Sebastian Hartley, Communications Co-Manager
Sir Peter Williams QC died yesterday evening aged eighty after a decade-long battle with prostate cancer. His investiture as a knight was carried out at a special ceremony at his Auckland home in April after being announced in the New Year’s Honour due to his deteriorating health.
Following his admission to the bar in 1960, Sir Peter appeared as defence counsel in over one hundred murder trials. Whilst best known for his role in representing high-profile clients such as Terry “Mr Asia” Clark and Ronald Jorgensen, the Basset Road Machine Gun murderer, Sir Peter has also been remembered as the champion of the underdog.
In an interview with Newstalk ZB shortly after his knighthood was announced, Sir Peter said, looking back on his sixty-five year career in the law, that “he hoped he had been compassionate and looked after the underdog”, expressing his belief that:
every person in a democracy is entitled to his or her self-esteem and is entitled to be cared for in a reasonable fashion so that really has been one of my prime considerations and that’s why I’ve been one of the movers for penal reform — so that people can express their individuality and have some sort of life, even if they’re in prison.
This battle for the inherent human dignity of all members of our society, especially the most vulnerable, has seen him battle both in and outside of the courtroom.
In the courtroom, his tireless efforts at representing the vulnerable has seen him represent clients such as Arthur Allan Thomas, whose exoneration Sir Peter achieved by establishing that Thomas’ conviction for the 1971 murders of Harvey and Jeannette Crewe was secured as a result of evidence being planted on him by police.
Colleagues and clients have remembered Sir Peter as an advocate of enormous skill; recalling in particular the enormously skilful oratory of closings that, whilst demonstrating Sir Peter’s talent for theatrics and immense intellect, also won over juries with clear language to which they could easily relate. As well as representing a huge number of clients himself, Criminal Bar Association President Tony Bouchier remembers Sir Peter as always having had his door “open to lawyers such as myself to seek advice if we have problem files.” Furthermore, as Mr Bouchier remembered in an interview with Newstalk ZB this morning, throughout the 1970s and 1980s Sir Peter took a new generation of lawyers under his wing; encouraging the emergence of a new generation of advocates aware of the importance of their work to ensuring justice for all.
In all areas of his life, both in and outside the courtroom, Mr Bouchier said this morning, Sir Peter “was absolutely fearless. Nobody intimidated Peter Williams. If he felt he had to go down a particular path as far as his case was concerned nothing would stop him.”
Outside of the courtroom, Sir Peter is best known for his thirty year association with the Howard League for Penal Reform, which ended in 2011 when Sir Peter left the League in order to establish the Prison Reform Society. In accordance with his deeply held belief in the dignity and individuality of all members of our society, including prisoners, Sir Peter was a strong believer in establishing alternatives to imprisonment. In particular, he argued in favour of establishing residential facilities where prisoners could undertake programmes aimed at correcting their behaviour whilst also undertaking programmes allowing them to pursue their interests and develop occupational skills; thereby being regarded as human beings of equal value as other members of society.
Noted always for his courteousness, professionalism, and, most particularly, his modesty, Sir Peter regarded his knighthood as a recognition of the century of work by penal reformers in New Zealand; generations of people “that have worked to improve conditions, who’ve improved human rights, people who’ve received no money, no consideration, a lot of them women going right back to the beginning of the century.”
We should all be sad to learn that Sir Peter’s life in the law has come to an end. In him, we see an example of what courage and determination can achieve, and how the law can be used as a tool to work for the achieving of equal justice, both in the specific case, and in general.
Sir Peter Alderidge Williams QC
Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, For Services to the Law
1934 – 2015