Judged as the best

Pioneering Youth Court judge Mick Brown was last night honoured with the Blake Medal for leadership. As Phil Taylor reports, he is driven by a deep desire to repay a debt of gratitude

Photo / Brett Phibbs
Photo / Brett Phibbs

Mick Brown is the little boy lost saved by a loving foster family, who went on to spend his adult life giving back.

He is best known as the first Principal Youth Court judge, the poster boy for a new way of delivering justice that was less about crime and punishment and which made the world sit up and take notice.

Brown was presented with the Blake Medal, the supreme prize of the Sir Peter Blake Trust Leadership Awards at a ceremony in the Auckland Town Hall. The citation said Brown had dramatically changed the juvenile court system and significantly improved outcomes through his transformational leadership. He becomes the ninth Blake Medallist since the award was introduced in 2005.

Current Principal Youth Court Judge Andrew Becroft says Brown was a "fantastic choice that will be greeted, at least in youth justice circles, with universal acclaim".

Sir Thomas Eichelbaum, who was Chief Justice during Brown's term leading the Youth Court, recalls Brown as an outstanding judge who set the standard.

"He was very much at the heart of the start of that court. In addition to his abilities as a judge, he had a lovely personality."

Becroft told the Weekend Herald Brown was the right man at the right time. "He presided over a revolution. It was a quiet revolution and it was a legal revolution and it was the introduction of a totally different paradigm of youth justice."

Since 1989 New Zealand has run its entire youth justice system in a non-adversarial manner, based on twin objectives of not charging young people unless the public interest demanded it but to hold them to account in the community, and, for the most serious offenders who did come before court, to use the family group conference as the decision-making mechanism. It delegated to the family and the community, under the court's supervision, responsibility to come up with the appropriate response.

Youth court numbers were slashed overnight, says Becroft, who follows Sir David Carruthers as the third Principle Youth Court judge.

"[Brown] firmly believed that even taking young people to court could be very detrimental and that the earlier they got into the system the harder it was to ever get them out.

"He also believed that a restorative justice process that put victim and offender and their families and community of interest together was a more effective way of dealing with a young offender than as I have heard him say 'let them stand mute in the dock while everyone else talked around them'." It was a risk and though it was the Government's initiative, Brown was left to roll it out, ensure it worked and be its public face. That took courage and conviction. "I think his legacy was he sold that system to the country. He was a man for all seasons who could relate to everybody in the community and he, I think, gained the trust of the country that it was a credible system, a system that delivered both accountability and rehabilitation."

Brown's engaging personality was critical, says Becroft. "He was unique. He had an inimitable style based on a very strong and compelling and compassionate character with a very dry and reflective sense of humour.

"He had what you would almost call genetic gravitas. His comments were almost presidential without him realising it. He was an ideal person to play that pioneering role."

Speaking to the Herald this week, Brown, 75, was modest and in good humour. "It was a novel idea," he said of the youth justice changes. "I didn't invent it, I was just presented with the legislation and told, 'you will do this'." It was world-leading and Brown, who stepped down from the role in 1996, was in demand as a speaker by many countries interested in adopting the system.

North & South once described Brown as "the intellectual equivalent of Billy T. James", someone able to make points on sensitive issues without leaving scars, such is his rare mix of courage, compassion, personal history and humour.

He didn't shy away from touchy subjects. In 1981 four years before a law change meant the Waitangi Tribunal's jurisdiction was extended back to 1840 Brown said New Zealand would never be a totally bicultural society until the Maori land question was addressed.

Real progress, he said, required "greatly increased sensitivity by European elements in our society towards Maori aspirations" and tangible compensation. "Unless consultation and sensitivity are introduced into these fields, the possibility for division and violence is inevitably deepened."

When his landmark 2001 review of Child, Youth and Family coincided with a run of horrendous assault cases on mostly Maori children he extended the inquiry's scope to look into the whys of child abuse and noted often overlooked issues including poverty and intergenerational abuse. At the same time he signalled his discomfort with generalisations about race but also his delight that Maori were "at last" beginning to talk about the issue. "I have this little phrase," he said, "you can't close the gaps until you open your eyes."

His friend, former Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand once advised a journalist about to interview Brown to ask about humour, noting that "he's got some very serious things to say about humour".

In that interview Brown said he was "very aware of the usefulness of humour". "Often you can make a quite serious point but if you do it humorously it is sensed as being less threatening and can even become more memorable. As a national characteristic I don't think we enjoy being told what to do, so it is another way of advocacy."

There were plenty of laughs at Brown's family home in Mt Albert this week as he joked about the females in the family (his two youngest daughters live with him) keeping him in line. But talking about his early life he became serious. "I feel there is a great debt I owe to society," he said.

Hence he had always set aside a portion of his time to serve in public roles, including Chancellor and Pro Vice-Chancellor (Maori) of the University of Auckland, as a member of charitable trusts including the Auckland Cricket Association, the Child Development Foundation and the Alcohol and Liquor Advisory Council.

Brown - who was born in the Far North - didn't know either of his birth parents. His father was elderly and his mother died of tuberculosis when he was a year and a day. She had come to Auckland to stay in a hostel for sufferers at Green Lane Hospital and his foster mother, whom Brown referred to as "Mrs Flood", heard about a little boy in need of care. When his mother died the Floods became his family, their home his home. It is still his home today, bought by Brown for sentimental reasons.

As far as he was concerned she was his mum and her daughter was his sister. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the 18th century Russian novelist had it right, Brown reckoned, when he wrote about the importance of good childhood memories as a foundation.

His sense of good fortune was reinforced by the care he received when tuberculosis affected his knee as a youth at the Wilson Home, a beautiful heritage Takapuna property bequeathed by the family who once co-owned the New Zealand Herald, where Brown spent three years. He considers himself one of the lucky ones; many at the home would not walk again whereas Brown recovered to play 1st XI and senior club cricket.

He followed his foster sister Acushla into teaching but a love of debating drew him to law school, where he made friends with several other aspiring lawyers who went on to make their marks.

They included Sir Anand, former prime minister David Lange, former deputy prime minister Jim McLay, Sir Douglas Graham, who led the Treaty settlement negotiations, and Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias, who says it has been her privilege to know Mick Brown as a colleague and friend for more than 40 years.

"He is one of those truly rare people who transforms the lives of others through leadership by doing," Dame Sian said. "Mick is a deeply caring man who is humble of his great gifts but whose influence has changed New Zealand for the better in many ways. He was the first Maori judge of the District Court. He was key in pioneering reforms to youth justice which have made New Zealand an example to the world. He has worked tirelessly and fearlessly for education in New Zealand. And he has been deeply engaged in work to achieve proper recognition for Maori customary law, through which we may one day achieve a legal system which is uniquely ours.

"Mick Brown is a visionary who is a great New Zealander and he is justly celebrated with this award."

Brown is equally at home in any household. Told of the mark he'd made on a family whose car he happened to buy for one of his daughters - he'd stayed for a cup of tea and a chat - the widower who has six children and five grandchildren, says he'd like to think that he does that, "because people have been very good to me in my life".

He's flattered by the award but says that is not why you do it. The 2013 Blake Medallist laughed heartily and said, "I'm always surprised when anyone remembers who the heck I am."

Living legacy

The Sir Peter Blake Trust

Aims to inspire and celebrate environmental awareness, adventure and leadership. Sir Peter's life as a yachtsman, adventurer, leader and guardian of the environment was tragically cut short on December 5, 2001 when he was killed by pirates on the Amazon River. The trust emerged out of a determination to forge a living legacy which stayed true to Sir Peter's philosophy of "deeds, not words".

The trust was launched on June 25, 2004 and the Government provided a $3.8 million endowment a dollar for every New Zealander for the creation of an organisation which would honour Sir Peter's leadership, love for the environment, and dedication to young people.

The Blake Medal

The Blake Medal is the premium award for leadership and New Zealand leaders who have made an outstanding contribution to the country.

Previous winners

2012: Sir John Graham, education, sport and business.

2011: Dame Margaret Bazley, public service.

2010: Sir Ray Avery, social entrepreneur and scientist.

2009: Dr John Hood, education, business.

2008: Sir Murray Halberg, charity, athletics.

2007: Sir Paul Callaghan, pioneer in nanotechnology.

2006: Sir Stephen Tindall, business entrepreneurship.

2005: Sir John Anderson, inspirational business leader.

- NZ Herald

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