Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Judge's meetings with Oranga Tamariki: nothing to see here, folks

Marty Sharpe of the Dominion Post has another story on the Judge Callinicos affair this morning, this time reporting a law academic’s concerns about Chief Family Court judge Jackie Moran having regular meetings with Oranga Tamariki’s chief executive and senior lawyers.

Auckland University law professor Mark Henaghan is quoted as saying our legal system is based on the separation of powers between Parliament, the courts and the executive. Meetings between Moran and Oranga Tamariki, whose staff and lawyers are frequently involved in contentious cases before the Family Court, appear to cross that line.

Henaghan says they give the appearance of “undermining the separation of powers and potentially weakens the checks and balances principle and the independence of the judiciary”.

But hey, there’s nothing to be concerned about. Sharpe’s story then quotes Caroline Hickman, chairwoman of the NZ Law Society’s family law section, as saying she didn’t find such meetings unusual because Moran’s role was “to ensure the orderly and expeditious discharge of the business of the Family Court”.

She said Moran also regularly met with her own organisation to discuss issues relating to the smooth functioning of the Family Court, and co-operation between Oranga Tamariki and the Court.

But there’s a crucial difference, as Hickman must know, between discussing matters of procedure and administration – which is what she seems to be talking about – and actively intervening in a case while it was still in progress, and thus creating the impression of trying to influence the outcome.

That’s the key issue in the so-called Moana case, in which Family Court judge Peter Callinicos accused two senior judges – Moran and Chief District Court judge Heemi Taumaunu – of compromising  his judicial independence by contacting him after Sir Wira Gardiner, then acting CEO of Oranga Tamariki, complained that Callinicos had “bullied” OT social workers during the hearing of the case. Callinicos was extremely critical of OT's conduct during the hearing and issued a decision thwarting the ministry’s attempts to remove a vulnerable Maori girl from a loving, safe Pakeha home on the pretext that her cultural needs were  not being met.

Barrister Tony Ellis, in a complaint to the Judicial Conduct Commissioner, has accused the two senior judges – known as the Heads of Bench – of unlawfully lobbying Callinicos. It's also alleged that Callinicos was the subject of discussions, without his knowledge, involving second-ranked Supreme Court judge Sir William Young, who is claimed to have criticised Callinicos in a “scathing” letter to the Judicial Conduct Commissioner, Alan Ritchie – and that Ritchie formed a conclusion about the affair without even giving Callinicos a chance to respond to the accusations against him.

All this has spilled out into the public arena in an unprecedented judicial squabble, with Callinicos engaging lawyers to act on his behalf and 60 fellow judges reportedly contacting him to express their support.

The affair has been exacerbated by a campaign against Callinicos dating back to his decision in an unrelated marital case involving a woman named only as Mrs P, whose case was taken up by feminist academics and sympathetic (for which, read partisan) journalists. All this has made the Hawke’s Bay judge a marked man, targeted both from within and outside the judicial establishment. It’s likely he has also made an enemy of Hawke’s Bay iwi Ngati Kahungungu, which wanted Moana placed with Maori caregivers.

I suppose it can be considered progress of sorts that the Law Society has at least found its voice on the Moana controversy, even if Hickman’s comment seems disingenuous. When Sharpe approached the society’s president, Tiana Epati, for comment after he first broke the story in August, she hadn’t bothered to look into the case and wouldn’t speculate on whether it raised matters of public importance.

As I wrote at the time: “This seems extraordinary. If you entertained the fanciful notion that the Law Society had an interest in ensuring judicial probity and upholding public respect for the law, you were clearly deluded. The society’s so unconcerned that it hasn’t even bothered to acquaint itself with the case beyond what the rest of us have read in the paper.

The good news is that Sharpe is not allowing the story to fade from the public view, no matter how keen the legal and judicial establishment is to kick the ball into the long grass.


  1. The more that comes out about this case, the more concerning it is. Just the Judge meeting with OT is in itself not at all good no matter how it is spun. At the very least, representatives of Defence lawyers or the Law Society should be there. The information and decisions of the meetings should then be distributed to affected parties afterwards. That way, everyone would be working from the same sets of rules.
    One is left wondering what other secret meetings behind closed doors go on.
    I hope this issue is fully thrashed out and the media dig deep as there are a lot of bad practices occurring.

  2. I find it fascinating.
    Our noble judiciary which operates at a higher plane of existence than us mere mortals becoming involved in a labyrinthine spat between members.
    Normally this sort of behind-the-scenes in fighting is well hidden behind the opaque cloak of the court system, and the old boy network.