New Zealand Law Society - Cathy Knight: Unwavering support and faithful service to the profession

Cathy Knight: Unwavering support and faithful service to the profession

The New Zealand Law Society Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa farewells Cathy Knight after 30 years of service.

With 30 years of unfailing commitment to the law profession in Nelson, The New Zealand Law Society Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa Nelson Branch Manager and Professional Standards Officer Cathy Knight has been a motherly figure to many Nelson lawyers. 

A Queen's Service Medal recipient in 2022 for her significant contribution to the community, Cathy’s journey with the Law Society is marked by her unwavering support and faithful service to the profession.

As Cathy retires on Friday, 15 December 2023, she shares her highlights, challenges and fond memories of a career with no regrets. 

Another administration job

The stock market crash in 1987 affected countless people’s livelihoods, and Cathy is no exception. After being made redundant from several corporate jobs in just three years, Cathy decided to set up her own secretarial business.

With little knowledge or connection to the law initially, the Nelson District Law Society was just another client to her. 

“The job market wasn't great after the share market crash, so I set up on my own doing public typing and secretarial work for whoever I could find.

“The then secretary of the Nelson District Law Society, Ian Smith who was also the coroner here, approached me. A client is a client, so I said yes,” Cathy says. 

Navigating a challenging start with three banana boxes of paper

Cathy’s Law Society journey began with a handover of three banana boxes full of paper, and coincided with the Renshaw Edwards defalcation in the 1990s. One of the largest frauds in New Zealand’s history, it created a gaping hole in the Lawyers Fidelity Fund, resulting in a heavy levy of $10,000 imposed on around 2,800 lawyers.

“That was an incredibly difficult time for the profession, and certainly a challenging start to a new job.

“For five years lots of lawyers had to pay $2,000 towards the fund each year, and that was invoiced at the same time as the practising certificate in January – the worst time of the year to be sending people huge bills!”

Closer to home, Cathy navigated another defalcation in 1999, committed this time by a Nelson practitioner.

“He's the only Nelson practitioner who has got a red line through his name on the register of the High Court, and ended up going to prison.

“It was a considerable amount of work to communicate with his clients, close the practice and sort out the files. It would have been more difficult than it already was without the help of the local profession generally, and in particular several senior lawyers who stepped up to help handle the aftermath, as well as our librarian for her assistance behind the scenes.

“It was frankly a nightmare, but we got through it. Again, it was a sad time for the profession because it was not a good public relations exercise.”  

Beyond the Maungatapu 

Amongst Cathy’s numerous highlights at the Law Society, the publication of Beyond the Maungatapu in 2005 is at the top of the rank. The book documents the history of the Nelson District Law Society and the legal profession of the Nelson district from 1842 to 2000.

Beyond the Maungatapu takes you on a time machine to witness the highs and lows, and exposes you to the thoughts and considerations behind some crucial events in Nelson at the time.

“The book was commissioned for the centenary of the Nelson District Law Society in 1985, but fell into a black hole and languished for many years.
“I ‘inherited’ the draft and made it a goal for myself to complete the project. With the help of a small, extremely focused, hardworking and determined team, it was an incredibly satisfying moment when it was finished and published. I'm very proud of that book.

As the book concluded, “Knowledge of the past must be the platform from which a course into the future can be charted.” 

30 years in the Navy

Beneath Cathy’s warm smile and gentle appearance lives a girl who doesn’t give into the perceived limitations set by others. Cathy devoted 30 years of her life to the Navy until last year, but was once told that she wasn’t fit for the job.

“I wanted to join the Navy when I was at college but a career advisor told me that I didn’t have the right skills for it. The discouragement did deepen my desire to join the Navy even more!

“Back then, women were shore based. I was a shorthand typist based in Auckland; my day-to-day work was at the desk typing and taking notes. We still had to go through the standard military training though, including how to march and salute, the 24-hour clock and the phonetic alphabet.

“I loved the whole environment of the Navy, and I loved living in a hostel with lots of other girls. We had a lot of fun.”

Cathy laying a wreath on behalf of Nelson City at Chunuk Bair in 2015.

Cathy served for five years in the Women's Royal New Zealand Naval Service (WRNZNS) and came back to Nelson in 1979. But her Navy involvement did not end there.

“About the same time when I started with the Nelson District Law Society I got asked if I would be the Regional Naval Officer for Nelson, which at that stage was an honorary role.

“I became the Regional Naval Officer for Nelson in 1993, undertaking liaison work for ship visits and organisations such as Nelson City Council, Port Nelson Ltd, the Returned and Services’ Association (RSA) and the New Zealand Cadet Force Units.” 

On the Anzac Day last year Cathy represented the Royal New Zealand Navy and was guest speaker at both the Motueka and Ngātīmoti dawn services (a small rural area not far from where Cathy lives). Cathy notes that the first New Zealand casualty of World War I came from Ngātīmoti.

Cathy retired from her naval duties after Anzac Day in 2022. 

Marching to the same tune

Being part of the law profession was certainly not Cathy’s intended career path.

“It was never really a thing for me to be involved in the law. We don't have a university in Nelson, so it's not something I could have studied without going away.”

Despite a few bumps at the start, the local practitioners and friendships she has formed with them have kept Cathy in the role for three decades.

“Over the years I’ve developed a lot of friendships within the local profession. We're all marching to the same tune with the best interests of the profession at heart. 

“Being on the administration side of things means that I’m powerless in the sense that I can only provide a listening ear to people and help where I can. People know I’m a closed book and can trust me with their thoughts and concerns."

The admission ceremonies are always of high priority in Cathy’s work calendar. 

“It’s a privilege to be able to welcome fresh graduates into the profession, help them through the admission process and watch them develop in their law career if they decide to stay in Nelson. 

“Working in a smaller branch means that I have a smaller cohort for the admission ceremonies and can spend more time and energy on each of them.
“I've liked providing that motherly (or perhaps after all this time grandmotherly) oversight to the local practitioners and I will miss that.”

The Nelson law profession has tripled in size from 70 to 210 lawyers during Cathy’s tenure. 

Awarded the Queen's Service Medal

Cathy was awarded a Queen’s Service Medal in the 2022 New Year Honours for her services to the community in Nelson. The award citation revealed the scale of Cathy’s involvement with the local community, which many of her colleagues did not know about.

“That was a real honour and a huge surprise because there are so many people deserving of recognition and who I would have thought to be further up the list than me for recognition.

“I don’t know how it happened. I got an email one day from the Department of the Prime Minster and Cabinet (DPMC) asking if I would accept the honour. I was gobsmacked, but I couldn't tell anybody for about four months – I only told my husband. When I woke up on the first of January, here it was.”

The investiture ceremony was held under COVID-19 restrictions with all the attendees having to wear a mask. Nevertheless, Cathy thoroughly enjoyed the occasion. With the certificate signed by the late Queen Elizabeth II on the wall right behind her desk in the office, Cathy said it was a truly special moment.

“It was a really lovely time receiving the award in the Government House – the beautifully-dressed ballroom, marvellous morning tea, conversing with the Governor-General, and all the pomp and circumstance that went with it.

“I'm much better at giving praise than accepting it myself. I've received some lovely and beautiful messages from so many people. I printed it all off and put it in a file so I can be reminded of all the wonderful memories and precious relationships.”

A decision for the loved ones

Cathy’s decision to retire was born from her love for her husband Don, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease four years ago when he started losing his balance and falling over occasionally.

“Parkinson's disease itself is not a terminal illness and can affect people differently. Don was incredibly hands-on, together we’ve built three houses. It is extremely frustrating for him as he can no longer pick up a hammer and fix things.

“Although Don is very frail now and has compromised mobility, his brain remains sharp. He has always supported me through everything I’ve done, so now it’s my turn to support him.

“And yes, it’s not what we planned for our retirement years. We had plans to travel regularly to Australia to see the kids and grandkids, but travel is not easy when you can’t walk more than three steps.

Cathy and Don with their Australian grandies at Papamoa Beach in March 2023.

“We’ve got a lot of help from our family and health professionals, but I just want to be there more than I am at the moment.”

While Cathy will retire from her roles at the Law Society on Friday, 15 December, she will continue to serve the community in her capacity as a Justice of the Peace and Judicial Justice of the Peace along with other volunteer work. 

In the meantime, she will watch the law profession from a distance with interest. “Hopefully I won't read too much about it in the paper,” she chuckles.

An avid gardener, Cathy is looking forward to spending more time outdoors. In her spare time she also plays the violin in a small community orchestra, motivated purely by the sheer enjoyment of the practise. Cathy learned violin from a young age but gave it up many years ago as other interests took over. 

“I haven’t had a violin lesson for years but it’s one of those things that I’d like to pick up again in the future.”

“Grab life with both hands”

As Cathy approaches retirement, she advises the younger generations to grab life with both hands and make the most of every opportunity.

“If things don’t work well, pick yourself up and be glad that you’ve followed your instinct and tried it.

“If you’ve decided that the opportunity is not for you, just move on – at least you’ve got the satisfaction of knowing you’ve given it a try and saved yourself from the thoughts of ‘what ifs’.

“Especially when you get to the other end where I am now, it’s important that you’re able to look back with no regrets.”

Left to right: Katie Rusbatch, Bronwyn Jones, Cathy Knight, Shonagh Matheson and Hamish Fletcher at Cathy's farewell function in Nelson on 17 November 2023.

Cathy’s warmth and devotion to the Law Society and the legal profession in Nelson are invaluable and incomparable. We know Cathy will continue to shine her light and have a lasting impact on those who are lucky enough to cross paths with her.

We extend our immense gratitude to Cathy for her relentless service and toDon for his support of Cathy, so that the Law Society could share the past 30 years with her. We wish them both all the very best for the future and many more happy moments to come.

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