Judge Deborah Marshall inspires at Dame Silvia Cartwright lecture

Attendees at this year’s AWLA Dame Silvia Cartwright lecture (held with support from ADLS) came away truly inspired by the guest speaker – Chief Coroner, her Honour Judge Deborah Marshall.

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The lecture series was established in 2007 to celebrate the achievements of women who, like Dame Silvia, have reached the upper levels of their chosen profession, championing the role of women, and inspiring others along the way – qualifications Judge Marshall amply displays.

Dame Silvia herself was in attendance at this year’s event to introduce Judge Marshall, and noted in her opening remarks some of the varied roles Judge Marshall has held over the course of her career. These range from being a police officer to working at the Privacy Commission, from airline cabin attendant to law firm partner, and from fraud investigator to Coroner (to which role she was appointed in 2013, becoming Chief Coroner in 2015). As Dame Silvia noted, Judge Marshall’s ability to span such diverse aspects of the legal profession and other equally demanding roles has stood her in good stead for her current position, in which capacity she is often in the spotlight, making public recommendations, and highlighting worrying trends.

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As well as sharing wisdom and insights from her career to date, Judge Marshall spoke about how the office of Coroner came to be what it is today. This turned out to be a fascinating historical byway, taking the audience from Othello’s gravediggers debating the appropriateness of the “Crowner” allowing Ophelia to be buried in hallowed ground, to the “glorified tax collectors” of Richard I’s reign. The latter were less motivated by inquiring into the causes of death in suicides and homicides, as they were by channelling murderers’ property into depleted royal coffers.

The dedication, experience and compassion required of modern-day Coroners are far removed from those early examples. In addition to Judge Marshall, 17 Coroners currently serve around New Zealand and are on duty to take calls every day of the year, 24 hours a day. Judge Marshall herself has her mobile with her at all times, and was due to be rotated on as Duty Coroner at 8am the day after the Dame Silvia lecture.

As Chief, Judge Marshall also manages the workload of the other Coroners. With justifiable pride, she noted the Coronial bench was the first in the country to achieve a 50:50 gender balance. In addition, she shoulders the more public and political aspects of the role, such as speaking out on the dangers of smoking synthetic drugs – “I felt the number of recent deaths required me to say something publicly” – or our worryingly high suicide rate.

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Most deaths in New Zealand never reach a Coroner, for the simple reason that there is a clear cause of death which a doctor can certify. Of the 20% or so that are reported to the Coronial office, about 11-12% are accepted for investigation. Calls can often come in the middle of the night and, in spite of often complex medical scenarios, require the legally- (rather than medically-) trained Coroners to make prompt decisions as to whether a death requires investigation. Such decisions can be fraught, especially if family members are against a post-mortem being carried out on the body of their loved one. A balancing act is often required between their wishes and the dictates of forensic pathology, which can sometimes result in a less invasive or partial post-mortem being carried out instead. Judge Marshall recalled being awoken at 1.30am one Saturday by a junior doctor in the intensive care ward of a large hospital.

An elderly patient had died and the doctor was unsure what had killed him. Obesity, diabetes and a recent procedure were all in the mix, but there had been no apparent complications until the last day or two, when he developed multi-organ failure. Added to this, the man’s grieving family members were waiting at the hospital, wanting to take their relative’s body to the marae. Judge Marshall had to decide then and there whether to allow the doctor to certify the cause of death and release the body, or whether it needed to be taken to a mortuary pending an investigation.

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Although the Coronial jurisdiction is inquisitorial (rather than adversarial), it is also therapeutic, in that great effort is made to recognise and respect the rights and cultural needs of those close to the deceased. Investigations are accordingly conducted as expeditiously as possible, and with the intent of giving families of the deceased a “sense of purpose”, in that finding some answers may help prevent similar deaths from occurring in the future. “Most families think that’s a worthwhile outcome,” said Judge Marshall.

Judge Marshall’s own journey to this destination was rather varied – however, as was to be seen, no opportunity was wasted along the way. “At school, I had always thought I wanted to be a pharmacist,” she related. However, after a week of training, she abandoned that ship and returned to Auckland. Arriving just in time for the last week of enrolments at Auckland University, she chose her course – a BA in political science – largely because that was the page at which the timetabling book in the Clock Tower building was open.

After completing her BA, she made the curveball decision to join the police – “I’m honestly not sure why, it certainly wasn’t for the uniforms.” Although being on the force in the 1970s was not always easy (as a woman, by default, she ended up handling all sexual assault interviews, as well as her own case load), she became a detective in the fraud squad, and learned some valuable lessons along the way. “For instance, that there are always two sides to a story, how to get on with people, how to be organised, how to deal with big trials, and how to make decisions quickly. When you’re deciding whether or not to arrest someone, there’s no time to write an opinion about it – you have to decide right then before they run away,” she said with a smile.

But flying back to New Zealand after a holiday one year, she made the abrupt decision to resign from the police and become a flight attendant instead, something she did for “six very enjoyable years”. Again, she learned the importance of getting on with other people. “When you’re on a 12-hour flight and the doors close, you’re like a little village until you land. We had people who were angry, people who were grieving, people who were sick and even people who died on board, and you just had to look after them as best you could.”

Later on, when the Serious Fraud Office set up in Auckland (in the 1990s), she was approached to work as an investigator, due to her fraud background. In her three years there, she worked almost exclusively on the Equiticorp criminal trial, in close contact with top lawyers on both sides of the case. “These lawyers all had different approaches, but they had an absolute focus on where they were trying to get to. That’s what piqued my interest in doing a law degree.”

Handily, she was offered a job by Sir Bruce Slane at the Auckland office of the Privacy Commission. As it was right next door to the Law School, she could combine her three years of study with managing his staff (“which came in handy when I became a partner in a law firm”), gaining invaluable privacy law experience at the same time. When she finished her LLB, Mike Heron QC was setting up a medico-legal team at Meredith Connell, and “conveniently needed someone with privacy law experience”. She developed a love of medico-legal work (“I also became very good at reading handwritten clinical notes”) and, in her role as a Crown Prosecutor, appeared in a variety of courts and tribunals.

When considering how to sum up her varied career experience, Judge Marshall mused: “I’ve never been afraid about changing direction. In this role, you realise that life is very fragile. Work takes up so much time and energy. So, if you’re not enjoying it, you’ve really got to ask yourself why you’re doing it.” She also suggested “finding a really good mentor, trying to find ways of relaxing, and enjoying and being able to talk to the people you’re working with”.

“My career has taught me that what is most important is people and their stories. Each deceased deserves the best possible inquiry, and it is our duty to do the best we can for them.”

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