Marie Dyhrberg QC: Criminal Law committee convener; Courtroom Bullying committee convener

This profile is the final in a series on ADLS committee conveners

Marie Dyhrberg QC

Where do you work, what’s your role?

I am a Queen’s Counsel specialising in criminal law, with my own chambers.

I bring in the people I need on a case-by-case basis. They’re all barristers in their own right and are a group of trusted providers whom I have worked with for a long time. We’re a team.

Where did you study?

I did an arts degree at the University of Canterbury, with a double major in political science and American studies (which covered literature, history and cultural geography).

I then took a year off to earn some money and started my law degree in Auckland, moving there with my (then) partner. It was 1977.

Before my arts degree I did my OE in America. I love everything about the US; my dream city is New York and to spend huge blocks of time there would be my dream.

Living in Christchurch, I met some of the team from Operation Deep Freeze and socialised with them. To save money for the trip I worked as a car cleaner and an accounts clerk.

What’s been your career to date?

My first job was with a big Queen Street firm. It wasn’t a fit for me.

My second was with a medium-sized firm with very good people, working with a new partner who was establishing his own client base.

There just wasn’t enough work. It’s hard as a young lawyer to show your worth when the fees aren’t there. All I ever wanted was to get out to Otahuhu in south Auckland. I wanted to work in a low-income area with high crime. I wanted that community social impact aspect and to explore the wider idea I had about what being a lawyer was.

I was a Family Court lawyer and worked hard to learn all I could. After a couple of years at Otahuhu, I opened up my own practice in 1986. I used to cycle from where I lived in Mt Albert to Otahuhu every day (and back).

We rattled around in an empty office, waiting for the phone to ring. When it did, we screamed with delight. There weren’t a lot of lawyers working out there so we were full on, so busy. It was fantastic.

In those days we didn’t have disclosure, so we had to get on with police to access files before court. Everyone pitched in and we had a lot of collegiality with police and court staff.

At that time, there were a lot of Pacifika and Maori kids getting into trouble. The Pacifika clients were usually first generation migrants with parents stuck in the older, more traditional ways.

There was a glue sniffing epidemic. We had to work with the various communities and be accepted for who we were. The days at the Otahuhu District Court were the best days of my life, ever. I loved it.

How long have you been a member of ADLS?

Most of my career, since the mid 1980s.

How long have you been involved with ADLS committees and which committees have you worked with?

In the early days I can remember being on committees and there was a big gap when I wasn’t. I was asked to come back about six years ago to convene the Criminal Law committee.

In south Auckland I set up the South Auckland Women Lawyers group and I was a youth advocate. We used to meet at my office. We didn’t have the easy access to support services that we’re used to these days so forming support groups was the best way to share cases and experiences.

I was recently appointed convener of the newly- formed ADLS Courtroom Bullying committee. Effective from February next year, this committee will tackle the issue of judicial bullying by helping member practitioners deal with problems they encounter in courts or tribunals and cannot resolve themselves.

Why is committee work important?

I believe all lawyers want to give back in some way. For a lot of them, committee work is a very useful way to do it.

How do ADLS committees make a difference?

The time and skill they contribute does something constructive. Take the legal aid changes: the Criminal Law committee worked hard battling that, and without that input it’s all very one-sided. Ministers and the Crown get what they want. Giving back, advocating for change and acting as a watchdog: it’s important.

Our committee welcomes special guests, such as Serco and Mt Eden Prison managers. We also encourage pro bono work to help get younger lawyers’ legal aid ratings up and as a service for those who don’t qualify for legal aid, but have a defence and can’t afford a lawyer.

We get involved in quite major things; when judges step out of line or when defendants aren’t allowed a transcript of their video interview. We also collaborate with other defence groups such as the Criminal Bar Association, the Public Defence Service, NZLS and duty solicitors. We’re a strong body if we all unite.

What’s been the most notable achievement or biggest focus of your committee in the past few years? Why was that important?

Probably the two main things are AVL (audio visual link) and the custody unit; we have a very hardworking committee.

For the custody unit, we took three trips to Wellington, invited by the Chief District Court Judge. We had to make sure ordinary police officers have no right to interview people in custody so were prohibited from accessing defendants being held in the unit during specified court times.

With AVL, it was about helping to set up the system, how the court works and providing better access to clients and people in prison.

We’ve also had input to the new contempt of court rules, the DNA review and child witness questioning (sexual violence pilot).

We’ve had representation as an intervenor in the Court of Appeal to review whether the Fatu guidelines in drug sentences are too harsh, as well as spending a lot of time on the sexual violence pilot, aimed at reducing the time to get to trial for sexual violence allegations.

That’s been a very co-operative exercise and we are pretty well set up now, with what we’ve got.

What would you say to anyone thinking of becoming involved in an ADLS committee?

It’s an absolute must and great for networking.

It makes you very alert to the current legal issues and about what’s happening out there that will affect your practice.

Being part of a committee and a law society means you can keep up-to-date with your own career development.

What’s the biggest issue facing your practice area at the moment? And how does that affect lawyers and their clients?

Jury trials for cases of allegation of sexual offending.

We think it is tough for defendants who face those charges. Recent changes to rules have been complainant-oriented. Jury trials must be retained as defendant rights are being eroded.

We’re very alert to making sure the system is preserved. It is hard to run cases for a defendant now, due to changes that have come from the ministry.

We just want a fair trial and not weighted in favour of the complainant. We recognise a fair trial involves the complainant’s and society’s interests but in these trials a defendant, in reality, has to prove their innocence.

My view is that if you’re charged, you better be ready to challenge the allegations and prove your innocence.

What’s the best-kept secret about ADLS?

For our committee it’s about sharing courtroom experience, and engagement with the court and how to best approach various judges.

To find out more about ADLS committees, contact Melissa Fini: e: melissa.fini@adls.org.nz

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