Sir Bruce Houlton Slane KNZM, CBE, LLB practiced law in New Zealand for almost 50 years, including 11 years as the country’s first Privacy Commissioner.
Sir Bruce won many admirers in New Zealand and abroad for his work as Privacy Commissioner. He played a major role in drafting the legislation which established the office from scratch.
Born in 1931, Sir Bruce was educated at Takapuna Grammar School, later graduating with a law degree from Auckland University College.
In 1957, he became a partner in the firm that was to become Cairns Slane Fitzgerald and Phillips. He recognised early on that the law profession needed to do a better job at promoting itself and responding to public enquiries and criticisms. This awareness led Sir Bruce to take on the public relations functions at the Auckland District Law Society. He established the society’s Northern Law News newsletter and edited it for 13 years from 1967 to 1980. Sir Bruce’s “gregarious and affable character helped him to win the confidence of many journalists and the profession’s image was polished as a result”, Graham Wear noted in the Auckland District Law Society book, It Was All Legal.
Sir Bruce’s relationship with the news media resulted in part time roles as a radio commentator on 1ZB and a newspaper columnist on privacy matters. His radio career was at a time when the Law Society prohibited lawyers from advertising themselves. He was known to listeners by the pseudonym “Bruce Christopher”. Later, he was to become chairman of the Broadcasting Tribunal for the entirety of the organisation’s 12 year life.
Sir Bruce remained a partner at Cairns Slane Fitzgerald and Phillips until his appointment as Privacy Commissioner in 1992. He was also a Human Rights Commissioner from 1992 to 2001. He also served as president of the Auckland District Law Society - twice - and president of the New Zealand Law Society - three times.
The law was one of Sir Bruce’s four main interests in life. Apart from his three children and grandchildren, including his cartoonist son Chris, he had a deep interest and engagement with communications and current affairs. In 1989, he was presented with a special award at the radio industry awards “in recognition of an outstanding contribution to radio in New Zealand”. In 1993, he was named communicator of the year by the Public Relations Institute.
He held various official posts at the International Bar Association, and in 2007 was granted an Honorary Life Membership of that organisation.
Sir Bruce was also active in the business world, holding directorships on various company boards including deputy chairman of the Countrywide Building Society for five years.
In 1985, Sir Bruce received a CBE and in 2003 was appointed a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (DCNZM). In 2009, Sir Bruce was knighted for services to personal and human rights.
Even in retirement, Sir Bruce remained accessible to the news media and was active in challenging misreporting. Until recently, he was a regular guest on RNZ afternoon programme The Panel. On one earlier occasion, he challenged the Sunday News about an inaccuracy. As a result, he secured a weekly Privacy Matters column.
He also remained an activist, as recently as 2010 lending his name to a campaign to retain New Zealand rural land in New Zealand ownership.
His many friends and former colleagues can relate that the qualities that characterised him were his wry sense of humour, keen sense of a good story, enthusiasm for the law, insatiable appetite for news and current affairs and an enduring concern that legal redress should be available to ordinary people.
Sir Bruce Slane is survived by his children, Peter, Chris and Judith, and seven grandchildren.
Image credit: Portrait of my Grandfather by Henry Christian-Slane.