Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tony the Terminator strikes again

Earlier this week, Radio New Zealand’s Midday Report broadcast an item about a Napier judge who packed a man off to the cells for making a hand signal to a gang member in the dock.

Remarking that he wasn’t going to have his courtroom turned into a circus by clowns, the judge remanded the man for 24 hours for contempt.

You didn’t have to be clairvoyant to work out, even before his name was mentioned, that this must be Judge Tony “The Terminator” Adeane, already famous for jailing taggers.

Judge Adeane strikes me as a throwback to the authoritarian judges of the past, but perhaps a bit of shock treatment is what’s needed to discourage the loutish behaviour now commonplace in the courts.

There have been other encouraging signs of a collective stiffening of the judicial spine. Only last week, Southland judge Dominic Flatley sent a teenage defendant home to get changed when she appeared on a drink-driving charge wearing a T-shirt bearing the words “Miss Wasted”.

One of the defining features of the sixties generation was its rejection of authority. I was as enthusiastic about this as anyone, but there are some institutions that can’t function properly without respect for authority. The armed forces are one and the courts are another.

As a cadet reporter I covered the Magistrate’s Court in Wellington, where there was zero tolerance of bad behaviour. Ben Scully was a famously tough magistrate alongside whom Captain Bligh would have looked a sickly liberal. A choleric glare from Scully was enough to silence the most unruly public gallery, since he gave the impression that nothing made him happier than to send a busload of miscreants off to Mount Crawford before morning tea.

He would have loved nothing more than for some rebarbative felon to appear in the dock wearing a hoodie, chewing gum and slouching. It would have made his day.

Even relatively gentle beaks of the time, like J A Wicks and Sir Desmond Sullivan, would come down hard on anyone who dared trifle with the court’s dignity. Courtroom antics that are now almost routine – such as offensive and menacing gestures, shouts and abuse, clapping, cheering and macho posturing – were unheard of.

The courts dispense justice on behalf of the people and are entitled to insist on decorum. It’s not just a matter of a pompous, bewigged poo-bah on the bench demanding that lesser beings bow and scrape before him; it’s a question of proper respect for the institutions of justice. Not for the first time, I find myself applauding Judge Adeane for his uncompromising, “clap ’em in irons” approach.

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