There was an intriguing report in yesterday’s Dominion Post about a secret inquiry by a judicial conduct panel.
It was a classic case of a story raising more questions than it answered. Quoting a press statement issued by the panel, the story revealed that the unnamed judge at the centre of the inquiry had questioned its legitimacy.
More specifically, the panel said the judge had challenged its jurisdiction to conduct the inquiry “in the particular circumstances of the case”. That would be the first question the panel had to decide.
The panel made interim non-publication orders covering the judge’s identity and the background of the case. Even the judge’s gender wasn’t disclosed. The question of what could be published about the inquiry would not be considered again until that issue was decided, “at the earliest” (which suggests that even then, the panel may reserve its right to keep the proceedings secret).
All this furtiveness was bound to arouse feverish speculation – and sure enough, conspiracy-minded people were soon mischievously putting it about that the unnamed judge under investigation was Hawke’s Bay Family Court judge Peter Callinicos.
This wild gossip was based on no firmer foundation than that Callinicos was reported earlier this year as being the subject of complaints about his conduct in the racially sensitive “Moana” child custody case, in which he subjected Oranga Tamariki social workers to some robust questioning.
While the Moana case was still in progress, a complaint about Callinicos from the then head of Oranga Tamariki, Sir Wira Gardiner, resulted in the judge being contacted by two of his superiors – an apparent breach of judicial independence. It later emerged that Callinicos had been investigated behind his back by even more senior members of the judiciary.
Attorney-General David Parker subsequently accepted Judicial Conduct Commissioner Alan Ritchie’s recommendation that an unnamed judge be investigated by the panel, to which Parker appointed Chief High Court Judge Susan Thomas, District Court judge Lawrence Hinton and former diplomat Jacqueline Caine (Ngai Tahu, Kati Mamoe, Waitaha). The Dominion Post disclosed that in his latest annual report, Ritchie said that “[O]n my assessment, the [judge's] conduct, if established, would fall well short of accepted judicial standards”. (As far as is known, no inquiry has been announced into concerns about an unnamed judge’s judicial independence being compromised.)
Putting two and two together and adding a generous dollop of irrational conjecture, some people have assumed that the unnamed judge at the centre of the current proceedings must be Callinicos. On the face of it, this supposition appears to be supported by the fact that judicial conduct panel hearings are rare and there are unlikely to be two running simultaneously.
But I can put their minds at rest. These proceedings cannot possibly be about Callinicos. By a highly unusual coincidence, they must relate to another case.
My reasoning is simple.
■ There is a well-established presumption of open justice. Justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done etc etc.
■ The judicial conduct panel would be aware that the Callinicos case has been well-publicised and has therefore become a matter of keen and legitimate public interest.
■ It will be aware too that the case has raised concerns about the clubby nature of the judicial establishment and the opaque nature of almost everything related to judicial affairs, from the appointment of judges to the way disciplinary matters are dealt with.
■ In the circumstances, the panel would presumably be anxious to dispel any suspicions, far-fetched though they may be, about important issues being dealt with behind closed doors and out of public view. The last thing it would want is wild allegations about secretive Star Chamber-type inquisitions.
It follows, then, that the inquiry reported by the Dominion Post must relate to something entirely different.