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Judge Avinash Ganesh Deobhakta, 1936 - 2015

By Geoff Adlam

Former District Court Judge Avinash Deobhakta died in Auckland on 2 September 2015 aged 78. After he was forced to leave a successful legal career in Uganda, Judge Deobhakta became a much-loved and respected member of New Zealand's legal profession.

Born on 24 November 1936 in Lahore (at that time part of India), Judge Deobhakta's family were caught up in the riots surrounding the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. His father was a senior official with the Indian railways and was seconded to Uganda to help build and maintain the railways there. His father ensured that Avinash completed his education in London, where he studied law at Lincoln's Inn and became a barrister. He married his childhood sweetheart Kanan and became the father of two children.

Returning to Uganda, Judge Deobhakta began to practise law and his career flourished. He became the principal state attorney in the Ugandan Department of Public Prosecutions and was later appointed Chief Magistrate. However, Judge Deobhakta and his family were forced to leave Uganda in late 1972 when the dictator Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of the Asian community.

The family immigrated to New Zealand and settled in Auckland. After qualifying, Judge Deobhakta was admitted to the Bar and began to practise as a barrister. He became a naturalised New Zealander in 1978 and was appointed as a District Court Judge in April 1981. At the time of appointment it was noted that he was the first judge to be appointed in New Zealand of Indian origin.

Judge Deobhakta served on the bench for nearly three decades, with a specialist warrant for criminal jury trials. He chaired the Waikeria District Prisons Board, and on 1 July 2002 he was appointed to the New Zealand Parole Board as northern region panel convenor. He retired from the judiciary in 2006 but was reappointed for a two-year term as an Acting District Court Judge on 17 February 2006.

In his work on the bench and Parole Board, Judge Deobhakta became well known for his courtesy and gentle humour.

"He had a lovely sense of humour," Independent Police Conduct Authority chair Sir David Carruthers says. Sir David was a District Court Judge for much of Judge Deobhakta's term and was Chief District Court Judge from 2001 to 2005 and chair of the Parole Board from 2005 to 2012.

"He was a very cultivated, intelligent sophisticated funny man, always humble. All of us who worked with him adored him; he was so funny, he was so pleasant. He was always courteous to everybody – just a really decent guy. He was a joy really."

Sir David remembers Judge Deobhakta as an excellent Parole Board member.

"He was quite firm and nobody pushed him around, but he was also very compassionate having seen the tough edges of life himself."

Judge Deobhakta's ability to blend compassion with justice emerged in two cases which made headlines around the world.

In December 2004 New Zealand rugby league international Logan Swann appeared before Judge Deobhakta for sentencing after earlier pleading guilty to participating in a drunken assault on a man in Auckland in May that year.

Saying that he was "very, very reluctantly" granting him a discharge without conviction, Judge Deobhakta ordered Swann to pay the victim $500. He also left Swann in no doubt that he was extremely lucky.

"People have the wrong impression that guys like you with celebrity status can get away with bad behaviour under the influence of high intoxicants, just because you are sporting celebrities," he said, before noting that it was "glowing testimonies", a desire not to ruin Swann's career and no previous convictions that had tipped the balance.

"I have no difficulty in fining you for this abominable behaviour," he told the chastened sportsman. "Let this be a salutary lesson to you that this will be the last time you will get a discharge. You have finished your nine lives."

Two years later, in December 2006, Judge Deobhakta was again international news. This time it was after he issued warrants ordering the arrest of Moshe Ya'alon, a former Israeli army general and head of intelligence.

Papers were lodged with the Auckland District Court by Auckland law firm LeeSalmonLong for Auckland company director Janfrie Wakim, alleging Ya'alon had played an important role in the 2002 murder of a suspected Hamas commander in Gaza City. The papers called on New Zealand to fulfil its obligations as a signatory to the Geneva Convention.

Judge Deobhakta issued a warrant, but also determined that any prosecution required the leave of the Attorney-General to proceed.

"I am satisfied [the papers] disclosed 'good and sufficient reasons' to believe that he was, together with others, responsible for the bombing," the New Zealand Herald reported Judge Deobhakta as saying.

However, the warrant was not enforced because Attorney-General Michael Cullen ordered a stay of proceedings.

Former Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand was a close friend and colleague of Judge Deobhakta, working with him both as a lawyer and a judge.

"To recall Avinash Deobhakta is to recall the life of a man who was genial, courteous, humorous, knowledgeable, fun-loving and courageous," he says.

"He was one of those really nice fellows who always lifted you," Sir David Carruthers says.

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Last updated on the 3rd August 2017