Jan-Marie Doogue was 35 when she got the call asking “Would you like to be a judge?”
Her twin daughters were only four and the question was “confronting”.
“I thought, if I don’t say yes, I will never get asked again. When opportunity knocks, you must answer the call. But I don’t mind saying it was terrifying.”
With her unfaltering, deliberative speech, tangerine blazer and Anna Wintour-perfect bob, the Chief District Court Judge doesn’t look easily terrified. And in the 23 years since she said yes, the 58-year-old has only once questioned her decision, when a disaffected litigant threatened her and her family.
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Her girls were six and her former husband – a QC – was in England, at the Privy Council. The Diplomatic Protection Squad was summoned to shadow Doogue, but lacked the resources to protect the kids as well. They recommended a bodyguard and getting the girls to carry notebooks to note the details of cars parked outside the family home.
The 17-year-old memory still claws at Doogue’s resolve. Her voice prickles and breaks and she quietly cries.
“I thought to myself, ‘No job is worth making my children feel so unsafe’ … I thought seriously about giving up on the job, but in the end I thought it would be quite wrong for me to buckle to the intimidation … I guess that’s just rooted in my family values. We were never allowed to give up on anything.”
Doogue shares a laugh with Palmerston North judge of 24 years Gregory Ross at his final sitting. Doogue oversees a bench of 177 district court judges. PHOTO: DAVID UNWIN/FAIRFAX NZ
Since 2011, Doogue has been boss of the largest court in Australasia. Her realm takes in some 200,000 cases a year, of which 140,000 are criminal. There are jury and judge-alone trials; family court custody and property battles; hospital hearings to decide whether someone should be committed under the Mental Health Act.
It sounds like the most depressing of jobs.
“I can tell you categorically, it is not. And why? Because for every person you encounter, there’s a vulnerability at one of the worst times of their lives. So you have an opportunity to be that rock that they can rely on. And what I’ve learnt particularly as a judge is the phenomenal power of forgiveness and redemption that is out there in the community.”
Doogue is a serial over-achiever. Law ran in the family – her father was a commercial lawyer; her uncle became a High Court judge.
Inspired by teachers who really believed girls could do anything, she worked her way to recognition, fronting for work at 7 every morning and often staying until 6pm. She was partner of an Auckland law firm at 26. From 2003 to 2007 she chaired a committee drafting a global treaty on child support in The Hague.
Doogue officiates at the swearing-in of new Hamilton District Court judge Simon Menzies. PHOTO: CHRIS HILLOCK/FAIRFAX NZ
She readily admits her daughters paid for her ambition – she wasn’t always as available as other mothers. And it’s an issue she encounters trying to even the gender balance of a bench sometimes perceived as a bunch of privileged old white men out of touch with New Zealand’s increasingly diverse population.
Doogue dismisses that notion – judges are now almost 30 per cent women and 10 per cent Maori. But appointing women remains a challenge, because they often underestimate their abilities and apply later than their talent would suggest, waiting until their children finish school.
What gives someone the right to decide the fate of a fellow citizen anyway?
“Experience,” Doogue says. “Experience of the law. Experience of life. Humility, humanity, compassion.”
Doogue with Justice Minister Amy Adams at the 2015 launch of the bail information pack she introduced in response to criticism judges were failing to make accurate risk assessments when awarding bail in family violence cases. PHOTO: KEVIN STENT/FAIRFAX NZ
Some argue judges are being altogether too humane. As Act leader David Seymour put it, in defence of the controversial Three Strikes law, parliament acted because judges were not taking crime seriously enough.
The accusation resurfaced in 2016, when rugby player Losi Filipo was discharged without conviction for a serious assault on four people. Public outrage erupted and he was later convicted on appeal.
The closest Doogue will come to criticising Three Strikes legislation – which forces judges to impose sentences they consider unjust – is to point to the “travesties” seen under similar law in the United States.
She does, however, admit the discharge without conviction furore damaged public confidence in the justice system, fuelling the perception judges are handing out discharges in vast numbers, to the rich and famous. And, as Justice Ministry boss Andrew Bridgman pointed out in 2015, that’s a problem.
“Without public support, we cease to be legitimate,” he wrote.
Doogue failed to defend the system at the time, because the case was still subject to appeal and there was so much inflammatory commentary that she worried her voice wouldn’t be heard. But now, after the storm, she points out only two per cent of the court’s 140,000 criminal cases involve applications for discharge. And they do have a genuine purpose.
She recalls a case of a young and unfamous Maori man who killed his best mate while driving. It was the only mistake he’d ever made.
“You don’t hear those stories in the media.”
Doogue says judges do listen to legitimate concerns. “The notion that we don’t take on board valid criticism, because we’re stuck way up in an ivory tower and don’t really know what’s going on, is just wrong.” PHOTO: DAVID WHITE/FAIRFAX NZ
Bridgman also highlighted court delays, calling them the system’s “Achilles’ heel”. Doogue agrees timely justice is critical. But the district court system’s broad scope means there’s always competition for resources – how do you prioritise between a mentally ill mother endangering her unborn baby by refusing medication, a child abducted to Australia and a defendant awaiting their jury trial?
Policy changes promoting pre-charge warnings and diversion have also meant district courts see more serious crime, which takes longer, Doogue says. “We can’t actually keep pace.”
There is an emotional toll to hearing disturbing evidence and deciding another’s fate. Doogue winds down by fishing – “just line over the side stuff”. She skis, collects New Zealand art, walks, reads, watches movies.
As for the intimidation, that has worsened with social media. The worst example was a threat accompanied by a photo of a judge and his wife in their lounge with their grandchildren. They knew the pre-school the grandchildren went to, when they were picked up, and by whom.
“That’s something we’ve got to be very honest about with people who are applying – we ask whether they’ve got the constitutional fortitude. Because it’s never going to get better. The genie is out of the bottle.”