The great man theory might be on the run in history but it flourishes still in the law where judges and silks are heroes and villains (or villains and heroes). In a world of Power Lists and Lawyers of the Year, we risk overlooking those whose roles do not come with pedestals.
Vicki McCall did not have a pedestal. She didn’t need one to be one of the most effective, knowledgeable, and kind administrative lawyers in the country.
As Crown Counsel she acted in high profile cases and advised the more coercive arms of the state. The cases were difficult and sensitive: the type where, for the Crown, any defeat required careful reflection and any success restraint and modesty. In this she was a role model and the embodiment of a Crown lawyer.
She held a deep, deep knowledge of constitutional and administrative law, and the Bill of Rights Act. I favour Smith over Joseph, but McCall surpassed them both. To that she also brought a litigator’s eye. “You’re going to need some evidence on that by the time you get to the section 5 analysis,” she once told me in response to hearing my theory of the case. I dutifully returned to edit my draft affidavits. You disregarded Vicki’s advice at your peril.
People, I think, underestimate the internal commitment of government to the rule of law. But that internal commitment exists only because of principled lawyers like Vicki: someone who felt deeply the responsibility of a Crown lawyer to see the Crown conducts itself lawfully. Find the fun where you can, but standards Will Not Slide. The hard work that required was met with a rolling up of the sleeves. And she matched her determination with a game ruefulness about Crown legal practice born of pummellings in the senior courts. Getting to learn from someone who handled difficult briefs so philosophically, I wondered whether I ever got the balance quite right. In a militant moment I once ventured to her that the Crown isn’t expected to be a punching bag. She replied with a deadpan that “Those are the words of someone who hasn’t appeared in the Court of Appeal very much.”
She was a mentor and a friend and I was not alone in benefitting from her guidance. Many will describe in similar terms her quiet support and kind words. A host of young Crown lawyers will be proud to tell you they learned from Vicki McCall. That same host mourns her now.
Her patience and kindness extended to always being available for a panicked phone call. Does constabulary independence mean the Solicitor-General can’t dictate the conduct of Police civil litigation? What sort of s 5 analysis do you need to do when the right already has an internal modifier? What’s the New Zealand equivalent of Miss Behavin’? I bet Vicki will know. She once called me to ask a question about some trivial corner of the law and I lunged for the chance to pay back a small part of the massive professional debt I owed her. When I left Crown Law I began working off the rest one coffee catch up at a time.
She had an up-to-date repository of pop-culture references and a sense of humour anchored in classic Simpsons lines. Privately she would describe dud decisions with a vocabulary both inventive and robust. She disfavoured air travel and would fly with an innocuous-looking Pump bottle that just might have been full of G&T. A hardcase for hard cases. You would have liked her.
From Rangitoto College, the University of Auckland, then clerking for McGrath J in the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. Harvard and giant American law firms. Then Russell McVeagh and Crown Law. More lay ahead. I wish I had been able to say this to her at her swearing-in one day. It would have been an honour to appear in front of McCall J.
We don’t need the great man theory in law. And most times if you get famous as a Crown lawyer you’ve probably done something very wrong. But we owe it to our best to share their stories and mark their passing. Vicki McCall was one of our best. My thoughts are with her family and friends. I will miss her very much.