Nicholas Jones is a New Zealand Herald political reporter.

Lawyers defend 'Turangi teen' judge's remarks

The 16-year-old charged with a brutal sexual attack on a 5-year-old girl at a Turangi campground intends to plead guilty. Photo / APN
The 16-year-old charged with a brutal sexual attack on a 5-year-old girl at a Turangi campground intends to plead guilty. Photo / APN

A judge's remarks that the teenager accused of raping a 5-year-old girl at a Turangi campground looked "very smart" are not unusual for the Youth Court, lawyers say.

The girl's parents have urged Judge Jocelyn Munro to consider their daughter's feelings after the remarks made at a court hearing last week.

"We felt the judge's comment about the offender's smart looking [appearance] was out of place," said a statement from the parents, who are European tourists.

But lawyers who work in the Youth Court say such comments by judges are commonplace and are directed by the law.

"I can understand why the victim's family could be upset in the circumstances, but I don't think it's showing any bias or anything else," Manukau barrister Kate Leys said. "There's a statutory requirement upon the court to make sure the young person understands and participates in the proceedings."

The judge's comments have been criticised by the Sensible Sentencing Trust and on internet forums and social networking sites.

Auckland barrister Maria Pecotic said youth court judges would often comment positively on how a young person presented themselves.

"It's to encourage the young person to continue to take that care. Similarly, if a young person does something like have their hands in their pockets, they'll be asked to remove [their hands from pockets]."

Youth advocate Megan Jenkins said the parents' concern was entirely understandable, but the comments were made in the context of the court and did not indicate anything beyond that.

"In Papakura and Pukekohe [youth courts], the young person is standing full frontal in view of the judge ... it's a very close-quarters thing. The same judge might have seen the person three weeks earlier, and if there's a difference, the judges will make comments about it."

Professor Warren Brookbanks of the University of Auckland law school said similar comments would be unusual in a District Court.

"But clearly, what the judge was trying to do was to accept the mandate that young people appearing in court are to be treated as benevolently as possible. The context of the fact that it occurred in the Youth Court, as opposed to the adult court, that does make a difference, I think."

The parents were also upset that Judge Munro invited the accused's mother to read out a prayer by her 16-year-old son that asked God to make him a man.

The accused has indicated through his lawyer, Katherine Ewen, that he will plead guilty to charges of sexual violation by rape, burglary, and causing grievous bodily harm.

The girl's family are staying in New Zealand until she is well enough to travel, but said they would not be in Taupo Youth Court when the accused reappears on Wednesday. The girl was attacked as she slept in a caravan at a Turangi campground on December 21.

- NZ Herald

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