Editorial: 'Pumpkin' and public well served

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The fate of 3-year-old "Pumpkin", abandoned by her father in apparent mid-flight from her mother's murder, was always going to present problems for the New Zealand Family Court. The heartless desertion was filmed by a security camera and the footage ensured worldwide interest in the case. The statutory secrecy of Family Court proceedings in this country were likely to expose the court to ridicule.

Its Principal Judge, Peter Boshier, has responded to that risk this week with liberalism and good sense. Though the lawyer for the little girl, Qian Xun Xue, and her grandmother who was to be awarded guardianship, both preferred the hearing be closed to the press, Judge Boshier ordered otherwise.

His order also warned the press that he had no power under the Children Young Persons and Their Families Act to allow publication of the names of the child, parents or guardians. However, he said he would find a way to give his decision in a way that could be conveyed to the public.

He did. He chose to give his decision mainly in the form of directions under a different act of Parliament, the Care of Children Act, which allowed him to permit publication of names.

Thus he avoided the nonsense that would have resulted had the hearing produced delphic reports of a decision awarding custody of an unidentifiable child to an unidentifiable woman, with the public left to infer what it might.

Judge Boshier has not only rescued his court from that ridicule, he has given us a glimpse of the court's care and sensitivity in its specialist role.

The case was probably one of the more straightforward to come before the Family Court. The little girl's grandmother in China and her half-sister in this country had both been willing to care for her but her sister, Grace Xue, withdrew in favour of Madame Xiao Ping Liu well before the hearing.

The judge had simply to award guardianship to Madame Liu, allow her to take the child back to China and ensure Grace Xue the right to have contact with the little girl here or there. But the warm and compassionate words the judge used in making the orders can bring only credit to this country's family proceedings wherever his ruling was reported.

In handling the case as he has, the judge understands the meaning of public interest. It ranges far wider than that which many in authority think the public needs to know. It might not encompass everything people want to know but it should err in that direction.

People are naturally interested in a case such as this. For most the interest is much more than idle curiosity, it is the difficulty in believing that a fellow human being could act as the little girl's fugitive father, Naiyin Xue, was seen to do by the camera at a Melbourne train station.

He, or somebody else, did very much worse to her mother but it was the little girl whose face we could see and it is her fate we needed to see settled for the time being.

The Family Court deals with one of the branches of law closest to most people's lives. The frequency of marital breakdown these days, and the complications that arise from tensions and fraught situations, are countless. The public needs to know how they are likely to be resolved.

Not all family disputes will interest the wider community, not even most. If the Family Court could be routinely reported, the only cases likely to be followed are those that attract interest before they come to court, like this one.

Legislation now before Parliament will open the court's doors a little. Judge Boshier looks forward to that. Meanwhile, his handling of the Pumpkin case has shown how an adroit judge can work around rigid law for the public interest.

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