The "epidemic" of domestic violence is costing the country up to $7 billion a year, says former judge turned author Rosemary Riddell, who questions the Government's funding priorities and calls for several law changes. By Paul Gorman.
Ever wanted to know what a judge really thinks of the law, her courtroom and her colleagues? Retired District Court and Family Court judge Rosemary Riddell has thrown back the musty curtains of the justice system to let in light and reveal what life on the bench is actually like.
To Be Fair: Confessions of a District Court Judge (Upstart Press) reflects Riddell's 14 years on the bench – 12 full-time and two with an acting-warrant – and is a vehicle for her strong opinions on issues such as the country's handling of domestic violence, the "glacial pace" of the justice system, the outdated Adoption Act and the controversial "three strikes" law.
Riddell, 69, is aware the forthright views she has unleashed in her book and subsequent interviews will ruffle legal feathers and mean there is no way back to the bench.
She has been through plenty, including the death of her daughter Polly after a drug overdose in 2018.
Riddell had a career in broadcasting and acting before studying and practising law. She was appointed to the District Court in Hamilton in 2006.
Talking to the Listener, she takes a big swipe at Government spending priorities and the lack of funding for one of the country's most pressing issues, domestic violence.
"The moment Covid came along, we just threw money at it. The Government was right to do so, but we need to do so with domestic violence, which costs our country between 4 and 7 billion dollars a year in all kinds of fallout. It costs us lives, lost employment and kids out of school, and it is an epidemic. A fellow judge told me that, during lockdown, if there was a domestic incident, police would just take the perpetrator out and put them in a motel. Give them somewhere to live, give them some vouchers, and they were away from the problem.
"A woman, if she is lucky, might get into a women's refuge, but, as far as I know, there are no residential housing options like that for men. It did occur to me that we could find the money when we felt we needed it."
It is unfathomable that women's refuges still struggle to get funding, she says.
"It shouldn't be. It should be something proudly that's available to any victim.
"Despite New Zealand being lauded for its prime minister, and despite having a country of great natural beauty, the reality is that, in terms of international standards, we are right at the top when it comes to domestic violence. Those are statistics that should appal everyone.
"You can blame colonialism as being part of the problem. When you go back to the pioneering days, where there were 1000 people and 20 pubs, we had that 'rugby, racing and beer' mentality. We've got that deep in our bones, and with the beer comes the problems. It is no accident that violence often erupts in the context of consuming alcohol."
However, she believes longer prison sentences for perpetrators are not the answer.
"That might be an unpopular view, but if you throw a man in prison for one, two, five, 10 years if you like, you take him out of society during that time, but you are not rehabilitating him during that process."
Adoption act irrelevant
Among the laws Riddell does not like, the Adoption Act, passed in 1955, is "completely irrelevant" and needs binning, she says.
"It is wrong for at least three reasons. First, it erases a child's biological family identity, and it is gone forever. A child who was born to a woman whose family might have had incredibly worthy or important descendants is no longer part of that family legally.
"Second, it removes the Māori concept of whāngai for children. In Māori tradition, that was and is important, because if a child is whāngai and raised by another family, the child doesn't lose his or her knowledge and understanding of their biological family. Although it still happens informally, it is not a legal concept any more.
"The third thing is, I think there are better ways of ensuring a loving family gets to have a new baby, if for any reason the biological parents can't manage that child. That better concept is called 'guardianship'. It gives that loving family all the legal rights of the day-to-day care of that child, the right to make decisions about getting a passport, getting vaccinated, what school they go to, all those decisions, but it doesn't take away from the child who they were at birth."
Riddell is also highly critical of the "three strikes" legislation, which came into effect with 2010's Sentencing and Parole Reform Act, aimed at habitual offenders.
For serious offences, including sexual assault or robbery, a convicted person is given a warning as the "first strike". On the "second strike" for another such crime, they have to serve the entire sentence imposed by the judge. On the "third strike", the maximum sentence is imposed without the chance of parole.
Riddell says there is no evidence this law has done anything other than institutionalise criminals and make it even harder for them to cope with life beyond a cell.
"One of the saddest stories stands out for me. A young woman had been on meth and they had effectively kidnapped a woman, taken her to an ATM, made her empty [her account] and dealt out some pretty torturous, gruesome behaviour.
"And so there she was, on her second strike, and I knew that whatever prison sentence I gave her, that was what she would serve. No time off for good behaviour. It was something like six years-plus.
"It was an awful crime, but when you think about her rehabilitation, it wasn't the focus of sentencing that day. I was very sad about that."
That was one of at least three occasions when Riddell can remember driving home in "floods of tears" – others came after hearing a victim-impact report of horrific abuse, and looking at pornographic images featuring children.
Riddell had endured more than her share of deeply personal grief while still a lawyer. Her youngest daughter, Anna, was raped at age 11 while at a friend's house. It took her two years to pluck up the courage to tell her family. "That was the beginning of 20 years of hell.
"It's in my nature to immediately confront the rapist or go to the police, but she wouldn't let us. She wouldn't name him."
By the time she started secondary school, Anna, who changed her name to Polly, had begun taking drugs and self-harming. "We tried everything – money, tough love, lecturing … nothing worked.
"We lived through Polly's ups and downs, which went on for years. I was always looking for some kind of quick fix, but for more than 20 years we didn't get that – we'd have good times and then terrible struggles.
"Her addiction was bad enough to deal with, but when she engaged in prostitution, I felt as low and as helpless as I've ever felt."
Polly was raped again in her thirties. This time, she went to the police and even persuaded other women who'd been raped by the same man to come forward.
"When the case went to court, I thought, 'Here's a chance for the justice system to demonstrate to Polly how it should work.' But despite the conviction, the appeal process was something she told me later was worse than going through the actual rape.
"He didn't appeal the sentence of 12 and a half years, but he said it was too long because he had paid reparations, when, in fact, he hadn't. So, there was Polly, invited by the police to go to Wellington, sitting in court listening to the defence submissions. That really did her harm, and months and months later, she descended back into drugs."
The reparation had not been paid and it took more than a year to correct that.
"In the meantime, Polly died, having felt like the offender still controlled her in some way from prison."
No judges' treatment
The ordeal allowed Riddell and husband Mike to see the justice system in action the way any member of the public does. She says she had always admired judges' intellect, objectivity and patience, but never thought, "There's a path for me. I'm not a patient person."
She felt that lack of patience keenly through Polly's life and death. "As a judge, dealing with both Polly's adult rape and events after her death, I have been like any other member of the public. No special privileges, no judges' treatment."
Riddell included the chapter on Polly "because I really wanted to say, 'Judges are human. We go through this stuff, too.'
"When you dig a bit deeper with people, there are many who carry their own 'Polly' experience. It might be loss of a child through illness or suicide, or something quite different that has left an indelible mark on their soul.
"We are all wounded in some way. I felt as if I'd joined a special band of people when Polly was alive and struggling – those parents who present a bright front to the world, but inside are hurting so badly. People say nobody should have to bury their child. And when you've gone through that and then you meet someone else who has been through it, you have a special understanding."
When she became a judge, she said to herself: "Here's one person who knows what deep pain is like, who does, to an extent, understand drug addiction better than many people in society.
"That didn't mean I was going to be easy on every drug addict who came up in front of me, but it gave me an insight and a compassion for what was important."
Riddell says she was "on the wrong side" of both of last year's referendums, being strongly opposed to euthanasia.
"I was always a bit ambivalent about the marijuana issue, although I did vote in favour of legalising it. I felt [it would be better] if you could take the mystery out of it and make it available for those who wanted to smoke it, instead of it being underground.
"When people came up in court because police had raided a house and found these plants in the garden, then somebody got community work, I used to think, 'What a waste of police time.'
"But I'm ambivalent because for some people, marijuana can be the starting point or stepping stone to more serious drugs. And knowing the drugs that Polly was using at times made me very anti. So I don't think it's an easy one. Certainly, with the significant drugs, they have got to deal to those."
Scary place to be
Riddell lives in Oturehua in Central Otago's Ida Valley. She says the book came about as a panacea to boredom during last year's Covid lockdown. She did not keep a diary of her time on the bench, but the anecdotes, some from colleagues, kept dripping from her pen.
One of her favourites, from a fellow judge, is about a wannabe robber who goes into a bank and says, "This is a hold-up, everyone on the floor. Oh," he looks around, "not you, Auntie."
The move to Central Otago came after Mike was diagnosed with cancer. At first, Riddell thought she would be able to continue as a judge with an acting-warrant, but after two years, the travel became too much and she retired.
"That seemed a sensible solution and a workable one. But then I realised my whole life had gone. It was about identity for me. If I give this job away, who am I? It's a scary place to be."
She admits to being "not a great Catholic, but Mike and I would both say our faith is incredibly important to us. It made a huge difference at the time Polly died, because in all of that terrible grieving and loss, and the ache that never went away, I never felt abandoned by God, and that God wasn't present. You can't dream that up – it either is or it isn't."
As winter grips the Ida Valley with sub-freezing temperatures, Riddell is looking forward to being beside the "fierce woodburner" and practising on her beloved white baby grand piano.
If it's a nice day, she sometimes takes her mum, Lorna, to Hayes Café just outside the village or walks her mum's dog, Gracie, in the afternoon.
"I hope Mum's got a few more good years in her, because she's got such a great sense of adventure and is always up for a party.
"I love open fires and walking in the snow down to the domain. The scenery is beautiful. Even a hoar frost is spectacular, with every single part of a cobweb covered in frost, so it magnifies everything."
She has already started her next book, but won't reveal what it's about.
"I'm about 30,000 words in. But I have no idea if it works or if it's rubbish."
For Riddell, throwing the book at them means something completely different.
If you're in danger now:
• Phone the police on 111 or ask neighbours of friends to ring for you.
• Run outside and head for where there are other people.
• Scream for help so that your neighbours can hear you.
• Take the children with you.
• Don't stop to get anything else.
• If you are being abused, remember it's not your fault. Violence is never okay
Where to go for help or more information:
• Women's Refuge: Free national crisis line operates 24/7 - 0800 refuge or 0800 733 843 www.womensrefuge.org.nz
• Shine, free national helpline 9am- 11pm every day - 0508 744 633 www.2shine.org.nz
• It's Not Ok: Information line 0800 456 450 www.areyouok.org.nz
• Shakti: Providing specialist cultural services for African, Asian and middle eastern women and their children. Crisis line 24/7 0800 742 584
• Ministry of Justice: www.justice.govt.nz/family-justice/domestic-violence
• National Network of Stopping Violence: www.nnsvs.org.nz
• White Ribbon: Aiming to eliminate men's violence towards women, focusing this year on sexual violence and the issue of consent. www.whiteribbon.org.nz
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