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Mr Hailes (25), an Otago law and arts graduate and lawyer who is working as a judge's clerk at the Court of Appeal in Wellington.
The Woolf Fisher Scholarship covers study and living costs at Cambridge, providing about $300,000 for each scholar, spread over three years, and is one of the most generous scholarships available to New Zealand students.
Invercargill-born Mr Hailes attended Saint Kevin's College in Oamaru, before gaining a bachelor of arts degree in politics and an LLB (Hons) at Otago.
Next year he will work at corporate law firm Chapman Tripp before pursuing his overseas studies.
In his first year at Cambridge, he will study towards a master of law degree focusing on several subjects, including international investment law, and will then study for a PhD.
His interests include developing domestic and global legal structures that will allow governing institutions to tackle major economic, social and environmental issues facing the world.
He had undertaken summer jobs at a freezing works, and took issue with suggestions that ''the economy'' and ''the environment'' were incompatible.
New Zealand was a ''small country dependent on complex supply chains and ecological systems'' and had a strong interest in ensuring that international economic and environmental treaties reflected ''the needs of people and the planet'', he said.
The two other Woolf Fisher recipients this year were Victoria University of Wellington science students Josh Brian (23) and Nat Walker-Hale (22).
Sir Woolf Fisher (1912-75), co-founder of Fisher and Paykel, established a trust in 1960 to recognise and reward excellence in education.