Head of the District Court

Judge Jan Doogue is the new head of the District Court.  I’ve been following her career, which began in the Family Court, for a number of years.

Judge Doogue became a Family Court judge in 1994, just before the Domestic Violence Act 1995.  Her legal decision-making almost immediately led to applause from Men’s Rights groups, as she made it onto the “court decisions which help us” page at Menz.  According to Menz, Judge Doogue:

ruled that the move by custodial mother from Auckland to Wellington, as primarily catering for the mother’s, and not for the children’s psychological needs. Doogue J emphasised that the children had already been through the trauma of parental separation from father.

No mention of why the mother had sole custody – so we don’t know if domestic violence was a factor in this situation.  And the disturbing implication that a mum wanting to live somewhere she has support is not important for her children.

In 2001, Judge Doogue released her thoughts on psychological abuse, in which she equates custodial parents (mostly mothers) who have “concerns” (unexplored) over access with non-custodial parents with “inter-parental conflict”.  At no point does she acknowledge that psychological abuse is one strand of domestic violence – underpinning physical violence, sexual violence, financial abuse and isolation tactics – according to the law in Aotearoa.

But Justice Doogue’s most controversial foray was her address to a Child and Youth Law Conference in 2004, when she challenged the “social experimentation” of the Domestic Violence Act:

Research and experience supports the proposition that in New Zealand some children are being deprived of contact with a parent who has been alleged or judged to be violent when that is not in their best interests.

Considerable reliance has been placed on “Supervised Access” as being a panacea to balancing a child’s rights to be safe and a non-custodial parent’s right to access. This sometimes results in either inappropriate outcomes for children or unacceptable disenfranchisement for parents.

Judge Doogue went on to say:

At this point social science cannot support the assumption that any access, even supervised access with a parent who has been violent, is necessarily in a child’s best interests. But nor does it support the assumption that access to a parent who has been violent is necessarily detrimental to a child’s best interests.

This is back to the bad old days.  Actually, there’s a multiplicity of evidence that having contact with a violent parent, even if the violence is directed “only” towards adults, is bad for children.  And still more evidence that courts too often do not appear to ensure the key determinant of access after a violent relationship ends is children’s safety.

The Family Law Section of the NZ Law Society said the views expressed in this speech had no basis in fact at all.  The available research showed the DVA was working quite nicely in court according to judges and lawyers, but noted some implementation concerns lingered in making sure it’s protections were available:

“Overwhelmingly the people who were interviewed as key informants for this research and those who responded to the surveys, consider the Domestic Violence Act 1995 to be a good piece of legislation that achieves its objectives.”

The media, however, were all over Justice Doogue’s speech and Men’s Righters loved it.

More recently, Judge Doogue’s sentencing in the Tony Veitch case passed clear judgment on the man who pled guilty to breaking his partner’s back in multiple places:

“You need to be held accountable for the harm done to the complainant, and to promote in you a sense of acknowledgement of that harm … to denounce your conduct and deter others from similar offences.”

“I dismiss any suggestion…that her behaviour that evening was provocative. Nothing she did justified what you did that night.”

However, Judge Doogue’s kindness in sentencing Mr Veitch to a bit of community work and some small change (for him) also came with the “mitigating circumstance” that this was a one off, unpremeditated assault.  Seems odd when the original charges ran over three years of violent assaults, and these were only dropped at trial, as part of the deal the lawyers did to resolve this more quickly.

I’ve not followed Judge Doogue in the District Court, but I will be watching this space.  She recently handed a non-custodial sentence to a 24 year old man who groomed a 15 year old on Facebook and then sexually abused her.

Final word from Chris Finlayson:

“Judge Doogue has the breadth of legal experience, skills and leadership abilities required for the Chief Judge position,” Mr Finlayson says. “I am confident that she will make a significant contribution in the office.”


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