David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

New Zealander of the Year Finalist 2012: Helen Winkelmann

Justice Winkelmann wants judgments made easier to grasp. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Justice Winkelmann wants judgments made easier to grasp. Photo / Sarah Ivey

In her own words, the job of Chief High Court Judge Justice Helen Winkelmann required her to walk the harder road.

She appears to be making the road harder - and her load heavier - by finding new ways to respond to calls for greater judicial accountability.

In a speech to public notaries last month, Justice Winkelmann railed against the "volatile media environment" with calls for judges to justify their decisions. She warned "relentless criticism undermines public confidence in the judiciary".

It was a rallying cry to those who upheld the rule of law even at personal cost. She said "judges, legal practitioners often have to take the harder road" in a profession with "exacting standards".

These were challenging times in the "increasingly complex world of a judge".

The "volatile" media has been present this year as she has taken on what's expected of the head of bench, tackling the court's tougher cases.

In October, she found Christy Marceau's killer Akshay Anand Chand, 19, not guilty of murder by reason of insanity. Christy's father Brian publicly disagreed with the sentence.

There was controversy around the Kim Dotcom decisions which have upheld ancient search rules in a modern context.

Justice Winkelmann's speech rejected calls for judges to explain their decisions - the reasons were in the judgments, she said. "What we can do, and must do better, is make our reasons more accessible."

There was a role for the head of bench to have a greater public voice, to "provide context that is missing from the reporting".

New Zealand Bar Association president Stephen Mills QC described Justice Winkelmann as an "outstandingly good lawyer and judge", noting her intelligence and lateral thinking. He worked with her on systems to progress High Court caseloads.

Justice Winkelmann was appointed a High Court judge in 2004, becoming head of bench in 2010. She spent much of her working life as a lawyer at Phillips Fox, being made partner in 1988, three years after admission to the bar.

Auckland Women Lawyers' Association president Rachael Reed said Justice Winkelmann was an inspiration to women in the profession, showing support and being generous with time for professional gatherings. "Women need to see women doing the same thing in order to know they can achieve it."

Justice Winkelmann was also a mother, showing it was possible to raise a family and work at the top of her profession.

Law Society president Jonathan Temm said Justice Winkelmann's "frontline" role in leading cases showed she was "without a shadow of doubt doing her job superbly".

- NZ Herald

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