New Zealand Law Society - Confessions of a District Court Judge – Rosemary Riddell

Confessions of a District Court Judge – Rosemary Riddell

Former Judge and film director Rosemary Riddell’s book is released today. She spoke with us about demystifying the courtroom and the behind the scenes of authoring To Be Fair: Confessions of a District Court Judge.

It might go without saying that a book aiming to open up the myths and obscurities of the courtroom is one that a lawyer may not need to read. But entertaining and enlightening stories, memories, and indeed confessions, of Rosemary Riddell’s interactions in court will no doubt be of interest to many. Confessions of a District Court Judge is not only about what is experienced across the courtroom, but the emotions that are felt. This is how Rosemary seeks to display the human side of judges.

Rosemary Riddell

Having relinquished her Acting Warrant, Rosemary is now able to speak candidly about her time at the bench. Her book gives us an insight to humanity through not only the lens of New Zealand’s Justice system, but also through her personal interactions. She speaks of balancing family life with work and how that informed her approach to the bench, the tales and quips shared in the courthouse breakroom, and the community exercises in educating the public about the Courts - sprinkling pearls of wisdom throughout.

Rosemary joined the legal profession at 40 after spending time in Europe. She began studying in Switzerland, the stimulating nature of which eventually led to a law degree.

After spending time overseas, she and her husband Mike moved back to New Zealand. She raised her three young children while she finished studying law at the University of Auckland. To pay for her studies she worked in radio broadcasting, the timing working well, as classes would finish just in time for the school run.

After practising in family law at Auckland firm Gaze Burt, Rosemary moved to Dunedin in 1998, to Gallaway Haggitt Sinclair (known today as Gallaway Cook Allan) and became a partner of the firm in 1999.

Seven years later, Rosemary became a Family Court Judge. She found herself answering a call from the Principal Family Court Judge in 2005. Eventually, she sat in Hamilton in both Family and Criminal jurisdictions.

“It was a surprise to get that recommendation, it validated my potential. It’s also part of the serendipity of life - sometimes you can go down paths you otherwise wouldn’t have thought about.”

The love for performing arts never faded for Rosemary. In 2006, a short film she directed and her husband Mike produced, won Best Short Film at Hollywood’s Moondance International Film Festival. The couple continued to produce, with Rosemary directing, a feature length The Insatiable Moon, with a full kiwi cast.

That feature film displays humanity and its sensibilities, as much as To Be Fair articulates the meeting of those sensibilities on either side of the bench. Rosemary admits that in both creative and judicial aspects of her life, a sense of theatre is shared.

“Keeping control in the courtroom can be quite dramatic,” she says. “It involves quiet humour and theatrical expressions that often exist in that space.”

For obvious reasons, events and statements shared in the book are devoid of specific details. It’s crucial in upholding the dignity of those who have played a part in court proceedings.

“But it was also important to express the humanity and personality of the judiciary,” Rosemary says. Those moments in court life that rouse a judge’s reactions – that can influence their thoughts and comments, as well as the life the judge leads.

The reality of a judge’s life ranges from the indelicate, witty, and trivial to the anguish and pain of any ordinary life. If nothing else, it demonstrates what’s behind the formality of a Judge’s gown, Rosemary’s story about the loss of her daughter as detailed in a chapter on the notion of Judges viewing life from ivory towers, details the diverse walks travelled from those at the bench.

“We were blessed to have Polly in our lives. She taught Mike and I so much. I understand when life takes a hard turn. That allowed me to be present with people, show compassion and know when to be merciful. These are all human qualities that a judge should embody.”

Another chapter talks of judges community involvement, providing education to schools and community groups on the justice system. This was a way judges could speak about the application of law beyond the sometimes intimidating setting of a courtroom.

Rosemary acknowledges the chief justice as being supportive of community learning. “Sometimes its speaking to young high school students to encourage them to consider judging as a job.”

“Fronting such sessions is important in encouraging diversity to the bench. It’s so someone raised in Otara can see these roles as a possible pathway.”

The role of the judiciary in making decisions, especially on sentencing is another area Rosemary highlights as an important aspect of community engagement. She details the reliance of a judge on the facts of cases before them. The anecdote in her chapter on community involvement, where she introduces an offence to a group and calls for hands raised on a harsh sentence - before giving more and more information about the case, time of offence, submissions - gives a good example of how members of the public’s emotions towards offenders are susceptible to change.

This is because Rosemary has never been one to advocate heavily for the locking up and throwing away of the key. She’s a proud advocate for restorative justice, and would like to see the initiative expanded. “It’s about understanding the cost, rather than just accepting the consequences. The impact on family, friends. It’s a more therapeutic way of putting it right.”

On top of that, Rosemary sees the latest round of reforms which may increase access to legal aid as an improvement to the Family Court.

From the criminal jurisdiction, observing movements across the courts for Māori has shown a positive change in direction for the justice system, Rosemary says. The Rangatahi courts offer an example of this, where alternative venues like a marae are offered for the business of the courts to play out. Seeing the judiciary move in this direction is positive.

But it is most rewarding to be a judge, Rosemary says, when you are part of a resolution. This can happen more often in a restorative justice, or a family mediation setting. “People can come to the court poles apart. To be able to be a catalyst to bring people from such enmity to a settlement is satisfying.”

To Be Fair: Confessions of a District Court Judge, published by Upstart press is available from 13 May.

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