

Commenting on King's suicide note, in which King described himself as exhausted, depressed and haunted by the dead, the high-profile lawyers said doing their work while dealing with their own reactions to often distressing cases created enormous stress.

Nigel Hampton QC, 70, who was New Zealand's top defence lawyer at his peak, said he understood how King felt and any defence lawyer would offer a similar view.

In his late 40s and 50s he went through a period of disillusionment, similar to that referred to by King, when he wondered what the point of it all was.

The job was hard and stressful and only sustainable by keeping work and personal life separate, Hampton said.

The game attracted a certain hard-driving personality and serious mood swings were not uncommon.


"The game is played in terms of what you are doing in court. You are performing at the height of your sensitivities.

"After a win you feel a sense of elation which is then followed by a huge amount of exhaustion coupled with a crippling despondency at the thought of getting yourself up for the next trial. It can get very hard.

"Undoubtedly it does have a cost. You must shut off your own conscience. It becomes a bit schizophrenic. You're operating two brains in your head. Your human sensitivities are not allowed to overwhelm your duty to your client. You can't allow yourself to think what an appalling thing this is and this person is probably the perpetrator.

"I knew Greg a bit and I imagine all these things were going on with him."

Success led to a "nightmarish" build-up of cases.

"At times you can't see beyond a unending stretch of cases. It's within your power to limit the work but your ego tells you not to turn stuff away. I can see that now what I was doing in my 40s and 50s took a toll on me."

Defence lawyers had to remember their job was vital to the system and the Crown case had to be well tested. You could not choose only innocent clients with noble cases.

Pip Hall QC, who is based in Christchurch, said he found the coroner's report distressing.

"The fact he [King] couldn't reach out and ask for help upsets me."

Being a defence lawyer was a stressful job - particularly high-profile criminal work.

"None of us are immune to the pressures the job brings.

"We see it from the perspective of the victim, the criminal and the public and it does take its toll on some.

"You've got to be able to get away from the law, you've got to have another life."

Hall said he often received misdirected abuse from the public who "tend to identify you with the accused".

They did not understand the important role defence lawyers played in society, he said.

"People simply do not understand that we've got to maintain some professional detachment. You've got to learn to walk away from it rather than engage in it."

Fairfax Media