HB’s three largest councils – Hastings, Napier, Regional – together have spent $6.9 million on legal advice over the past three financial years (2021-23).

At each council, the top five firms receive 85% or more of this spend.

Here’s the breakdown of data BayBuzz received via an Official Information Act request.

Hastings District Council

Matthew Casey KC826,926
Rice Speir769,106
Bannister & von Dadelszen301,930
Kensington Swan146,462
Simpson Grierson123,259
Top 5 total2,167,683
Total HDC legal spend2,433,522
Top 5 percent of total spend 89%

Napier City Council

Wilson Harle1,220,853
Rice Speir795,788
Simpson Grierson257,264
Willis Legal253,534
Lawson Robinson66,754
Top 5 total2,594,193
Total NCC legal spend3,054,073
Top 5 percent of legal spend85%

HB Regional Council

Simpson Grierson874,589
Nicola Graham109,106
Sainsbury Logan108,497
Wynn Williams104,084
Paul Cooney46,040
Top 5 total1,242,316
Total HBRC legal spend1,389,924
Top 5 percent of legal spend89%

Clearly there are a few big fish and a couple dozen minnows in the business of advising and representing our councils. The top 10 firms swallow $5.9 million of the total, or 86% of the total, leaving less than a million for the bottom feeders. But it’s not unreasonable to imagine that representing councils is somewhat of a specialty, and firms that savour that work (never a lack of clients with five councils in the Bay) have built decades of relevant skills and close relationships. How many council situations calling for legal advice go out to tender?! 

So here are the top 10 firms commanding the HB market:

Rice Speir*1,564,894
Simpson Grierson*1,255,112
Wilson Harle*1,220,853
Matthew Casey KC*826,926
Bannister & von Dadelszen301,930
Willis Legal255,296
Kensington Swan*146,462
Lawson Robinson**112,456
Nicola Graham109,106
Sainsbury Logan108,497
Top 10 total 5,901,532

*Based outside HB
**Includes firm’s non-Top 5 HDC billings

Note that the biggest fish are national firms. The top four firms on the list above are out-of-towners, taking $4.9 million in legal fees, or 71% of all fees paid, out of Hawke’s Bay. Think of all the paper clips, stationery, BMWs and boats not being bought locally. These must be very special firms indeed.

My hunch is that when a council takes on a ‘local’ in a controversial matter, they hire an out-of-towner to avoid local relationship messiness. What local lawyer wants to clobber her brother-in-law for a council?

The councils varied widely in the detail provided as to what these legal fees paid for. 

In that regard, NCC gets the gold star, indicating the nature of work done by each firm – employment relations, property or commercial transactions, regulatory or bylaw enforcement, etc. For example, the entire NCC spend on Wilson Harle, $1.2 million, was for ‘insurance advice’; their next biggest chunk, $244,887, went to Rice Speir for ‘regulatory advice & disputes’.

HDC noted some of their firms’ specialties with a broader brush. Their legal kingfish, Matthew Casey, earned fees for ‘RMA work, public law advice, and public works matters’. Next in line Rice Speir earned their fees for ‘Building Act related matters, some RMA matters and some public law matters’.

So, is $6.9 million spent on lawyers over three years an alarming amount or a reasonable one? 

Our councils are big businesses after all, to a large degree engaged with the same ‘routine’ commercial issues and transactions as any large private sector businesses. Unfortunately, it’s hard to benchmark against what the large private companies spend comparatively on lawyers – the likes of PanPac, Bostock Ltd, HeinzWatties, WineWorks, Now, or even the likes of Unison or Napier Port, that have some public pedigree. Maybe some local execs or lawyers in the know will comment!

But our councils also engage in adversarial enforcement and consenting disputes, and RMA processes where they are pitted against local ratepayers, businesses and sector advocates. In those cases, councils would often have the upper hand in terms of legal resources (and patience), whether deployed fairly or otherwise. 

And we do hear instances of the latter, as with the infamous recent case of the HDC senior staff memo that referred to a “normal practice” of using legal stratagems to wear down the council’s antagonists. In this matter, the Ombudsman ‘cleared’ HDC after a complaint was filed, but declined to release the document, whose existence was first acknowledged by Councillor Damon Harvey (who was subsequently ‘demoted’) but initially denied by Council. Rice Spier represented HDC in the underlying dispute.

No doubt in those cases, whether councils are spending too much on legal help depends on which side of the table you are sitting!

Pulling together an article like this takes quite a bit of effort — chasing councils for the info, sorting the numbers, writing the piece. BayBuzz can only do it with your subscription or donation. We’re not nearly as rich as Newshub (gone), Stuff, or even HB Today! And unlike those, totally local. Please help us out.


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  1. it’s a piece of string. as you know Tom, often matters are highly complex and may be precedent-setting, in which case top-level legal advice is vital. the real question is, are the costs incurred to support a “bad” decision, or to defend the “public good”? one would hope the latter, but it’s nigh-on impossible to qualify or quantify that.
    however the other bit of this equation is monies spent to settle cases. unfortunately too often, due to enforcement budget constraints, a council may choose settlement rather than court to save money & time, even if the public good loses out, and i’d be surprised if you could identify such settlement amounts from their figures.

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