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Confessing our shared humanity.

By Helen Watson White in All Sorts

review of salient points from Rosemary Riddell's memoir To Be Fair:confessions of a District Court Judge.

Confessing our shared humanity.
'What if we could be honest about our pain?' asks film/theatre director and lawyer Rosemary Riddell in her memoir To Be Fair: Confessions of a District Court Judge. Not perhaps the question you'd expect from one of our judges, considering the impersonal way in which they are supposed to address the law.
From the first chapter, 'Mental Health', Riddell makes it clear that her 'confessions' go beyond the details of hearings she attended in 14 years of sitting on the bench. A book written initially for her own reasons – to 'let go' the experience of a 'demanding and difficult job' – has broadened to include a critique of society, canvassing the 'thorny issues of poverty, family violence and racism' that underly many of the cases she has heard. She does not, however, distance herself from that society, and its underbelly; any problems discussed are collectively owned – they are not just the individual's but 'ours'.
Riddell writes with a sense of 'the unexpected' which is inherently theatrical, bringing events to life. Half a page into the mental health chapter, for instance, we are in comic territory. As we were warned in the preface, 'Sometimes ... I have wanted to stuff my gown in my mouth to stop from laughing helplessly at what goes on.' Equally, when there is grief, doubt, regret, or the shock of a family tragedy, this judge is not slow to respond. She quotes the late Justice Fogarty as saying the human quality he most admired was humour ('it binds us together'); yet because of the particulars of one case relating closely to his own background, Fogarty was 'known to choke up while sentencing a man on fraud charges'. Riddell herself describes, on several occasions, driving home from work, 'barely able to see the road in front of me for the flood of tears.'
To expose such emotions is a brave thing for anyone to do, but what she's describing is, after all, 'out of hours'. Riddell is well aware that on the job she must think logically and dispassionately... 'taking all the facts and law into account.' The book covers a wide range of subjects, from the classic 'custody tussle' to witness reliability, from revenge to whakama [shame] and restorative justice, from stress and how to manage it, to that thorniest of questions, 'Is it hard to decide?'. While obviously the judge must present a passionless mask in court, she can analyse and agonize all she likes in private – and has to, because every decision is hard, 'at times immeasurably so'.
When you hear of the complexity of most cases involving children, or the effects of punitive legislation like the Three Strikes Law, you understand the full force of Riddell's last-page statement: 'Judges are only human.' You also understand why she has included a few bad jokes to leaven the earnestness. On the sober side, her willingness to enter into people's lived experience furthers the aim of social cohesion. Humour, she suggests, can free us from a sort of communal dread; and pain honestly expressed becomes shared pain.
In describing one psychiatric patient, declined discharge from hospital by her decision and leaving the court without protest, she remarks: 'Every time they go... I think it could be me. The circuitry in the brain gone awry, a head injury or a cataclysmic life event from which there's no coming back.' She feels on a level with defendants as well as with lawyers and judges, demonstrating a persistent belief in equality, despite the hierarchical system she has inherited. Cases heard in the Family Court and criminal court, Riddell argues, are not as different as they seem, because complainants and defendants were brought up in the same society, many of the latter suffering from harmful influences on their growth and development that the former were lucky to escape. Lamenting the lack of diversity among lawyers, Riddell lists many ways (anti-racism seminars, marae visits) in which they could broaden their knowledge of how other people live – if they wanted to.
Judges, she says, are after all grounded in the same humanity, with the same 'struggles and triumphs' as everyone else. It is an important step to try putting yourself in someone else's shoes.
– Helen Watson White