New Zealand Law Society - Thoroughly enjoying her new role on the bench: Justice Rachel Dunningham

Thoroughly enjoying her new role on the bench: Justice Rachel Dunningham

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By Elliot Sim

Justice Dunningham recalls a moment during a high school career week where she was a teacher helping wide-eyed students decide what job they would be suited to.

It dawned on her that if she were in their shoes, she would ask herself why she had never pursued a career in law.

Now, having sat in the High Court in Christchurch for almost three months, the former teacher, law firm partner and Law Society Canterbury-Westland branch President, reflects on a career which took her further than the she had ever anticipated through a “series of happy accidents”.

“Being a High Court judge was not on my radar … It was a huge decision and I was happy in my partnership. I hadn’t thought of a change in course so, yes, it did take a lot of headspace for a number of months,” she says.

Justice Dunningham decided to leave her teaching role in Palmerston North when her husband took up a flying job in Christchurch in the early 1990s. It was he who suggested the future High Court judge take the opportunity to do a law degree, something she had always wanted to do but had kept in the back of her mind.

Armed with a first class honours degree, she went straight into year two combined with year one, a move which wasn’t without its challenges as Justice Dunningham recalls tackling Contracts in her first class in 1993.

“I had no background whatsoever, but I soon got the hang of it,” she says. She graduated LLB (Hons) first class in 1996 from Canterbury University. The same year, she was awarded the Canterbury District Law Society Gold Medal and joined the Bar.

A summer clerkship at Buddle Findlay during the 1994–1995 university holiday secured her a job at the firm upon graduating; a firm which Justice Dunningham stuck with for her entire legal career spanning almost 20 years.

“I’ve really just been a one firm person – very boring. But that firm’s been very good to me,” she says.

Justice Dunningham started in civil litigation and “more by accident than design”, ended up in resource management and local government as her primary areas of practice.

It just so happened that at the time the firm was instructing solicitors on a big case involving the Rangatata Diversion Race.

The lawyer who had been involved in it went overseas and the firm asked the fledgling lawyer to step in.

“I had no idea what I was in for, but I really enjoyed the work. It’s varied and has lots of connection with real people out there in the community doing things – and I really never looked back.”

Justice Dunningham also took ownership of a “very strong local government practice” when a partner in the firm shifted to Auckland and subsequently became involved in the contentious process of obtaining resource consents for the Central Plains Water Scheme.

“They were big chunks of my career because, effectively, that work lasted over several years.

“There were very few periods of the later part of my practice where I wasn’t keeping one or another of those files going.”

Justice Dunningham also kept up a “low key” family law practice which appealed to her personable nature.

“I quite liked the personal contact in the sense that you’re helping people through what is often quite a tense, personal time,” she says.

Justice Dunningham says she was shoulder tapped by some “senior people” and that she took a fair bit of convincing to join the judiciary. She appeared before her ex-colleagues and the judiciary during her swearing in ceremony last February.

“I can honestly say I’ve not been that nervous since,” she says.

Simplifying difficult ideas and concepts to help people achieve their goals is a skill Justice Dunningham has applied since teaching and one which she will continue to hone in her courtroom.

“Because, in way, a judgment is an explanation as well. It explains the law and how you have applied it to the people who came before you. They want to know how you got to the result you got. Equally, other lawyers end up reading the judgments and they need to understand why you made the decision you did, so that they can apply it in another case.

“I’d like to think that, with some experience, I’ll eventually be able to harness those same skills in that slightly different forum of the formal judgment.”

Justice Dunningham draws inspiration from the “wonderful members of the judiciary who have been a pleasure to appear in front of because they’re courteous, they’re fair, and they let you get your point across and they don’t jump to conclusions; while maintaining a well-run court”.

“One of my goals is to follow in that tradition. Whether people like the decisions I come to or not, I want them to say ‘I enjoyed appearing in her court, I got a fair hearing, she let me get my point across’.”

Justice Chisholm is one such member of the judiciary on whom she models herself.

“If I can adopt even half of the skills he had for running a pleasant, fair and courteous courtroom then I will think I’ve achieved something.”

A change in mind-set and a shift in professional relationships is something which Justice Dunningham has to get used to.

“It is a very different job; it is a more focused job.

“I’ve found it quite strange adapting to working with a reduced level of distractions and the reduced level of contact with people that you have in this role.

“I really enjoy the fact I no longer have to advocate for one side – whether I’m fully persuaded by the merits of their case or not. It’s actually a huge relief to simply look at both sides of the case and decide what I think is the right course from all that information.

“Yes, of course you bring across all of your legal skills, but it does require you to approach the issue from quite a different perspective and I think that’s probably one of the things I enjoy the most about it,” she says.

The practical reality of the relationships which have been formed over a 20-year career inevitably means the High Court judge sees ex-colleagues less often.

“I recognise that the job does require some independence and distance from what the profession is doing, but it doesn’t require a withdrawal from those friendships and there is a good relationship between the profession and the Bench.

“I don’t feel like I’m losing those connections that I had with the Bar. It just takes a little more work to maintain them.”

Over two months into her new role, Justice Dunningham says that she’s “thoroughly enjoying the job” and the pressures that come with it, as well as the “opportunity for personal growth by exploring areas of the law that I haven’t had to look at”.

She says writing decisions is a “very satisfying process”; one which is learned and methodical.

“Just as when you’re a young lawyer, you can have all the training in the world, but nothing can beat getting out there and actually doing it. It’s the same in judicial life. You can have all the training in the world, but none of that will replace actually getting out there and doing the job; finding your own way of doing it and learning as you go.”

Justice Dunningham says there’s a huge amount of advice available from other members of the judiciary, and says the Bench’s collegiality plus experience in the hot seat will help her get to a level that she is striving for.

“I feel a huge sense of responsibility every time I make a decision because I know that one side will be disappointed. That weighs on me heavily.”

This profile was first published in LawTalk 842, 23 May 2014, page 4.

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