Story: Haigh, Frank Haydn

Page 1 - Biography

Haigh, Frank Haydn

1898–1992

Lawyer, social reformer

This biography was written by Bernard Brown and Judith Bassett and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Frank Haydn Haigh, born at Lower Hutt on 2 May 1898 and reared in Invercargill, brought radical liberal substance and style to the practice of law in Auckland over five decades. Registered at birth as Francis, he was the elder of twin sons of English-born William Haigh, a farmer and later bookseller, and his Irish wife, Mary Kelly; his twin brother died in infancy.

Haigh’s primary schooling was with the Dominican nuns in Invercargill and then at Southland Boys’ High School (1912–15). His lifelong love of books and an insatiable appetite for collecting them began in his father’s bookshop. He started work as a clerk in the Department of Lands and Survey in Wellington, then moved to the Public Trust Office, but his interest in the law led him to a junior law clerkship in the Wellington office of P. J. O’Regan. He studied law at Victoria University College between 1917 and 1925, representing the college at tennis and winning the Joynt Challenge Scroll debating competition in 1923. Preparation for debates aroused his interest in political and social issues.

Haigh moved to Auckland in 1926 and worked for the firm of Russell, Campbell and McVeagh. In 1928 he set up his own practice (which grew into Haigh, Charters and Carthy) as a barrister and solicitor, and soon became celebrated as a lawyer who was prepared to take hard cases and represent unions and other clients engaged in politically unpopular causes. Later, he was especially prominent in acting for the waterside workers during the 1951 waterfront dispute. His name became synonymous with civil liberties work: he was a founding member of the Citizens’ Association for Racial Equality, he was prominent in the cause of homosexual law reform, and he supported movements to protect the environment.

Haigh was formidably knowledgeable in the field of personal injuries litigation, which, with tribunal work, formed a substantial part of his practice. Because of his involvement in numerous licence applications and disputes, it was said that he virtually ran the Transport Licensing Authority. In litigation he was a tenacious fighter, famous for his absolute refusal ever to concede a point. In the courtroom he was no entertainer, but could win juries over by his theatrical contempt for the other side’s case, which he expressed with lugubrious sighs, braying laughter and much shuffling. It was said that while others might win on their feet, Haigh could win in his seat. While not all his contemporaries appreciated his courtroom tactics, and few shared his politics, he was widely respected for his grasp of the detail in any case he took, and was liked for his generosity with his time and expertise.

Unsurprisingly, a number of law clerks of similar political and social outlook were attracted to his service, including David Lange, a future prime minister, in the early 1960s. Haigh was a member of the New Zealand Howard League for Penal Reform, campaigned for workers’ compensation rights and applauded the Accident Compensation Act 1972. He remained active in practice until 1987 and was appointed an OBE for services to the community in 1990.

Frank and his wife, Annie Bridget (Honey) O’Connor, whom he married in Epsom on 20 December 1930, were important members of the Auckland intelligentsia of their day. They were generous hosts, both at their Torbay bach and their home at 76 Bell Road, Remuera. The house was designed by Vernon Brown in the early 1940s, and was a significant example of his style: Honey Haigh remembered that ‘year after year parties of architecture students came to see it’. Sunday lunch parties at Bell Road were a celebrated part of the Auckland cultural community. Both Haighs collected books, enjoyed music and the theatre, and bought pictures. Eric McCormick described ‘that little group of Aucklanders, presided over by Mr A. R. D. Fairburn, whose bodily ailments are diagnosed by Mr Douglas Robb, whose literary productions are printed by Mr R. W. Lowry, whose habitations are designed by Mr Vernon Brown, whose legal affairs are disentangled by Mr F. H. Haigh, whose persons and whose inner lives are portrayed in the fiction of Mr Frank Sargeson’. This was the circle among whom Haigh relaxed and to whom he was a generous friend.

Frank Haigh died aged 94 at Auckland Hospital on 17 July 1992, survived by Honey and two sons; a daughter had predeceased him. Haigh lived in three intellectual worlds – artistic, political and legal. As a patron and friend of artists, musicians and writers, a radical social activist and a legal reformer, he sought to leave each of these milieux better than he found it.