(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 14.)
When I was a novice reporter in Wellington, my duties including covering what was then called the Magistrate’s Court (now known as the District Court).Naturally, I got to know some of the magistrates – not personally, you understand; they were far too magisterial for that. But by observing them from the press bench I did become familiar with their habits and idiosyncrasies.
The regular magistrates included J A Wicks (they were always referred to by their initials in those days), D J Sullivan and M B Scully.Mr Wicks – later to become Sir James – had glasses and wispy hair. He was quietly spoken and gave the impression of being a kindly man, but he brooked no nonsense.
Mr Sullivan (later to become Sir Desmond, and chief judge of the District Court), was younger and less aloof. He seemed a sympathetic type and I wasn’t surprised to read in his obituary in 1996 that he believed in giving people a second chance.Mr Scully, known by everyone as Ben (but not to his face), was a different proposition. He was short and pugnacious and had a reputation as being irascible and unforgiving.
Everything about Ben Scully, from his choleric complexion to the impatient way he strode into court, as if he couldn’t wait to pack the first miscreant of the day off to prison, gave warning that he was not a man to be messed with.Lawyers were intimidated by Ben Scully, and any defendant who made the mistake of antagonising him soon regretted it. Barristers old enough to remember him still mention his name with something approaching awe, although away from court he was apparently regarded with affection as well as respect.
Magistrates in those days were lords of their domain and you forgot that at your peril. Even reporters on the press bench took care to behave with decorum.I was reminded of that era last week when I read an excerpt from a new book called Grumpy Old Men, in which Auckland District Court judge Russell Callander sounds off about some of the things that irritate him. No, make that many of the things that irritate him.
Judge Callander is in his 70s and sounds like a throwback to those magistrates I recall from the late 1960s. His is a magnificent rant that will warm the hearts of curmudgeons everywhere. Allow me to quote some of the juicier bits:■ “People who dress badly when they appear in court can make me tetchy. Courts are solemn places: not the beach or the public bar of the local boozer.”
■ “Epidermal self-mutilation with grotesque ill-drawn graphics so frequently flaunted by defendants, their associates, and witnesses are most irritating. When a man can’t even successfully spell four-letter Anglo-Saxon words, it makes me worry either about the standards of teaching in our schools, or the intelligence quotient of some of our more delinquent citizens.”■ “Certain guilty paedophiles selfishly elect trial by jury on serious charges of sexual violation of children. They force innocent children to testify about traumatic and sensitive sexual issues in the usually futile hope a jury will acquit. They deny their offending. They lie through their fangs. And then, after being sentenced to imprisonment, they confess all to a prison psychologist and ask for a rehabilitation programme and the earliest possible release date.”
■ “Benefit bludgers and tax cheats make me growl with indignation. When people improperly take benefits, they steal from the state – from the rest of us who obediently pay our taxes. I have seen people live cheerfully in well-paid jobs while for years they supplement that with unemployment benefits totalling thousands of dollars – in one case nearly $100,000. Often they have the cheek to look very disgruntled when they are caught, convicted and ordered to pay it all back. Then, adding insult to injury, they smile sweetly and offer to pay it back at $15 per week over the next 128 years. Naturally, without interest.”■ “A huge amount of court time is wasted by Maori activists who profess that Maori sovereignty renders them somehow immune to the laws of New Zealand.”
■ “Over the years I have dealt with scores of men who have fathered children and then totally abdicated any responsibility for them. They don’t provide any financial help. They don’t play any parental role. They are selfish, uninterested, inhuman and irresponsible. They deserve the condemnation of us all.”■ “And then there are the liars, the perjurers, the fabricators and prevaricators. Gone are the days when people admitted their crimes and told the truth. The oath is mainly meaningless. The mantra is ‘Get off the hook by any means’. It is shameful and destructive. It makes me not just grumpy but angry.”
I find it hugely refreshing and encouraging that a judge should throw political correctness to the wind and so vigorously express sentiments felt by many of his fellow New Zealanders.I wonder if there’s a trend building here – an overdue backlash against misguided tolerance of bad behaviour and disrespectful antics in the courts.
In the same week that I read Judge Callander’s expostulations, another District Court judge, Judge Russell Collins, delivered a scalding judgment in the case of lawyer Davina Murray, who was found guilty of smuggling contraband to Mt Eden prison inmate Liam Reid, a convicted murderer and rapist with whom she was having a relationship.Murray obviously got right up Judge Collins’ nose during the trial, and he didn’t hold back. He castigated her for turning up late in court, repeatedly talking over himself and witnesses, playing up to the media benches while she was being addressed from the Bench and making gratuitous comments after rulings had been given against her. At one point, Judge Collins was moved to remind Murray that she wasn’t in an American television show.
Courts are institutions of the people and deserve to be treated with respect. We should applaud Judges Callander and Collins for making a stand against those who abuse their dignity.They will stand alongside Hawke’s Bay judge Tony Adeane – who in 2008 declared that he wasn’t going to have his court turned into a circus and packed a man off to the cells for 24 hours after he made a gesture to a mate in the dock – in my own judicial hall of fame.