Affectionately known by some of his colleagues as "the laughing judge", Northland's executive judge John McDonald has officially had his final court sitting.
But while his name may no longer be on the door to one of the judge's chambers in Whangārei District Court, McDonald hasn't hung up his robe yet.
The judge has an acting warrant and will continue to preside over general, civil, and jury trial cases in Northland and other centres for the next two years.
McDonald was born and raised in Northland, where his parents ran a TAB. He attended Northland College in Kaikohe, before going to law school in Auckland. After graduating he worked at various legal practices, including the Crown Solicitor's practices in Auckland and Rotorua before taking up the Crown warrant in Rotorua.
Sworn in as a judge in 2005, he moved back to Northland and later became the region's executive judge. The statute required him to retire on his 70th birthday in March this year, but Covid protocols delayed his formal farewell until last week.
On Friday, a large crowd of judges, lawyers, police, court staff, and other stakeholders were joined by McDonald's family and friends – including his eight grandchildren – for a farewell sitting in Whangārei Courthouse's No.3 courtroom.
There were so many people who wanted to attend that those who couldn't fit in the room had to join others who couldn't make it in person, by attending via audio-visual link.
The send-off was led by visiting Chief District Court Judge Heemi Taumaunu and Judge Greg Davis who has taken over the role as the executive judge for Tai Tokerau.
Their speeches honouring McDonald for his years of leadership in the region but also paying homage to his renowned sense of humour were echoed by the occasion's other nominated speakers - Northland's Crown Solicitor Michael Smith, senior defence counsel Arthur Fairley, and police prosecutions manager Catherine Anderson.
The judge's propensity for at times forgetting he was no longer the distinguished prosecutor of his former career prompted several ribbings in particular.
Joking aside, all the speakers said the judge was widely regarded as a supportive, friendly, and approachable colleague with a clever wit.
He insisted on high standards but was also patient and understanding on occasions when errors were made.
They also spoke of his wealth of legal knowledge, Fairlie describing the judge as having an "instinctive gene for criminal law".
Speakers commended the judge for his managerial skills, which they said had helped keep Northland firmly on the minds of decision-makers elsewhere and helped to streamline a caseload that at times seems insurmountably huge – especially with the backlog caused by Covid.
Judge-alone and jury trials are out to 2024 for Northland, which McDonald (speaking separately to Open Justice) says concerns him greatly. It is not fair on defendants or complainants, he said. But he remains confident it can be overcome and says officials in the chief district court's office in Wellington are aware of it and "doing their absolute best to get on top of it".
Given the convention preventing judges from commenting on political issues, the judge wouldn't be drawn on other matters of justice that might concern him but promises to speak out when his tenure ends for good.
As for a high point of his career, he says he is most proud of the work he and his colleagues, judges Keith De Ridder and Duncan Harvey, did to instigate the successful sexual violence court pilot, which began here and is now being rolled out elsewhere around the country.
"People who make a sexual complaint and it goes to trial are now being treated more kindly I think than they were. It's still not full kindness but at least now it's not as punishing on a complainant to come and give evidence," McDonald said.
The judge said there was good collegial support in Whangārei – a reason he stayed here the whole of his career as a judge.
He looked forward in retirement to having more time to spend with his grandchildren.