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BusinessMay 17, 2024

Milking it: The man behind New Zealand’s weirdest legal cases

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From illegal milk to sprinkler bans and airplane ticket scams, Tyrone Barugh is on a one-man mission through New Zealand’s most obscure legal loopholes.

I’m deep undercover, investigating Wellington’s criminal underworld. Inside this store, I’ve been told there is a million-dollar trade in illicit substances. A man dressed in black nods at me as I enter. I’m wearing a hoodie and a mask to hide my face. I take some deep breaths and try to control my racing heart. I walk quickly, but not too quickly, across the vinyl floor to find what I came for. I pay with cash, keeping my voice low and the conversation short. I feel a pang of guilt for breaking the law, but I know for the sake of journalism I had to prove what was happening. 

Back outside on the street, I can barely believe what I’m holding in my hands. It’s meant to be illegal to sell anywhere in Wellington. I’ve just purchased one litre of skim milk from Thorndon New World. 

Across the road from the supermarket, Tyrone Barugh greets me at the office of Spilt Milk Law. It’s not what you’d expect from a central Wellington law firm – no glittering glass walls or oak bookcases filled with leather-bound volumes. The office is the size of a large wardrobe, with a single wooden desk and plain off-white walls. The polite way to describe it would be minimalist. “It’s pretty depressingly undecorated,” Barugh says. “It’s a terrible, terrible office, but it’s very cheap.”

The founder, managing director and only employee of the firm, Barugh is wearing a pink slim-fit suit, with non-matching green and orange socks sticking out the bottom of his trousers. His hair is an unkempt mane of curly brown, paired with a slug of a moustache that belongs on a 1980s cricketer. If the Alternative Commentary Collective had an in-house lawyer, it would be him.  He looks like he’s playing a character – and maybe he is. 

Barugh is the man behind some of New Zealand’s strangest legal crusades. Most recently, he made international headlines for his scheme to book and cancel 58 Jetstar flights as part of a return-for-free special, then claim back NZ$3,540 in Australian passenger movement charges, a tax included in the ticket price of flights out of Australia. (He previously tried to goad the Australian government into arresting him for not paying the charge.) He’s become a TikTok personality for his videos offering obscure and sometimes morally questionable legal advice. For example: Provided you’re over the age of 20, it’s perfectly legal to enjoy a beer while driving a car, as long as you aren’t over the limit or driving in an alcohol-ban zone. It’s probably not illegal to stowaway on the InterIslander ferry. Buying cream chargers (nangs) from your local dairy is less legally risky than most drugs, but not risk-free.  

He’s built a small but passionate following of fellow lawyers who follow along with his eccentric cases – but not everyone feels the same way. One email he received after the Jetstar scheme, read: “You’re a disgrace, not just to the legal profession, but to humanity as a whole.”  

The case that put Barugh on the map in the world of legal light entertainment was his attempt to enforce the all-but-forgotten Wellington Milk Supply Act 1919. It began when Barugh was on “a stupid quest to read all of the law….I realised pretty quickly it was an impossible endeavour, and really fucking boring. There’s just too many of them. So I said I’m at least going to read the names of every single statute in New Zealand. I had a few beers and made it down to “W” when I saw it: Wellington City Milk Supply Act 1919. What the fuck is this?”

Tyrone Barugh supping on some illegal Wellington milk. Photo: Joel MacManus

The law, which has never been repealed, grants Wellington City Council a legal monopoly over all milk in the city. Any business that wants to supply milk in Wellington needs a license from the council. The law also makes it illegal to sell or possess skim milk within the city boundaries. Back in 1919, there were concerns about health problems from dodgy milk suppliers, so this was a way to regulate the market. In the century since, the milk industry has changed, but the law hasn’t.

“There’s illegal milk everywhere,” Barugh says. He wrote to New World, Moore Wilsons, and the Shalimar Four Square to inform them their milk was in flagrant breach of the law. “I was like ‘I’m going to shut you down’… I got no response.” Then, he applied for a licence to supply milk. The plan was to open a pop-up milkbar with milk-based cocktails, and promote it as the only legal milk in town. Council staff informed him they no longer give licenses for milk. In their view, the law had been “deprecated”. 

“That’s not even a legal term,” Barugh says. “The only time I’ve ever heard people say shit has been deprecated is software engineers talking about old code.” Laws can be “impliedly repealed” if parliament passes a new act covering the same issue, but Barugh didn’t think that was the case here. He filed for a bespoke appeal at the High Court demanding the council give him a milk license. Victoria University law professor Dean Knight wrote in support of his argument. 

The case hit a wall when the council threatened to go after him for legal costs, something Barugh wasn’t willing to risk for the sake of a laugh. He struck a deal in settlement that the council would write to the relevant minister and ask for the law to be repealed – but so far, it hasn’t happened. The Wellington City Milk Supply Act is still on the books, and the capital is still flooded with illegal milk. 

When I ask what motivated him to take on such an obscure and frankly pointless mission, he adopts an unusually serious tone. “I thought it was an important fight to take for rule of law purposes. It’s important that people know what the law says, and can trust that when laws are no longer fit for purpose, there is good regulatory stewardship to make sure that those laws are taken off the books.” Then, he’s back in his casual voice: “Yeah, something like that. And I thought it was pretty funny. It would be hilarious to sell milk. Some melange of all those things.”

Barugh keeps doing this. He pitches himself as a laissez-faire jokester, but there is an underlying sincerity. He’s clearly leaning into his blokey, semi-ironic TikTok persona for me as we chat. Is he playing a character, or is this his real personality? “I think most of it’s me. It’s me outside of work more than me in work mode. If I’m having a work conversation, I have a very professional, very measured tone. I sound like some sort of private school dickhead.”

When I ask about his previous work as in-house government lawyer, he speaks highly of it. “It was a chance to do really meaningful work and to support colleagues who are really trying very hard to make New Zealand a better place. I say a lot of insincere, jokey things, but I feel that pretty strongly.” 

In his TikTok videos, he uses the tagline “I’m a very good lawyer”. It sounds sarcastic, but it isn’t. He is undeniably highly qualified, experienced, and good at spotting angles no one else has noticed. “I enjoy the obscure, and the unusual, and I probably take more pleasure than I should from when things don’t work in the way they were intended to work.” He says that comes partly from a place of cynicism. “I know that people cut corners doing this sort of work.” 

Outside of work, he’s involved with effective altruism, a movement focused on doing good in the most mathematically effective ways possible. Within his work, he has strong views about inequality and access to justice in the legal system. “I care. But equally, I just see the funny side of things,” he says. 

When he talks about Spilt Milk Law, Barugh describes his firm self-deprecatingly, like he is just messing around with a silly project. But again, there’s that same underlying sincerity. He’s identified a genuine need for low-cost legal consultations, so people can get the basic advice they need without the full cost of hiring a lawyer. “I thought I could do a day of $99 and $150 consultations back to back, do it all really efficiently, and solve a small piece of the access to justice puzzle.” It’s not a full-time business for him just yet, but it is growing. 

Another of his side quests is to get registered as a lawyer in as many territories as possible. So far, he has certificates for Pitcairn Islands, British Indian Ocean Territory, New South Wales and New Zealand. He currently has an application before the courts in the Solomon Islands, which will add another to his collection – but this one isn’t just for a laugh. “There is access to justice issue there,” he says. The Solomon Islands has very few lawyers per capita, and he hopes to offer cheap or pro bono online consultations for people who might not currently be able to afford or access legal services. 

Tyrone Barugh in the office of Spilt Milk Law. Photo: Joel MacManus

So, what’s next? Is there another Wellington Milk Supply Act hiding somewhere that no one has noticed? One option is some action against Wellington City Council for its summertime water ban, which Barugh thinks was unenforceable and incorrectly applied. “The council was watering a bunch of shit, despite being subject to the restrictions. The council also said business users weren’t subject to the restrictions, but there didn’t seem to be justification for that in the bylaw. So I think it’s quite unfair that the council was allowing businesses to not cut back their water use, while telling people not to use sprinklers.”

Mostly though, he is focused on trying to make Spilt Milk Law into a viable business. In part, that’s because he’s worried his public persona has gone too far, and he might not get another job as a government lawyer. “Have I done too much wacky shit yet? Am I going to do too much wacky shit, or is this totally OK? I don’t have a good mental model of what the typical person thinks.”

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