Life at court comes to an end

By Katie Holland

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He's been a calming presence around the Rotorua court house for 25 years but now it's time for "koro" to say goodbye.

At the age of "78-and-a-half", Fred Whata retires today from his position as court support assistant.

It's a role that needed an ability to observe and understand people, speak to them on their own level and listen to their problems, he said. A cheeky sense of humour didn't hurt either.

"I get people saying 'hey mister, you a lawyer?', I tell them 'I am too dear for you, I will find you another lawyer," Mr Whata said.

Although after spending so long in courtrooms, he's learnt a thing or two.

"I reckon I could do a better job than some of the lawyers now," he only half joked.

Rotorua born and bred, Mr Whata was a surveyor for the Ministry of Works for 33 years before being made redundant.

Through a mate he got offered the role of handyman/gardener at the court. When court attendants were introduced to replace police, he was a natural choice.

"I had experience with people, in [Maori] trusts etc," he said.

"They took it for granted I knew how to deal with Maori people."

Unsurprisingly he has plenty of tales to tell - the day someone was stabbed in the court foyer or the day he defused a hostage situation across the road. Yet he claims he's never felt in danger - perhaps down to his ability to calm even the tensest of situations.

These days he's rarely called by name by the public passing through - most of the time it's just "mister" or "koro".

Mr Whata said he was proud to have helped set up a Maori group among court staff, which do pohiri when new lawyers are admitted to the bar and judges' conferences. The group is unique and "the envy of other courts", he said.

He said it saddened him so many offenders in Rotorua were Maori - which he put down to lack of employment and income. At the beginning he thought he could help them all, he said.

"But after two years [in the job] that was it. Most of them can't be helped. It's sad."

While he admits he won't miss the criminals, he will miss the Rotorua lawyers, judges and court staff - a feeling that's sure to be mutual.

Retirement means more time to devote to Ngati Pikiao and environmental issues such as sewerage and water quality. But he'll still find time to relax.

"I can move when I want to move. I have become my own boss."

- ROTORUA DAILY POST

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