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Judge Michael John Albert (Mick) Brown CNZM, 1937 - 2015

By Geoff Adlam

New Zealand's first Principal Youth Court Judge Mick Brown died in Auckland on 2 April 2015 aged 77. Known universally as Mick Brown, he is acknowledged as having been the perfect choice to nurture and grow the new Youth Court initiative. This was driven by his compassion, gentle humour and ability to communicate across ethnicities, cultures and ages.

Mick Brown was born in Northland on 19 August 1937. His tribal affiliations were Ngati Kahu, Te Aupori, Te Rarawa, and Nga Puhi. His birth mother died of tuberculosis when he was one year old and he grew up with a foster family in Auckland. He later referred to the good memories he had of his childhood and the people who became his family.

As a teenager he developed tuberculosis which affected his knee and spent three years at the Wilson Home for children with disabilities in Takapuna. He recovered and went on to play senior club cricket and golf, which became a lifetime passion. New Zealand Golf says he was a significant contributor to the game of golf through the Ngati Tamariki Trust and believed that every youth should be given the chance to experience "the great game". He was a mentor to professional golfer Phil Tataurangi, and the Mick Brown Trophy has been played for annually at Chamberlain Park Golf Club since 2006.

Judge Brown attended Mount Albert Grammar School. In 1997 he was one of 14 inaugural members of the school's Hall of Distinction, being recognised for his services to law and community. On leaving school he went to Auckland Teachers' Training College and then taught for a while. However, he decided the law offered a better outlet for his quickly developing debating skills and he completed an LLB at Auckland University law school. While still a law student he found work as a law clerk with Sir Peter Williams QC, who later predicted he would go down in history as a great judge (A Passion for Justice, Shoal Bay Press, 1997, page 180).

Law school began a close connection with Auckland University, which saw him serve as a Council member for 15 years and as the first Māori Chancellor from 1986 to 1991. During his term the university marae was opened and the proportion of Māori students more than doubled to 6% of the roll. His contribution was marked in 1992 with the award of an honorary doctorate of laws. He was Pro Vice-Chancellor (Māori) at the university until late 2005. The university also presented him with a distinguished alumni award in 2002.

He married Te Hana Paniora and the couple had five children, Paul, Caleb, Lee Anne, Georgia and Hemoata. Hana died in June 2004.

Mick Brown was admitted as a barrister and solicitor in 1968 and began practice in Auckland, for some of that time working with the firms Dickson and Co and Meredith Connell. He quickly built a reputation for his wit, humour and powerful oratory.

New Zealand Law Society President Chris Moore remembers appearing in the Number One Auckland Magistrate's Court in the late 1970s as a newly admitted lawyer and watching in awe as Mick Brown gave a plea in mitigation.

"When he stood up everyone in the court sat up and listened intently, including the magistrate. He would be one of the best orators I have come across. There was a real style and humility about the way he delivered the plea on behalf of his client."

His ability to find an apt and amusing phrase was later captured by Auckland lawyer Piers Davies: "Mick Brown … commented when he was a lawyer that many of his clients did not want greater access to the Courts – they were trying to find the exit." (Law Stories, LexisNexis, Wellington 2003, page 168).

Mick Brown was one of the first of a growing number of Māori lawyers. In February 2012 Bernard Brown celebrated 50 years at the law school and recalled that on his arrival in 1962 Mick Brown was the "only identifiably" Māori law student. By 1979 Mick Brown was mentor to the newly-formed "Brown Bar" which evolved to become the Māori Law Society in 1988.

In 1980, aged 43, he was appointed a District Court Judge, sitting at the Henderson District Court (now Waitakere).

His nine years on the Henderson bench again served to develop the Mick Brown legend and to show his ability to connect with people from all backgrounds. The current Principal Youth Court Judge, Andrew Becroft, appeared before Judge Brown regularly in Henderson.

"He was very straight and he was firm, but he was certainly known as a man of compassion and of insight and humanity. It seemed to me he wanted every transaction a person had with the law to be meaningful and to bring about change for them."

Stories about his time on the bench show a Judge in control but able to use humour to diffuse potentially awkward situations.

Discussing the emergence of new technology in the courts, Brian Stephenson noted Judge Mick Brown's response when a pager went off in the pocket of a barrister who was addressing him: "Mr X. I think your eggs are ready." (Law Stories, ibid, page 240).

"The stories about Mick are legion," Rotorua barrister John Chadwick later wrote. "I can personally vouch for this one. He was presiding at a trial. A police inspector had given evidence about a dawn raid on a motorbike gang headquarters. I asked him whether there was any resistance by the occupants. He said No, it was peaceful except that their dogs and our dogs had a bit of a stoush. 'Who won that?' I wondered out loud. The answer came from the bench. 'My money is on the mongrels'." (Law Stories, ibid, page 248).

While at Henderson Judge Brown was one of a few involved in trialling what was to become a ground-breaking new way of delivering youth justice.

Judge Becroft says Judge Brown sent young offenders and their families to the Waititi marae to use a family conferencing system, and his court was one of the trial sites for the proposed new system. "He was also aware of the enormous discontent that the Māori community had in particular with the way young offenders were dealt with in the early to mid 1980s."

On 10 August 1989 Judge Mick Brown was appointed the first Principal Judge of the Youth Court. This was in preparation for commencement of the Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act 1989 on 1 November 1989. The Act was the impetus for what is now seen as a legal revolution in the way the justice system manages young offenders.

Judge Andrew Becroft says the Act made two main changes through its emphasis on not charging young offenders unless the public interest required it, and by introducing the family group conference as the way of holding young people to account for their actions and developing a plan to stop it happening again.

The new legislation needed someone to explain it and to sell its benefits. The new Principal Youth Court Judge was the person.

"He was the right man at the right time," says Judge Becroft. "His big contribution I think is that he sold the system to New Zealand. He spent a lot of time travelling around New Zealand and speaking to community groups explaining how it worked. He was a man of humanity and compassion and insight. In my view, the community felt that if Judge Brown was behind this, then it was something we could probably trust."

Before the legislation came into effect Judge Brown toured New Zealand in October 1989 as one of the presenters of a New Zealand Law Society seminar on the new legislation. In his introductory comments on the radical new legislation he made it clear that he was one of the leaders of a journey into a new way of providing youth justice.

"Let me suggest one possible way to approach this legislation. It may require what the poets have described as 'a willing suspension of disbelief.' It may require too flexibility of mind and a willingness to entertain the unconventional, the innovative. To allow in Doctor Johnson's words (when referring to second marriages) 'optimism to triumph over experience'.

"Hopefully you as lawyers, a group which by definition is intelligent, educated and powerful, might bring to this statute not only technical skills and knowledge, but also preparedness to enter into its spirit."

Pointing out that he was "neither the architect nor the builder of this legislative edifice" he quickly told his audience that "by an equally happy coincidence" he was "very enthusiastic" about the law.

The impact of the new system was immediately apparent.

"There's a good graph that demonstrates this, showing a drop from about 40,000 to 2,000 young people in the Youth Court," Judge Becroft says. "It happened virtually within a couple of months. And we showed the rest of the world that most young offenders only offend as teenagers and don't need to come to court, and with good community-based intervention if they are seen by the police they won't offend again."

For the next five years Judge Brown oversaw the implementation of the radical new system. There was considerable international interest and he travelled to conferences overseas to explain the New Zealand approach.

"Mick was well-known overseas. I went to a conference in Geneva in late January 2015 with 900 people and 91 nations represented, and there were those there who still remembered Judge Brown. And they certainly know that New Zealand's system is highly respected and seen as a pioneering system and the best of it is taken and emulated by countries overseas," says Judge Becroft.

Judge Mick Brown retired from the bench in January 1996. The nation recognised his services to the Youth Court, education and also his contribution to the community by making him a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in May 1996.

Retirement from the Youth Court by no means ended his active involvement in many organisations. He was appointed Chair of the Alcoholic Liquor Advisory Council in 1994 and worked for a number of charitable trusts. He was the first Director of the University of Waikato's Te Matahauariki Research Institute.

In 2000 the Minister of Social Services and Employment, Steve Maharey, commissioned Mick Brown to prepare a report on the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services. This was a major exercise and in preparing it he spoke to a wide range of stakeholder groups and interested parties.

"Perhaps the most impactful meeting was with a group of teenagers who are either currently in care or had recently left care. That group I consider to be truly 'stakeholders' in the best sense of that overworked word," he wrote in the Foreword to the resulting report, Care and Protection is about adult behaviour (December 2000).

"… it should always be remembered that we do not need to accept that neglect and abuse of children is some natural phenomenon. The tragedy and cost of such actions can be averted but not by any government department alone.

"Rather it will, in my respectful view, be a test of our character as individual citizens, decent communities and as a Nation to make New Zealand the best country in which to raise children."

Judge Mick Brown's lifetime of service to New Zealand was further recognised on 5 July 2013 when he was awarded the Blake Medal at the Sir Peter Blake Leadership Awards. The Blake Medal citation is a fitting summary of his contribution to this country:

"Judge Brown transformed agendas, conversations and systems that endure today. He is described as humble and compassionate, yet resolute and determined in his advocacy for equity and fairness. 

"In the late 1980s, Judge Brown introduced the concept of family conferencing, in place of criminal proceedings, for serious juvenile offenders. Conferencing puts those most affected by crime at the heart of the process. Victims, who are often unable to face or speak to offenders in court, are given a chance to express how they feel and have a say in the outcome.

"This holistic approach to juvenile reform and community accountability and responsibility was an inherent part of Mick's ethic and practice as a Māori judge, and represented a fundamentally different perspective that would transform a system. When his approach was legislated in 1989 and made the standard, it represented a world first and the impact was enormously positive on many levels. The highly influential model he developed shone a light on significant, often overlooked issues in this country, including child poverty and social welfare."

"He's cast a long shadow today. We're still aware of him," says Principal Youth Court Judge Andrew Becroft. "I go to work and down the corridor there's a picture of him and it's his vision as a judge that we still try to put into practice today. It's his legacy that we're very aware of. He really was the right man for the right time."

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Last updated on the 16th July 2018