On 17 February, Steve Bonnar QC and Belinda Sellars QC will share a joint swearing in ceremony as they become District Court Judges, both based in Auckland with jury jurisdiction. It is understood that the ceremony will be the first to swear in husband-and-wife judges to the bench at the same time.
On 17 February, the New Zealand bar loses a significant amount of experience, but one which the judiciary will embrace.
Steve Bonnar QC and Belinda Sellars QC will share a joint swearing in ceremony as they become District Court Judges, both based in Auckland with jury jurisdiction. It is understood that the ceremony will be the first to swear in husband-and-wife judges to the bench at the same time.
Applying last year was an opportune moment, Steve says.
“I think, like lots of people, 2020 caused us to reflect and evaluate where we were in our jobs. We both discussed and thought we’d both apply and see what happens.”
“It fits with the fact we got married during a case while the jury was still out,” Belinda says. The pair had separate defendants in a trial which was delayed by weeks, pushing back the jury’s deliberation. Eventually, the delays overlapped the planned date of the wedding, but fortunately, the Jury was out for the week.
“We married on the Friday, and the Jury returned Monday,” she laughs.
Belinda and Steve have spent the past three years running their practices in Auckland’s close-knit Freyberg Chambers. For the eight years before that, they both occupied 22 Lorne. Freyberg, which specialises in criminal defence, will have two vacant spots needing filled come the end of February.
“We’ve established our practices with our community in mind. With this move, we get to give back to our community from a different angle,” Belinda says.
“It’s also an exciting time for the District Court, there’s a new philosophy you can see coming through with an emphasis on rehabilitation, restorative justice and a more enlightened lens.”
They’re referring to the therapeutic justice initiatives that have been moving through the system. The Te Ao Mārama model, announced by Chief District Court Judge Heemi Taumaunu last November, is the most recent example of moves to include tīkanga practices in the District Court. The Rangatahi Courts and Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Courts also show how the Justice system is adjusting to better cater to those who have traditionally sat on its fringes.
“It’s a good time to be at the coal face of that,” says Steve.
The shift from the Bar
Both Belinda and Steve say they have enjoyed their position at the Bar as Queens’ Counsel. Steve took silk in 2014 and Belinda in 2018. Both attribute their contribution to the profession as key factors in their appointment to the inner bar.
Both have given their time to the Pro Bono SPCA Panel. Belinda also recently appeared on behalf of the NZ Animal Lawyers Association for a prosecution in relation to a Whangarei rodeo shortly after the March 2020 lockdown.
Steve convened the New Zealand Law Society Criminal Law Committee from 2016 to 2020. For years prior he served as a committee member.
As with any change there’s a tinge of sadness, Steve and Belinda say. “Life at the bar in general – being a barrister gives you a large degree of professional freedom, as well as a degree of collegiality. Possibly more so at the criminal bar.”
“We’ll both miss the thrill of the battle that comes with being an advocate in a trial,” says Belinda.
“It’s a sudden move from being on the playing court to the umpires’ spot,” adds Steve.
The Bar in Practice
“We’re certainly going to miss private practice,” Steve says. Apart from general crime, Steve has also had a focus on Health and Safety prosecutions, which most recently saw him briefed in the White Island Investigation. His criminal defence work followed from a lengthy career undertaking Crown Prosecutions for Meredith Connell, the CPS in London and in the Cayman Islands in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.
In search of more involvement in the profession itself, Belinda moved from commercial litigation to the Public Defence Service in 2004. “It was more at the coal face,” she says, reflecting on the aspects of criminal law that attracted her. By 2009, she joined the bar. Both have embraced the flexibility of a barrister in their practice to do the work they most enjoy.
However, the disruptions brought by Covid-19 throughout 2020 did affect both Auckland-based lawyers whose work often relies on jury trials.
“We felt a bit like out of work actors for some of the time,” Belinda says. “You had jury trials set down and they basically evaporated.”
Though they’re quick to acknowledge a lot of good changes borne from disruption too. The Parole Board adapted who and how people could attend meetings to be more inclusive, which Belinda was pleased to see. “Different stakeholders across the system cooperated really well when they needed to; the Bar, Ministry, Police, Corrections, and low and behold, they could,” Steve says.
“That time was hard for the District Court particularly. It was already dealing with backlogs before COVID came along.”
As advocates whose clients might often be considered to exist at society’s margins, Belinda and Steve look forward to their new role where they will assist the District Court in tackling the delays, particularly in a more enlightened way as the justice system enacts its principled and practical changes.