Up in the lift

Alumni — By on May 26, 2016 2:01 pm

Alumna Lady Deborah Chambers QC has made a significant contribution to the evolution of relationship property and trusts law in New Zealand. Tess Redgrave charts her career.

In February 1978 a young woman called Deb Tohill from Glenfield rocked up to the University of Auckland to enrol for a law degree. If she stood out in any way, it was probably because she was wearing a pair of hand-painted, green roman sandals with the backs cut off and a ripped white blouse bought at Cook Street markets, which she thought was “very cool”.

The first in her immediate family to go to university, the young Deb was only in that enrolment line because “sick of the petty rules” at Carmel Catholic Girls College on the North Shore, she and a friend had wagged school for a day and managed, against their parents’ wishes, to get themselves enrolled at the hip, alternative Auckland Metropolitan College.

“It really opened my horizons,” says Deb. “It was teachers there who said to me: ‘Go to university’”.

Soon the roman sandals were replaced with a scooter and a punk haircut and the young Deb was immersing herself in student politics. She spent a year as the Women’s Rights Officer on the Student Union executive; was President of University Feminists; was on the Law School’s Student Committee; and during the 1981 SpringBok tour marched up and down Queen Street every week, attended weekend rallies and lapped up protest speeches on campus.

“And I would do it all again,” she says.

“I hated Muldoon being in power and I became much more aware of Māori issues during the tour.”

Zoom forward 35-odd years and that committed young hippy protester still exists – she is just working, and dressing, at another level.

Lady Deborah Chambers QC, as her title is now, is one of New Zealand’s leading trust litigation and relationship property lawyers.

She has steered some of our most contentious divorce cases through the courts, putting forward pioneering arguments that have changed our legal landscape.

She is also renowned for dealing with rich-listers where millions of divorce dollars are at stake. For her efforts she is sometimes given the moniker “Divorce Queen” or the less flattering “Deb Shark,” in reference to the fact her clients are said to pay $1,000 per hour.

In online publication Law Fuel, Deb is ranked 34 among New Zealand’s 50 most powerful and influential lawyers and is praised for “rising to the top of her profession, earning respect and privilege, without forgetting her origins or sense of a commitment to justice”.

As well as her court work, she writes opinion pieces in the NZ Herald, often taking up the cause of women’s equity. She is a member and past president of the Auckland Women Lawyers Association, is a member of the Law School’s Innovation and Development Fund Campaign Committee and continues to be fiercely loyal and supportive to her alma mater. “Law School made a huge difference to my life,” she says. “It was like I got in a lift and up I went. It was social mobility.

“I’ve had a much more interesting and a much more privileged life as a result of getting that Law degree so I am very keen it remains a top school and that you can succeed there whether you are from Otara or Takapuna.”

I too have come up in the lift to the 22nd floor of the Lumley Building rising above Auckland’s Shortland Street. Here Deb’s magnificent office embraces Tāmaki Makaurau’s shimmering harbour. Deb sits opposite me at her polished oval table. She is dressed in a smart grey trouser suit and fawn shirt, a Louis Vuitton bracelet shiny on her wrist, her long, now-blonde silky hair tamed around her shoulders. Soon we are laughing about a photo of her dressed as Madonna for the 2014 Law School Reunion Dinner (she was the reunion’s chairperson). “I do admire Madonna in many ways,” she laughs.

Before we can get down to business her phone “woofs”. “Hello gorgeous,” she says, speaking briefly to her daughter Zelda who is 21. Zelda is in her last year of an engineering degree at Auckland and is living at home in Remuera. Deb’s other daughter Caitlin from her first marriage to Charles Hollings is in her second year as a judge’s clerk in Auckland High Court. There are also two stepsons from Deb’s second marriage to Supreme Court Judge Sir Rob Chambers and readers will know she has been under the spotlight herself in court recently with one challenging the terms of his inheritance.

But we don’t talk about that, we talk about Rob, an esteemed judge and University alumnus who died suddenly three years ago, aged 59, of a brain aneurism. They “loved each other utterly” Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias said in a public tribute to Rob.

“It’s been two and half years of greyness,” Deb tells me.

She has done many things to ease her way through the grief: wore black for a year; went to a cognitive therapist because she kept replaying over and over in her mind that moment she got the catastrophic news; redecorated her office. Now she is honouring him by funding the establishment of a mooting competition at the Law School, named in his memory.

“A wonderful opportunity for our first-year students to learn more about courtroom advocacy in an area in which Lady Deborah and Sir Robert both excelled,” says Law School Dean Professor Andrew Stockley.

Deb Tohill graduated from the University with a conjoint degree in Arts and Law in 1983. She worked as a general civil lawyer and then did criminal prosecution work both in New Zealand and in Scotland. When she married Charles Hollings in 1986 she continued to work as she brought up their two children, sometimes working from home, getting help from her mother and employing an au pair.

“Law careers are still based on men who physically don’t have babies,” she comments. “The dropout rate for women five years in from graduation is huge.”

Sometimes she pops up to the Law School and lectures on this topic: “My advice to young women lawyers is ‘you can do it … you just have to do things differently. And you have to plan.’”

In 1996 Deb began to specialise in relationship and property law, her background in criminal prosecution proving invaluable when she needed to be adversarial and cross-examine, and her civil background helping her understand companies, trusts and evaluation evidence – often key components of the complex divorce cases she was taking on.

As her work in relationship and property law developed, she found herself acting for traditional wives who, despite supposed equality under the 1976 Matrimonial Property Act, were being plunged into poverty after divorce because they were left with a much diminished earning capacity.

“Two of the cases I am proudest of are Z v Z and M v B,” she tells me. “Both were about traditional wives whose husbands were highly successful professionals who were keeping their earning capacity, which was enormous, and if the wives only got half of the existing assets, they were being plunged off into poverty. You have to have a pretty big sum of capital before you can live on that. For a long time, for traditional wives in marriages that led to divorce, it was just a disaster. And to some extent it still is because if a husband and wife agree that the wife will stay at home, and run the domestic side of things, when they separate the economic consequences fall entirely on the wife’s shoulders.”

In both Z v Z and M v B, Deb argued that enhanced earning capacity by one partner in the marriage should be recognised as property and divided equally. At the time this helped secure her funds for her clients. But her arguments had a much bigger impact, going on to fuel changes to the Property Relationships Act in 2001 to include earning capacity provisions.

“With Z & Z, Deb ignited the conversation around the definition of property and whether it should properly be extended to include other types of property like, enhanced earning capacity,” says Barrister Ross Knight, who was counsel for the husband in Z v Z. “That work has had a profound impact over the last 20 years on the development of relationship property law.”

Family Court Judge Tony Lendrum, who in the past was counsel opposing Deb in Family and High Court cases, says that she stands out in her Family Law practice for “always pushing for decisions based on true gender equality division”.

In 2007 Deb became a Queen’s Counsel. That same year she joined Bankside Chambers which was founded in 1990 and is today home to 28 barristers, including 12 Queen’s Counsel. The biggest case she has run since and just won in the Supreme Court is the very public eight-year wrangle to divide the $28 million estate between Melanie and Mark Clayton. In March, the Supreme Court ruled in the appellant’s favour accepting Deb’s arguments that personal powers within a trust can be property and should be divided.

“I put my heart and soul into that case,” she says. “A lot of property that should’ve been relationship property went into trusts, which the husband was running. This is an area generally that has lead to serious unfairness for women.”

It is early days post Clayton v Clayton. Ross Knight, who is reporting on the case for the Law Society’s LawTalk, predicts the result will change the landscape of trust law in New Zealand.

“Clayton v Clayton offers now a methodology for valuing personally held powers (of a spouse) in a trust deed,” says Ross. “In my view this decision further pushes the boundary of what is (relationship) property.”

“Women should be very careful about losing their earning capacity,” says Deb. “I always say maybe take up to five years out to have children but absolutely no more … because unless you’re really loaded you could just get hammered financially when a husband walks out or dies. And then you’ve got no security whatsoever.”

But while 60 percent of Deb’s clients are women she sees a lot of men in her work. “They may want the best deal they can get and that’s my job as well. Often men are having problems maintaining relationships with their children. Wives, partners are blocking them. And that’s sad and terrible. Often he’s got the cheque book and she has the kids.”

So what has all this taught her about marriage?

“I started off by saying to clients ‘look, try and make your marriage work’ but as life has trotted along I’ve realised this was ridiculous. I had all these people coming along saying ‘I am so much happier, my only regret is I should have left him five years earlier’ and that they’d stayed in too long and it had got bitter, twisted and nasty and horrible. So now I’m much more — and I suppose with Robsy dying — more likely to say ‘Look if you’re not happy life’s too short, get on and get divorced. Do it as amicably as possible, do it in a way that doesn’t destroy your relationships and your children’…” “People come in here and they reveal their life to you. They rapidly give you their financial, emotional and sexual history.” She laughs heartily as she has often throughout our interview. “It’s very interesting hearing the way people live their lives and how they’ve done it. I enjoy that very, very much.”

It’s a bright late summer’s evening as Deb and I finish talking. We stand up and go to one of her windows. “Look there,” she points, “the Wednesday night races are getting underway.” We watch sails fanning out towards the wind on the water below. And then Deborah Chambers QC is accompanying me out through her office and reception area and down the corridor to where the lift is waiting.



  1. Gillian Lander says:

    I am again amazed that an educated magazine (as opposed to pulp rags)can misunderstand the use of titles. NZ Womens Weekly no doubt has the updates on the activities of Lady Sarah Ferguson/aka the Duchess of York and her ilk. We have few in New Zealand with inherited titles (plus a listing in Brett’s Peerage)and those few I know actually run by Mr/Mrs… Those whose lifetime-only titles are earned by their spouses for “good works” have to go without if they are men. If they are women they are known as Lady Blank. Not Lady Firstname Blank. That bespeaks an inherited title. The kids get no title. So, Lady Chambers is the daughter of ordinary working folk, Mr & Mrs Hollings of outer Glenfield. Dad is not a baronet or marquis. She has found a good living in the serial monogamy of millionaires row.

  2. John Cox says:

    An interesting article. However I must pull you up on one thing. You say “Lady Deborah Chambers QC, as her title is now”. This is incorrect. The correct title is “Deborah Lady Chambers QC”.

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