Had it not been for the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, barrister Joe Koppens could well have devoted his life to the church rather than the pursuit of justice in NZ’s law courts. It was the thought of honouring those vows that made him re-think his life at the seminary in Christchurch. When Mahurangi Matters called at his Matakana home, he was busy preparing for the sentence hearing of one of the two men involved in the Wellsford dog shooting case. A few days later, he would appear in the High Court where he would argue a family estate dispute. As one of the area’s most experienced barristers – 42 years including an appearance before the Privy Council in London – Joe finds himself busier than ever despite “retiring” several years ago. He was recently elected president of the Warkworth Rotary Club, a role he hopes will afford him the opportunity to rejuvenate the club and attract new members, particularly younger members. He spoke to Jannette Thompson …
When I moved to Matakana six years ago, it was suggested that I join Rotary as a means of getting to know people and the community. I’d occasionally toyed with the idea of doing something like Volunteer Service Abroad to help those less privileged, but after seeing my brother and his wife return from two years in Papua New Guinea, ravaged by malaria, I decided that perhaps I could give back a lot more effectively through an organisation such as Rotary. It’s one of the aspects of the club that I would like to promote during my year as president. Members are very active in fundraising and club projects. If we can show others how they can make a difference to the lives of people who are less fortunate, then I believe they will take that opportunity to be involved. Plus, you get to enjoy the fellowship of a great bunch of people. Some of the rituals of Rotary may be a bit off putting – for instance, the grace before dinner and national anthem to the Queen at the end of the meeting. But the format of the meetings can be made more user-friendly without damaging the underlying principles on which Rotary is founded – fellowship and service. Without these, the whole idea of community spirit dies.
My family emigrated from Holland in 1950 when I was six. Dad had been a seed merchant but in NZ, he worked initially as a labourer to support the family – Mum and seven kids – so I know what it is like to live on the basics. Eventually we had enough to go market gardening, starting in Franklin and then later in Hamilton. It was hard yakka and we were all expected to do our share of cutting the lettuces and digging the carrots and potatoes. I left high school at 15 to help on the farm, completing my education by correspondence. It was this hard manual work that underpinned the old man’s advice to “get a profession”. Like a lot of kids, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I finished my schooling. I had a notion that I wanted to be a priest and spent three years at a seminary in Christchurch before deciding that the evangelical life wasn’t for me. I was studying alongside 83 candidates in Christchurch and a further 70 in Dunedin. Today, you’d be lucky if you had a dozen. I’m nominally still a Catholic but my interest in organ music has taken me into churches of all religious persuasions. These days I find myself more interested in the size of the organ than the denomination of the church.
The sense of wanting to serve did influence my decision to study law. The idea of using what talents I had to establish the rights of people who needed that help was appealing. After 42 years I still enjoy it. I remember my first jury trial was particularly satisfying. The fellow I defended was as guilty as sin, but he was acquitted anyway. He’d got into strife after lending $4000, which represented an inheritance, to an ex-con. Of course, the guy took off with the money with no intention of repaying it. My fellow tracked him down and thumped him, and in a show of great commonsense, the jury agreed that the thump was well-deserved! Some cases are definitely more satisfying than others particularly when someone has been badly treated and you are able to get some redress through the courts. Unjust accusations can ruin a person professionally, not to mention the toll it can take on their personal life. Often money is not what motivates people to seek a court decision – people will go to great lengths to hear a judge or panel affirm their innocence. On the other hand, I believe there are times when better outcomes can be found outside the courts, particularly through mediation.
I guess the stand out case of my career was the one that went all the way to the Privy Council in London. My client felt he had been badly treated by the landlord, who had him thrown out under police supervision. He sued for compensation, based on the humiliation and stress the eviction had caused. The landlord lost in the District Court, the High Court and the Court of Appeal, before appealing to the Privy Council. This final step involved a half-day hearing in front of five very sharp law lords where he lost again. The silly part about it was that my client would have accepted $60,000 in compensation. In the end, it cost the landlord $450,000. It’s just one example of how foolish people can be when they dig their toes in.
Before retirement, my law career was spent entirely with Wynyard Wood or its early predecessors, where I became a senior partner and senior litigation partner. A few years after I’d been there, the firm employed a young Len Brown who, even then, clearly showed signs of his political ambitions. He had a passion for the people of South Auckland and built up the practise in East Tamaki virtually single-handed because he was so active in the community. He resigned from the firm when he became Mayor of Manukau but, of course, he’s gone on to much bigger things since then.
My mother was in the habit of saying ‘there aren’t enough hours in the day for Joe’, and I still manage to keep myself pretty busy. I learned to play the organ at the seminary and although I know my musical talent is limited, I haven’t been fired from the Catholic Cathedral in Auckland yet. I’ve got a 1998 V8 Porsche in the garage which I maintain and Dad’s old 1948 Ellis Chalmers G tractor that needs restoring. I maintain a wine cellar – my favourite at the moment is a 2004 Mt Dottrel pinot noir – which, of course, I drink for medicinal purposes. I also like good food and if I had a signature dish, it would be chicken with crème fraiche and mustard, topped with bacon, tomatoes and tarragon. And just recently, I bought a 1250cc V-Rod Harley Davidson. A couple of other Rotarians have bikes so we’ve done a couple of weekend runs to Mangawhai for breakfast. I’m also enjoying getting better acquainted with my four grandchildren.
I think the lesson life has taught me was summoned up by Ghandi: ‘Before you seek revenge, dig two graves’. People need to let go of stuff and move on, rather than dwelling on getting even or getting revenge. Thankfully, the New Zealand culture isn’t a vengeful one; we’re a forgiving culture by and large with great community spirit. My Dad once remarked, after visiting Holland, that the whole business of emigrating had been a waste of time. That after Holland entered the EEC, the family would have been better off if we’d stayed put. But I never agreed with him. We have better working conditions, freedoms, open space and a much better climate, and NZ remains a country of opportunities – you can do whatever you want if you’re prepared to make the effort.