'Unlucky suit' no bar to becoming QC

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Last updated 05:00 25/05/2013
Jonathan Eaton
JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/Fairfax NZ
SUITS ME: Jonathan Eaton QC takes time out from work paddle boarding on Lyttelton Harbour.
Jonathan Eaton
UNLUCKY SUIT: Jonathan Eaton QC tackles a man who had punched his client, former Christian Heritage political party leader Graham Capill, outside Christchurch District Court.

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An array of snappy, pinstripe suits hang in the wardrobe of Jonathan Eaton QC but there are three reasons why he won't ever wear one of them again.

Photos hanging on the walls of the high-profile lawyer's Christchurch chambers show him in that suit tackling a man who had punched client former Christian Heritage political party leader Graham Capill and knocked him to the ground. Capill was later jailed for child molestation.

Eaton, 49, was wearing the same navy pinstripe suit when a man threw himself from a building and died at his feet, and later when he had to resuscitate a colleague who collapsed and stopped breathing.

He calls it his "unlucky suit" but admits he has had his share of good fortune in a career spanning 26 years.

Last week he was among 26 new Queen's Counsel appointed by the governor-general - a milestone he had strived for since he was admitted to the Bar in 1986.

"It's that very proud, satisfying, humbling moment of ‘Boy, that's a significant landmark in my career', and it's a real honour to be there," he told The Press this week.

As a pupil at Christchurch Boys' High School, Eaton never planned to become a lawyer.

"I guess, like a lot of teenage boys, my parents said ‘You're an argumentative little s... - you should go to law school'."

It wasn't until he arrived at the University of Canterbury that he developed an affinity with the law and realised it came easily.

When he graduated, it was Nigel Hampton QC he watched from the back of the courtroom for inspiration. He is still a big fan of Hampton and regards him as the "criminal silk" of the South Island.

Throughout his career, Eaton has seen extraordinary drama.

He remembers the Capill incident vividly but it's not the only physical mayhem he's witnessed.

In 1993, he watched as his client, Gerard Dorreen, lunged at a former girlfriend who was about to testify against him on kidnapping and aggravated robbery charges.

Dorreen had a razor. He slashed Tracey Gallagher across the face, neck and wrists, disfiguring her, before being subdued by police. As the dust settled from those two incidents it was convincing a jury of a client's innocence and being at the centre of a real life theatre that continued to excite.

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His defence of George Gwaze - charged with violating and murdering his 10-year-old niece, Charlene, in Christchurch in 2007 - was his toughest assignment.

Gwaze was twice acquitted of the crime, most recently last year, and during the trial Eaton worked around the clock.It's the same for many of the 30 to 50 cases he has on his books at any one time. His goal is always to walk into a courtroom knowing the facts better than anyone else, because someone's livelihood depends on it.

Last year, the spotlight was cast on the pressure some lawyers in the country face when rising star Greg King died. Eaton admits the profession is at times stressful but he's known that since the beginning.

He recalls the words of Justice Neil Williamson who admitted him to the Bar. "He said, ‘If you are entering this game to make money then you've probably made the wrong call, and if you've admitted that on the basis to succeed you're not going to have to work extremely hard you've probably made the wrong call as well'.

"I think if you didn't find it stressful you wouldn't be doing it right. If you don't have that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach then you haven't immersed yourself in the case enough," he says. "Winning is great and losing has terrible consequences and is not good for your reputation so nobody wants to lose."

During the years, though, Eaton has come to realise the importance of his "passions outside the law", which he thinks are probably his "saving grace".

He plays tennis with a group who are not lawyers, skis competitively at a masters level and most recently began paddle boarding at dawn on Lyttelton Harbour.

Eaton says he does not target the high-profile cases - they tend to come to him because of reputation. It can be a call in the middle of the night, word of mouth or a referral from another solicitor.

In a social setting he's often asked how he defends people he knows are guilty. The reality is that clients don't walk in to his chambers, announce their guilt and ask him to get them off.

"When it comes to any legal case you're always asking yourself what can the evidence establish and what is the charge and do they match? Because if the charge does not match what your client is admitting then you've got a defence and you've got an obligation to advance it," he says.

If the evidence is stacked against a client he will advise them to plead guilty.

"We [lawyers] are not there to judge, we're there to fearlessly defend and if you weren't prepared to do that you wouldn't be in this game."

He has never gone home after a trial thinking he has got a guilty person off but on occasion he's been glad he wasn't wearing his unlucky suit.

- The Press

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