New Zealand Law Society - Chief District Court Judge Russell Joseph Johnson, 1947 - 2011

Chief District Court Judge Russell Joseph Johnson, 1947 - 2011

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His Honour Judge Russell Johnson died on 24 July 2011 after a short illness.

Chief Judge Johnson was born in Auckland on 12 July 1947. He was educated at Kaitaia Primary School, Inglewood High School and Auckland University, where he graduated LLB in 1969.

After completion of his law degree he worked in private practice until 1974, when he spent three years as Crown Counsel in the Attorney-General’s chambers in Hong Kong. On his return to New Zealand, he worked for Chapman Tripp and Meredith Connell before setting up as a barrister sole in 1982. He gained a Diploma in Criminology from Auckland University in 1985 and joined Auckland law firm Wynyard Wood as a partner from 1986 to 1993.

Chief Judge Johnson was a member of the Auckland Crown Prosecutor’s Panel from 1985 to 1992, and a Council member of the Auckland District Law Society from 1988 to 1993. He also sat on the Society’s Criminal Law and District Court Liaison subcommittees and the Common Law and Complaints committees. He was Vice President of the Criminal Bar Association from 1990 to 1992 and an organiser of the 4th International Criminal Bar Congress in Auckland in 1992. He also sat on the Auckland District Legal Services Committee.

In 1993 Russell Johnson was appointed as a District Court Judge. He sat in Waitakere, Manukau, Auckland and Hamilton. He served as Executive Judge for the northern region from 1996. He was appointed Chief District Court Judge from 1 April 2005.

Chief Judge Johnson was closely involved with the Royal New Zealand Naval Volunteer Reserve which he joined in 1967. He was commissioned in 1969 and appointed Commanding Officer, HMNZS Ngapona from 1990 to 1992. When he retired from the RNZNVR in 1992 he had the rank of Commander.

Among his other appointments Chief Judge Johnson also served as a Judge of the Supreme Court of Pitcairn Islands and a Deputy Chief Judge of the Court Martial. Just before his death he had been appointed a Deputy Judge Advocate General of the Armed Forces.

His sudden death came as a shock to the New Zealand legal profession. The Minister of Justice, Minister of Courts and the Attorney-General all expressed their shock and sorrow.

“Chief Judge Russell Johnson was an outstanding leader for what is the largest court in Australasia and the frontline of our justice system,” Mr Finlayson said. “Most recently his leadership was evident in the support he provided to judges and the courts community in Christchurch following February's earthquake.”

“Chief Judge Johnson worked constructively with the Government to improve the operation of the District Court,” Mr Power said. “He made valuable contributions to the current criminal procedure reform programme and the development of a new District Court operating model in Auckland.”

“A Chief Judge has huge administrative responsibilities but Russell Johnson was every bit a team player,” Mrs Te Heuheu said. “Quite often he would sit in District Courts in every corner of New Zealand to cover for judges who were unavailable for some reason.”

Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias said that the Chief Judge was an outstanding judicial leader and a dear friend and cherished colleague to all judges, across all courts. 

"Chief Judge Johnson was someone who exercised the authority of office scrupulously, with care for all, and no airs," Dame Sian said.

"He was generous, good-humoured and measured in all he did. He was a fine lawyer and, as Chief Judge, led from the front. He took very seriously the mission of the District Courts to serve all communities in New Zealand and he himself sat in provincial and suburban courts, going wherever there was need." 

He was, she said, a man of great kindness and decency who loved his country and its people. 

Jonathan Temm, President of the New Zealand Law Society, described him as an outstanding judge and leader, respected and admired by lawyers throughout New Zealand.

“The profession will greatly miss him,” Mr Temm said. “We are also very aware that he was very highly regarded and respected by the team of District Court Judges he led. Before he was appointed a District Court Judge in 1993, Judge Johnson was a highly respected lawyer. That respect grew during his service, first as a Judge and then, from 1 April 2005, as the Chief Judge.”

Chief Judge Johnson is survived by his wife Margaret, his daughters Katherine and Sarah and five grandchildren.

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