Law News remembers Sir Bruce Slane

ADLS and Law News were saddened to hear of the recent passing of former ADLS President, Sir Bruce Slane. Sir Bruce was a leading figure in thelegal and wider community for many years – aswell as serving as ADLS President, Sir Bruce was New Zealand’s first Privacy Commissioner andchairman of the Broadcasting Tribunal.

We thought it would be a fitting tribute toreproduce here some excerpts from a profile of SirBruce which appears in Graham Wear’s historyof the Auckland District Law Society, It Was All Legal: The Auckland District Law Society and its members 1879-2009, published in 2015.

Sir Bruce Slane


Bruce Christopher was one of New Zealand's first radio talkback hosts, for an hour once aweek on station 1ZB.

That’s not his real name. He’s now Sir Bruce Houlton Slane, KNZM, CBE, LLB. As a lawyer, however, he was not able to broadcast under his own name because of the New Zealand Law Society’s strict ethical rules (which, several years later, he played a key role in changing).

The pioneering radio programme neatly combined three of Bruce Slane’s interests in life – communication, current events and the law. A partner in the Auckland law firm Cairns Slane Fitzgerald and Phillips from 1957 to 2002, Bruce Slane was a member of the Auckland District Law Society’s Council when he was offered the 1ZB slot because he was seen as an impartial commentator who would provide a balance between the polarised political views of others on the talkback panel. For his part, Bruce Slane's driving force was a determination to help push New Zealand’s legal profession out of the mists of the past. He took on an unpaid public relations role for the Society with energy and enthusiasm and soon had friends in all branches of the media who welcomed his offerings of news items on legal matters.

Bruce Slane went on to be president of both the Auckland and New Zealand Law Societies, chairman of the Broadcasting Tribunal and, the final step in a long, successful career, New Zealand's first Privacy Commissioner. He was also the New Zealand councillor and two-term management committee member of the International Bar Association, a lawyers' organisation which is a strong voice for the rule of law in countries throughout the world, and he is now a life member. Bruce Slane was knighted in 2009 for “services to personal and human rights”.

Born in 1931, he was educated at Takapuna Grammar School and Auckland University College. He went straight from school to a law clerk job with an Auckland sole practitioner, GH Benton. Attending university part time, he gave an early indication of things to come by becoming president of the Legal Employees Union. It was not a militant organisation, but it was successful in negotiating pay rises for its members most years.

Shortly before his graduation and admission to the bar in 1956, he moved to another small firm, Dufaur Fawcett & Cairns, where one of the two partners had recently died and Jock Cairns needed a replacement to take over work which at first was mainly personal injury cases and then conveyancing and commercial work for small businesses. There were also minor court appearances, but he soon decided that he did not have the temperament for the big cases.

In 1957, Bruce Slane became a partner in the firm. Not much later when Jock Cairns became ill and was able to work only part-time, John Fitzgerald and then John Phillips were brought into the partnership and the firm’s name was changed to Cairns Slane Fitzgerald and Phillips.

The firm grew quickly and very soon moved up to Vincent Street, which was outside the legal quarter but handy for parking and to the newlydeveloped Southern Motorway interchange. Robert Ludbrook joined them after persuading the partners that family law had a big future and was followed by John Adams, Jan Doogue and Ian McHardy. Jan Doogue is now Chief District Court judge, and John Adams and Ian McHardy are also among the seven judges who spent the early part of their careers with the firm now known as Cairns Slane.

At one stage four of the firm’s 12 partners were women, a higher proportion than had been achieved by any other. “We made it easier for partners to come and go – it was not difficult for them to leave – and that made it attractive for women in particular,” Bruce Slane recalls.

A longtime advocate for the legal profession to make a better job of promoting itself and responding to public queries and criticisms, Bruce Slane became responsible for public relations under the wing of the Auckland District Law Society's newly-established Legal Practice committee. He started, and for a long time wrote, a weekly newsletter which brought news about the Society's numerous activities not only to members but also to many Auckland journalists and eventually grew into the publication LawNews. Bruce Slane,s gregarious and affable character helped him to win the confidence of many journalists and the profession's image was polished as a result. Part-time roles as a radio commentator and Auckland Star columnist grew from the relationship with media people.

He later won a seat on the Council, eventually moving through the ranks to become the senior member and therefore, it was presumed, the next president. He held back for a year until 1978, however, partly because, as chair of the organising committee for the forthcoming New Zealand triennial law conference in Auckland, it seemed it would be best if he had the authority as president at the time of the big conference to make decisions and tell members what was required of them. It was a job he and the committee carried out with innovative flair, ensuring that the conference was an unparalleled success.

Bruce Slane went on to win election in 1982 as president of the New Zealand Law Society – a few years after he had signalled his enthusiasm to overhaul the creaky apparatus of that Society by writing to the incumbent president, who had been in office for many years, politely suggesting that it was time to stand down and time also for the novel step of having a president from outside Wellington. It caused a furore. But the president did stand down soon afterwards and later a rule was introduced limiting the term of office to three years.

In 1979, while Bruce Slane was still busy with the Auckland Law Society presidency, he accepted appointment as chairman of the newly-established Broadcasting Tribunal, which dealt with listeners’ and viewers’ complaints, decided among contenders for the new TV3 channel, and allocated new radio station licences in line with the Government’s policy of introducing competition. He stayed on the job for 11 years. Soon afterwards he resigned from the Cairns Slane partnership (his partners had been very tolerant of all his other activities, he says) to become New Zealand's first Privacy Commissioner, after playing a major role in drafting the legislation which established the office. Starting from scratch, he built up his team of assistants as the demand mushroomed for resolution of privacy issues.

Sir Bruce Slane’s retirement activities include a regular radio slot on the National Programme and doing archival DVD interviews with prominent lawyers for the Auckland District Law Society Inc. He is chair of the Middlemore Tissue Bank, which collects human tissue for research purposes and decided that “a grey-haired former Privacy Commissioner would be the right sort of person to assure people that their medical information would be safe”.

Our thoughts are with Sir Bruce’s family and friends at this time.

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