Sandra is a senior crimes and justice reporter for the Bay of Plenty Times.

End of an era for two Tauranga judges

Judge Peter Rollo with his wife Judge Annis Somerville on the eve of their retirement
Photo/George Novak.
Judge Peter Rollo with his wife Judge Annis Somerville on the eve of their retirement Photo/George Novak.

It's an end of an era as Tauranga Judge Peter Rollo and his wife Judge Annis Somerville were farewelled yesterday after serving 16 years on the bench.

The couple has decided to retire.

Both originally from Dunedin, Judge Somerville was appointed a Family Court judge on March 2, 2001, just seven months after her husband was sworn in as a District Court judge on July 14, 2001.

Being of Ngai Tahu and Scottish descent, Judge Somerville was a trailblazer as the first Maori Family Court Judge to be appointed in New Zealand.

She and Judge Rollo also became the first husband and wife judiciary officers in the country.

Judge Somerville said she was the only woman in the judicial common rooms in the Tauranga and Rotorua courts for 10 years, which was an "interesting" experience.

A legal career wasn't something she envisaged when she graduated from Otago University with a Bachelor of Anthropology and Philosophy, and also undertook Russian studies.

Before becoming a barrister, she spent a year at teachers' training college and taught for two years, including a year at Otumoetai Intermediate in 1973.

She then headed south again and lived and worked in Waimate South, but once her older brother Dr Royden Somerville QC chose to study law, she decided to follow suit.

"It was his dream, and I just tagged on to it. I thought if my brother could do it, so could I," Judge Somerville said.

After graduating with a law degree from Otago University, she worked at a private law firm until setting up her own all-women barrister & solicitors' practice in Otago in 1987.

Judge Somerville is a fellow of Knox College and founding member, former convener and an honorary life member of the Otago Women's Law Society.

She also held office as president of the Otago District Law Society in 1996.

A fierce advocate for women's rights, she was founding member and president of the NZ Association of Women Judges until stepping down last year.

Judge Somerville said it was difficult for some people to accept a female judge was going to decide their fate.

She also recalled one unhappy client yelling a disparaging comment about her posterior as he left her courtroom.

As a Family Court judge, Judge Somerville said she became aware of the stark societal differences between the wealthy and the poverty-stricken and disenfranchised.

"You see it all in the Family Court; it's another world as Family Court law cases cover a wide range cases from the womb to the tomb.

"You're having to make decisions before children are born and after people have died when you're dealing with their estates," she said.

Judge Rollo too never saw a legal profession in his future when he left school at 17 and headed to Otago University to study English literature, languages, economics and American Literature, before doing some Bachelor of Laws' papers.

"My mother always thought I should study law, so I didn't, but I grew to appreciate the wisdom of her views," he said.

In 1976 he headed overseas for two years, and on his return completed his law degree and graduated at age 29.

He initially worked at a law firm in Invercargill for 18 months before returning to Dunedin [his home town] and worked at law firm Webb Farry as a litigation partner, until his appointment as a district court judge in Tauranga.

Judge Rollo said being a judge and making decisions which affected so many people's lives was hugely demanding, challenging and time-consuming.

That included a massive amount of reading and preparation work before and after court sittings which were not fully appreciated by the community, the judges said.

"Law is a harsh mistress. Whether you are a lawyer or a judge it takes a lot of work and dedication, like any other profession, to do it well, and achieve good results, and you're constantly striving to get better results," Judge Rollo said.

"But you join the legal profession because you love the law and want to apply it well to make positive differences in people's lives and the role soon takes over your life," he said.

Judge Rollo said judges did come in for some flack, but strict rules barred a judge from having the right of reply, even when criticised in media reports, he said.

It was frustrating when media got the basis of a decision wrong or omitted key facts because it inevitably led to the public being ill-formed or often forming "biased" views of the judgements handed down, he said.

Despite those frustrations, Judge Rollo, who also sat in the Youth Court, said he had never regretted his decision to work as a judge as criminal law was an unbelievably interesting and evolving subject

"We have both been very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to become judges, and it's been a great privilege to have served this community," his wife said.

After 16 years on the bench, they decided to retire at a time when they were physically able to do the things they wanted to do during the next phase of their lives in Wanaka.

They planned to transform a "family crib" into their retirement home and build it around the grand piano Judge Rollo loved to play.

Both judges have many relations living in Otago.

"We are swapping one paradise for another," Judge Somerville said.

Judge Somerville said she was looking forward to reconnecting with friends, family, Otago University and spending more time at Otakou Marae.

Judge Rollo said he might take up a "bit of fishing".

The two judges were farewelled at a special sitting in Tauranga District Court yesterday.

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