It is a nightmare from which she cannot awaken. When her husband died in January 1985, Southlander Nancy Trevathan’s grief was softened by a caring lawyer who would assist her in the legalities of the estate. There were assets to sort out, but there were bills as well. Two properties needed to be maintained through the process.
What followed was unconscionable. Eighteen months on little had been done by the estate lawyer Peter Galt of Invercargill. The real estate was left to deteriorate and the mortgage unpaid. Bank penalties grew geometrically. The assets of the estate became a financial burden for the widow as she struggled to survive financially.
The case against Mr Galt seemed clear. She engaged a lawyer, Kevin Phillips of Queenstown, who agreed this was a substantial case. She filed a complaint with the Southland District Law Society. It was a year later that the SDLS was asking Phillips to quantify his client’s losses.
Perfunctory letters were written, but little occurred in the way of progress. Though Mr Galt had represented he would reimburse losses, and SDLS had asked for these to be quantified by her new lawyer Phillips with urgency, Phillips failed to provide all that was needed, and the case dragged on for five years. During this time Mr Phillips persistently tried to get her to settle for less money, and consistently understated her financial losses. It seemed Mr Phillips was being obstructive, responding mostly when she resorted to complaining to the same Southland District Law Society, then the Otago District Law Society after his delay in getting the Case to Court which became his suggestion.
The stress was unbearable for the grieving widow who had now been let down by two lawyers. Though the damage claim Mr Phillips had filed on her behalf against Galt asked for $136,627. 41, including general damages, Phillips pressed her to accept a full and final settlement of firstly $3,000, then $10,000. She hired an accountant after she refused those offers. When her accountant asked him for details, Phillips suggested Ms Trevathan’s penalty interest on one property was $300 – a figure which was ridiculously understated and nothing like the $9,000 supported by the evidence Phillips had before him. Phillips was careful to note that his $300 figure was “out of the air”. Phillips had been on the case over two years by this point and had had several communications with the accountant involved.
As the case approached trial, Ms Trevathan was almost destitute. Although she signed a Legal Aid form in Phillips office a year before the trial, and believed she had been approved, Mr Phillips – according to her – threatened that she would not get legal aid for the trial and he would withdraw as counsel if she did not accept a $34,000 settlement offer made days before. This too appeared a deceptive tactic to pressure her into a settlement.
The trial proceeded after Mr Phillips gave his client the trial brief and his Accountant’s report done for Court, to review and prepare for, two days before they were due in Court. Overwhelmed, Ms Trevathan stayed up all night. Still she was unable to overcome much of what she saw as a case full of countless holes and mistakes. Phillips’ accountant had not quantified the losses as required for his Court report. The trial was a blur. She won, but only $37,098.86. In protest, she refused to accept this judgment sum after it was paid into court.
Trevathan expected a re-trial. This required a formal application. It appears Phillips did not advise her the Judgment had been sealed until it was too late for her appeal. The issue remains unaddressed.
For a woman with so much just a few years earlier, she had lost virtually everything through no fault of her own. On 11 November 1997, Ms Trevathan had a complete breakdown, entered Mr Phillips office and poured petrol on herself. Police were quickly called and intervened. She had reached a point beyond hope in her mind. Though her actions were extreme, her despair was not an uncommon experience for many who are subjected to protracted litigation in the New Zealand Courts. Her misery was deepened by the misfortune of dealing with two callous and dishonest lawyers over twelve years, without her husband, during the prime of her life. She had lost herself.
Though still haunted by the depravity of what she was subjected to, today she speaks with regret and embarrassment that it took her to such a low personal point. But she will never forget and fight against the injustice she was subjected to, particularly after Kevin Phillips was appointed a District Court Judge in Invercargill in 2006. She wonders whether there can ever be justice in such a system, and fears for those who innocently appear before Judge Phillips. ” The mental cruelty of that man over the years I really don’t think I will ever be able to put behind me”, she says.
She wants others to benefit from the knowledge of her horrid experience, and still holds expectations in the ideal that justice will be done. Though her case was never widely publicized she believes the letters of support she received from other people with similar experiences suggest this is a broad problem.
Ms Trevathan has documented her story on a website, www.justice.gen.nz