Matthew Backhouse

Matthew Backhouse is a journalist based in Auckland.

Breastfeeding in court could be a 'catalyst'

Catherine Owen, with 18-week-old Brianny, says several people have told her to lay a complaint. Photo / APN
Catherine Owen, with 18-week-old Brianny, says several people have told her to lay a complaint. Photo / APN

Breast-feeding in the public gallery of a courtroom could be a "catalyst" to angry scenes in an already tense environment, Law Society president Jonathan Temm says.

His comment comes after Wanaka mother Catherine Owen was asked to leave the Queenstown District Court by a judge for breast-feeding her 18-week-old daughter on Tuesday.

Ms Owen was supporting her partner in court when her baby began to cry, so she started breast-feeding her.

Shortly afterwards, Judge Kevin Phillips asked: "Why is there a baby being breastfed in my courtroom?".

A court bailiff then approached Ms Owen, who had already started to leave the court.

Mr Temm today said the Law Society did not have a view on whether women should be allowed to breast-feed in courtrooms.

But he added it absolutely respected a judge's right to determine what was appropriate in their courtroom.

"Think about it in a practical context - imagine if the public gallery were full of members of the Mongrel Mob and say other people from criminal gangs, and you have a woman who breast-feeds.

"It just becomes a catalyst and people can become quite angry about it. Other women can get angry about it.

"You don't need more tension in the courtroom, you've already got enough. So there are lots of reasons why you need to be more circumspect about certain behaviours."

Mr Temm said judges had complete control over their courtrooms and were entitled to set their own standards, with no limits on their power.

"They can ask people to be removed, taken out, they can ask for hats and sunglasses to be taken off, phones to be turned off, people to be arrested even in the public gallery for contempt of court."

Judges generally tolerated a great deal from people in the public gallery, who were often "anxious and apprehensive" because they were there to support to people appearing in court.

Mr Temm said people would have different views on women breast-feeding in court.

"There is a very active breast-feeding campaign going on in New Zealand now, and some people believe a woman should have a right to breast-feed wherever she wants, whenever she wants.

"Others might have the view that there are rooms available for people to be discrete about the need to engage in that - maybe the child would be more settled in a different environment in a quieter environment than the public gallery of a busy district court."

Mr Temm said there were two ways to challenge a judge's decision, through a judicial review or a complaint to the Judicial Conduct Commission.

A judicial review would be costly while it was doubtful the commissioner would criticise the judge's decision.

Ms Owen said she was embarrassed by the way the judge asked her to leave, but she would not be taking the matter further.

Under the Human Rights Act, it is illegal to prevent someone from breast-feeding in public.

But Human Rights Commission spokesman Gilbert Wong said courts were specifically exempted from any intervention by the commission.

He said the law applied to public areas, rather than non-public areas like courtrooms.

Mr Wong said the commission would encourage most people to take a sensible approach and accommodate breast-feeding.

"There's been a long issue where women have had problems in choosing to breast-feed their infants, and the commission considers that in the right setting, it's potential grounds for unlawful discrimination, depending on the place."

Plunket clinical advisor Allison Jamieson said support for breast-feeding in families, communities and society was essential for improving breast-feeding rates.

"Currently 85 per cent of babies up to the age of six weeks are getting some breast milk. The goal is to see more babies being exclusively breastfed for longer.

"In order for this to happen breast-feeding mothers need a supportive environment. Plunket encourages all New Zealanders to support mothers in their decision to breast-feed."

- APNZ

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