Hamilton District Court Judge Jonathan Down, 65, is hanging up his robe and retiring, bringing a legal career of 30 years to a close.
Down, a former UK Police officer, came to New Zealand in the early 2000s where he practised as a criminal barrister, Crown prosecutor, public defender and judge.
He arrived in Hamilton from the North Shore District Court in 2012 and will retire due to ill health.
Down was farewelled in an emotional special sitting at the Hamilton District Court on Friday, where he was joined by Chief District Court Judge Heemi Taumaunu and Executive Judge for Hamilton Noel Cocurullo on the Bench.
“I’m lucky to be alive, and earlier this year, this farewell special sitting seemed unlikely to ever occur,” Down said.
“But I am not who I used to be. I no longer have the health, sharpness, wit or patience required to be a good judge. It’s time to make room for another, younger model.”
The courtroom was packed with more than 100 people including Down’s family, District Court judges from around New Zealand, coroners, magistrates, public defenders and Crown prosecutors. Several people joined the ceremony online from overseas, for some, it was 4am.
“I started my career in law as a police officer, in the Kent County Constabulary. I well remember the first day I proudly put on that uniform for my first working shift... I felt a million dollars. I thought ‘This is who I am and this is what I’m meant to be’. Little did I know how many twists and turns my career would take.”
Following a serious motorcycle accident, Down was forced to retire from the police force and decided to study law at the University of Kent.
He was admitted to the bar in the UK in 1993 where spent 10 years, before coming to New Zealand.
“At the English bar ... I was able to indulge my love for dressing up ... Imagine my disappointment, when I learned on emigrating to New Zealand, that wigs and gowns were no longer part of everyday court dress.”
Down was admitted to the New Zealand bar in 2005 and became an associate and Senior Crown Prosecutor at Meredith Connell until 2008, responsible for criminal matters.
Then, he briefly practised as a barrister from Vulcan Chambers before he became a public defender.
In 2012, Down was appointed as an Acting District Court Judge with general and jury warrants, to sit in Hastings, followed by a position in the North Shore District Court and Hamilton District Court.
Asked by the Waikato Herald after the special sitting about his most memorable cases, Down said they involved child witnesses.
“Both as a lawyer and a Judge, child cases require a lot of care, both to get the best and most complete evidence from the child and to ensure that the trial process causes as little further trauma to the child as possible. I remember many special moments when we have got it right.”
At the special sitting, Down was visibly emotional, taking long pauses to catch his breath and wipe away tears. Several members of the audience could be seen with tears in their eyes as well.
“Although a huge privilege to take up the role of a judge, leaving behind the role of advocate was quite an emotional wrench,” Down said.
“I remember back at the English bar when fellow barristers were elevated to the bench, sometimes we would comment, that they might have a bad case of Judge-itis.
“I quickly realised, on appointment, that Judge-itis is simply the state of being a new judge. Nervous, sometimes terrified, anxious to keep control of one’s court and make the right impression.
“All of which can lead to moments of grumpiness, redness in the face, the occasional angry outburst, and some impatience with counsel.”
Reflecting back on his early days as a Judge, Down said especially the bar in Hawke’s Bay “did not always get the best of me”.
“But well before I arrived here [in Hamilton] ... I had found my voice and was confident enough to be my best self. I think you have seen the best of me and for that, I am truly grateful,” he said visibly overcome with emotion.
Down said he was now working on finding a new purpose and spending time with his four children and 10 grandchildren.
Asked by the Waikato Herald whether he had any special plans for his retirement, he said he would look forward to reading a lot more, “possibly write something, and indulging my love of photography.”
Down closed his address with some pieces of advice, mostly for fellow legal practitioners. However, he also had one general piece of advice.
“In everyday life, avoid small talk. Make every conversation matter. Learn to love beautiful, clear language. Think carefully about what you’re saying in every situation.
“I have much to be grateful for and barely anything to regret. In the words of A. A. Milne, and the voice of Winnie the Pooh ‘How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.’”
Taumaunu, as well as Hamilton Barristers Thomas Sutcliffe and James Gurnick addressed Down and highlighted stand-out features of his work.
Taumaunu especially acknowledged the numerous members of the legal profession attending the event.
“It does speak volumes for the high regard in which you were held... I greatly admire the fighting spirit and good humour in which you handled your [responsiblities] ... You were known as a judge of great integrity who has a sense of compassion and empathy for the people who come in front of the court.”
Sutcliffe spoke on behalf of the New Zealand Law Society, highlighting Down’s “calm persona, humility and determination”.
“Your kind, patient, polite and compassionate manner has made the difficult work that we do in these courts, that much easier to manage... No one left your court, feeling like they have not been heard, regardless of the outcome.”
Gurnick read a few words on behalf of Philip Morgan KC who couldn’t attend the sitting in person.
“That you were to retire came as a disappointment. [You are] one of those judges who seem to generate a sense of calmness in his courtroom.
“No matter how difficult the context, no matter how difficult relations between counsel, no matter how volatile the witness became... that sense of calm was always a feature of your cases in the courtroom.”
Gurnick then added a few words of his own saying: “Your sense of fairness was available for all ... You are measured, you are considered. You gave people justice.”
Danielle Zollickhofer is a multimedia journalist based in Hamilton. She joined NZME in 2021 and is writing for the Waikato Herald.
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