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Moe mai rā, Rocky: lawyers, judges, family and friends farewell Phil Recordon

12 Apr 2024

| Author: Reweti Kohere

Described as having a “touch of Peter Pan with a splash of maverick”, former District Court Judge Phil Recordon was farewelled in Auckland last weekend in a celebratory funeral service that highlighted how much his life had been a “testament to the power of loving others”.

Hundreds of people, including Chief Justice Dame Helen Winkelmann and other members of the judiciary, packed Holy Trinity Cathedral in Parnell to pay tribute to Recordon, who died on March 21 after a long illness. Opened by a karakia from Judge Sharyn Otene, the service was taken by Reverend Stan Thorburn, a former District Court judge, whose opening remarks typified Recordon’s sense of purpose over the nearly 76 years he lived.

“Phil’s life was a testament to the power of loving others. We are all here because we love Phil – but that’s because he loved us. He lived selflessly, dedicated to meeting the needs of others, seeking better lives for those under pressure and bringing hope and rescue to those daunted by despair,” Thorburn said, adding that he asked Recordon’s whānau what living with someone so full-on was like. “There was a one-word response: ‘relentless’.”

The pair became friends in the 1970s, with Recordon working for Thorburn in his law practice on Vulcan Lane. The men called each other “Smith and Jones – he was Smith and I was Jones”, the reverend said, the nicknames a nod to comedy duo Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones. Thorburn said he and Recordon never called each other by their correct names, even 50 years later when he visited the former judge in hospital. Recordon, surrounded by his family, “opened one eye and gruffly said, as he did, as he would, ‘Jones, what are you doing here?’”

Robustness characterised the pair’s relationship over matters of faith and religion. “We all know that Phil was not given to the language of religion or the rhetoric of faith. Cheap piety did not tumble out of his mouth. The language of his life was not in words he uttered, but in how he lived,” Thorburn said. “As a card[1]carrying Christian, I have found the way Phil lived a huge and uncomfortable challenge because in giving so much of himself to others, he was a living demonstration of the sacrificial love that is at the heart of the gospel – more so than me. Although he would not name it, I will: he revealed the love of God in action.”

‘I can’t speak French’

Born in Dundee, Scotland, on 3 April 1948, the second of three sons to David and Doris, Phil Recordon, or “Pip” as he was called, was brother Charles’ confidant for almost three-quarters of a century. Speaking for his other siblings, Roger and Sally, Charles Recordon said he and Phil liked the same things, “which included once the hilarious complication of liking the same girl. He knew and I didn’t”.

Home life was structured: in bed by 7pm with lights out 30 minutes later. Saturday mornings were for sport, Saturday afternoons were for movies at the cinema. Church and Bible class “without fail” every Sunday, followed by a family roast lunch and music in the evenings. “There were two violins, Philip and Mum were on the piano and Roger on the recorder. And Sally would be dancing,” Charles said.

Reminiscing about some of the antics they got up to as children, Charles said he and Phil, aged about 12 or 13, were summoned to the study by their father who demanded to know who had taken a “French letter” (condom) from the bathroom cabinet. The pair naively looked at each other, puzzled, “but quick as a flash, Philip’s retort was, ‘why would I? I can’t speak French’.”

Sport played a huge role in his brother’s life, Charles said, for there was not much he didn’t take part in: tennis, squash, marathons, golf, cricket and rugby, to name a few. A fortnight before he died, Phil had his last game of golf, with his friends helping him in and out of the golf cart, “obviously in a lot of pain, but he wouldn’t give up. Not at all”, Charles said.

Charles said his brother phoned him at work in mid-2003 to ask for his thoughts about his being considered for the bench. Phil didn’t think he could conform to the tight expectations that would be required of him. Charles’ reply was easy “because I just said, ‘you never do conform. Always managing to bend and stretch the rules, but you don’t break them’”.

Most loved

Speaking on behalf of his judicial colleagues, District Court Judge Jonathan Moses said those who appointed Recordon to the bench had no excuse for not knowing exactly what to expect from their new judge, who was always going to judge “with a real passion for community and for those people less fortunate than himself because that was where his heart was”.

Judge Moses said Recordon the lawyer would employ Māori and Pasifika lawyers, even if it meant pinching them from the Mangere Community Law Centre, which Moses and Justice Andrew Becroft founded. This same championing spirit continued on the bench as Recordon would “harangue” a line of Chief District Court Judges for more Māori and Pasifika appointments to the bench. “You won’t be surprised to hear that he eventually wore them down.”

No judge has been more loved by his colleagues, court staff, lawyers and, yes, most definitely defendants than Phil was, Judge Moses said. It wasn’t easy for his friend at the beginning of his judicial career though. “I could tell that he felt like a square peg in a round hole. It didn’t take him long, however, to feel more comfortable. And he did it not by changing his own shape, but by force of will and the courage of his convictions.

“It’s also fair to say that Phil took, at times, at least until he was found out and told to stop, a rather unorthodox approach to some aspects of judging. He’d carry a cup of coffee, usually in a tin camping mug, into court at the beginning of the day, and sipped on it as he pondered what to do. He was known on occasion to visit defendants he’d sentenced at their homes to see how they were getting on and when dealing with patients with mental illness, he’d sit down in front of the judge’s desk and ask patients to come and sit beside him when he talked to them.”

Recordon was well-known for driving a Volkswagen Kombi, which was towed out of the judges’ car park on at least one occasion by court security staff who mistakenly believed it belonged to a defendant. On another occasion, a new security officer “roundly abused the rather scruffily dressed driver of the said old Kombi”, asking him why he had parked in a place not meant for him. Recordon introduced himself and asked the security guard who he was, Judge Moses said, to which the officer replied, “‘My name is Gary and until 10 seconds ago, I used to have a job as a court security officer’”.

Recordon’s last words for his judicial colleagues were a reminder that all that they do is for the people they serve, Judge Moses said, citing the whakataukī He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tāngata. “For Phil, it was always about the people.”

Diamond in the snow

David Griffiths met Recordon on the St Kentigern’s cricket field in 1965 and the pair started a friendship that would last nearly 60 years. Griffiths said they always had a good time, from playing sports and arranging blind dates for each other to travelling together on their OEs in the early 1970s and remaining friends since.

Griffiths was there to see his friend, “in great form, smiling, happy, talkative”, play one last game of golf. At Recordon’s 60th birthday, Griffiths and a group of friends rewrote five verses of Bob Dylan’s song Blowin’ in the wind and sang it to him. One of the rewritten verses went: “How many ladies did Phil have to tame before he met his fiancé? Was it one, 10 or one hundred mademoiselles before that fateful mountain day. Yes, it was Geneviève, the fiery French starlet, who moulded Philip to her way. The answer, my friends, is Madeleine and Julia. The answer’s Jeanne and Seb.”

Of the “massive” blanket of warmth and inclusion that Recordon wove throughout his life, the “most beautifully and tenderly of all” these strands was his love for his whānau, Reverend Thorburn said.

Geneviève Recordon said a black stone stood at the entrance of Auckland Hospital. Every time she and Phil came for his treatment, he would touch it to draw strength. “Some call you ‘Rocky’. You were indeed my rock when you walked into my life in 1978. In the mountains of New Zealand, I knew I had found my diamond in the snow. Since then, together we have tramped, sailed and walked the path less trodden,” she said, adding that he fostered in their four children the need to give to others. “Our big and messy house was filled with so much fun and laughter from the children. But mostly you love people, radiating your profound humanity and sense of humour. He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata. You were truly loved by all who met you.”

Daugther Madeleine Recordon said her father “raged against the dying of the light” when he received his diagnosis two years ago. His family “bore witness with awe to his remarkable bravery, endurance and voracious appetite for life”. As much as he was courageous, Recordon’s superpower was to “love wholeheartedly, expansively and without ego, in a way which transcended boundaries,” she said. “He listened and he cared.”

‘Decolonising feminist’

Their father always made an effort to watch his children’s sports games, daughter Jeanne Recordon said. “We always looked and listened out for Dad’s Kombi pulling up and when we saw it drive into the car park, it inspired us to try our very, very best. He was so supportive of the entire team too, and made additional effort to know our teammates by name.” From his love of sports, they learned the values of commitment, determination, fun and team spirit. “Dad, you were my idol and you always laughed at my jokes. You made a few OK ones too.”

Born in July 1984, the year of the South Africa rugby tour court case, Julia Recordon recounted her father receiving a note in the Wellington courtroom from another lawyer involved in the case, Sian Elias (later to become Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias). The note read that he had a new baby girl. Back up at Auckland National Women’s Hospital, however, his newborn daughter and wife were being moved into an underground secure unit with bodyguards surrounding their room due to the threats against their family home. “My birth was in the newspaper and amongst the reporting of the case. I was coined ‘the tour baby’,” Julia said. “I lovingly gave Dad a hard time for not being at my birth, but we couldn’t have been prouder of him, growing up with a father who influenced the course of history by taking a stand against apartheid.”

Despite his enormous world outside the family home, Recordon was “fiercely committed” to his role as a father, doing the bedtime routines with his children every night and telling made-up stories of his own creation. “None of us can remember him ever raising his voice, getting mad or punishing us. Instead, he parented by example. He was firm, always fair,” Julia said.

Sebastien Recordon accompanied his father only a month ago as they set off on one of his extremely busy workdays: three lengthy meetings – one for his new job as District Inspector for Mental Health, another for the board of a professional body and the third for a mental health foundation – and calls made to people under the Mental Health Act. “His zest for life was unwavering. His resilience, too, was unmatched,” Sebastien said, adding the whānau was proud when a senior Māori member of the legal profession told them she considered their father “to be a decolonising feminist”. “How incredible for us children to know that he was so loved by you all.”

A maverick Peter Pan

Restorative Practices Aotearoa general manager Mike Hinton (Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Raukawa ki te Tonga) paid tribute to Recordon’s work in elevating restorative justice. When he first met the judge in the Waitākere District Court, Hinton watched in amazement the way Recordon, “glasses halfway down his nose, robe half on, pen tapping lip”, treated people with dignity, kindness and empathy and handed down firm sentences with compassion “and, maybe at times, remorse”.

And David Abbott, “one of Phil’s 1,000 best mates”, shared what made Recordon so unique: his “boundless” generosity. “I suspect there are few here today who’ve not received your support in some way: an introduction, a word in someone’s ear, time spent talking through a problem, just being there as you were for me”, Abbott said. “You were a free spirit with your own style, a love of whimsy and a master of the cryptic message. You had a touch of Peter Pan with a splash of maverick. Your impish smile was never far away.”

The last words of the service were Recordon’s. Holding onto everyone’s aroha, Recordon said he had had a “wonderful time” and while the end was “now and near”, he would remain with people long after he passed. “My family is obviously my starting point and my crucial point. You’ve all been so supportive, and I love you so much – all of you.” ■

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