Rt Hon Francis Duncan O’Flynn QC, 1918 - 2003

Former Labour Party Defence Minister Frank O’Flynn QC, BA, LLB, LLM, died on 18 October 2003 aged 84.

Instrumental in developing New Zealand’s nuclear-free policies, Mr O’Flynn was also the first (and only) lawyer to sue National Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon successfully on behalf of a client – Mr Muldoon (as he was then) was forced to pay out $5,000 for defaming Mr O’Flynn’s client Brian Brooks (who later became a Professor of Law at Victoria University).

His reputation as one of New Zealand’s leading advocates in the 1950s and 1960s was enhanced when he represented 126 survivors and families of victims in the Wahine ferry disaster inquiry held in June 1968. He was made a Queen’s Counsel in 1968 and served as a Member of Parliament from 1972-87.

Frank O’Flynn was born in Greymouth on 24 October 1918, the son of the Hon Francis Edward O’Flynn MLC and Margaret Helen Valentine Duncan. He was educated at Christchurch Normal District High School (1931) and Christchurch Boys’ High School (1932-35).

On leaving school he was employed as a clerk by the Education Department in Wellington and attended Victoria University College part-time. In 1939 he became a clerk to the Wellington Labourers’ Union Secretary and completed a BA in 1940. Further study was interrupted by the Second World War and he joined the RNZAF in 1942, serving in the Pacific and attaining the rank of Flight Lieutenant.

He married Sylvia Elizabeth Hefford in 1942 and they had four children: Maeve, Terence, Rosaleen and Brigid.

At the end of the war Frank O’Flynn was employed as a law clerk in the Wellington firm O’Regan and Arndt. He continued to study law and completed an LLB in 1947 and LLM in 1948. Leaving O’Regan and Arndt in 1954, he practised in Wellington as a barrister and solicitor until 1968 when he was made a Queen’s Counsel and practised as such until 1972.

As one of New Zealand’s most prominent QCs Mr O’Flynn was renowned for his advocacy and willingness to take on the establishment of the time. Accident compensation expert Don Rennie remembers his time with Frank O’Flynn as he started establishing his reputation:

“In 1957 I was the first law clerk employed by Frank O’Flynn (Sir Geoffrey Palmer was Frank’s next law clerk). Frank, who was a sole practitioner at the time, had practised in the firm of O’Regan and Arndt and did a lot of work for various unions. Like Harry Arndt, he was a plaintiff’s advocate and worked tirelessly for injured workers. I can recall many occasions attending at worksites in freezing works, abattoirs, and other places looking at unguarded machinery and dangerous premises or practices and interviewing witnesses in preparation for civil jury trials.” (Law Stories, LexisNexis, Wellington 2003, page 136).

The Brooks v Muldoon [1973] 1 NZLR 1 trial before Haslam J in 1972 was one of Frank O’Flynn’s highpoints at the bar as a fascinated country followed the outcome of remarks made by Robert Muldoon in a popular TV current affairs programme called “Gallery”. Mr O’Flynn conducted a lengthy cross-examination of the defendant.

Not long after the Brooks v Muldoon trial, Mr O’Flynn joined Robert Muldoon in the House of Representatives debating chamber. In the 1972 General Election he successfully stood as Labour candidate for the Kapiti parliamentary seat. After serving one term he was defeated in the 1975 election. In the three years until the next election, he returned to law and also became editor of the New Zealand Law Reports. Standing for Labour in the safe Island Bay seat in 1978, he was successful and remained in Parliament until 1987.

With the election of Labour to Government in 1984, Mr O’Flynn was appointed to Cabinet and held a number of ministerial posts: Minister of State, Minister of Defence, Minister in charge of War Pensions, Minister in charge of Rehabilitation, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and Associate Minister of Overseas Trade and Marketing.

As Minister of Defence he was closely involved in developing New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy, which resulted in our expulsion from the ANZUS alliance. During the period from 1984 to 1987 he was required to defend New Zealand’s policy against strong criticism from the United States and Australia. This he did with pride and force, describing a meeting in Malaysia in 1985 with US Secretary of State George Shultz as follows: “I quite liked Shultz but after a photo opportunity at the beginning of our talks, he proceeded to deliver an oration in a monotone, lambasting New Zealand. After some thought, I decided to reply in kind. There was no meeting of minds at all. We got absolutely nowhere.” (Press, 25 October 2003).

Mr O’Flynn retired from Parliament in 1987 when health issues decided him against standing for re-election. He suffered a stroke – from which he later recovered – and in a sad irony given his reputation as a distinguished orator, his valedictory speech was read to Parliament by Mike Moore. Mr Moore ended with a fitting tribute to Frank O’Flynn QC: “He is learned, he is distinguished, he is gallant and he is honourable”.

By Geoff Adlam, New Zealand Law Society.