A Career on the Bench

Judge Callander                 On the eve of his retirement from 35 years on the bench, Law News spoke to Judge Russell Callander about the change he has witnessed across the court system and the memories that will stay with him.

Judge (John) Russell Callander tried retiring once before, 19 years ago. Then a District Court judge sitting in Tauranga, he had been Executive Judge for the Waikato and Bay of Plenty regions for two years. Then in 1994 he retired and was appointed acting judge, with a warrant to sit on jury trials, with Youth Court and general District Court duties.

There’s been no let-up ever since – and it doesn’t look like things will be slowing down all that much after today’s final sitting (17 May 2013) which will mark the conclusion of Judge Callander’s 35 years on the bench.

When asked what he’s looking forward to focusing on now, the grandfather of 13 says he’ll be spending more time walking and doing pilates to assuage his wife’s concern that he “might not make 100”. But of course, keen to maintain the intellectual stimulus, he also has two books in the pipeline. 

The first is borne of an intriguing idea. For one year in 1991, Judge Callander kept a daily journal of everything he did in court (he was sitting in the Bay of Plenty at the time) as something of “an experiment”, recording the everyday work of a District Court Judge. 

Each morning he’d rise an hour early to type up the prior day’s events. He is now turning this into a printable manuscript, adding “a pot pourri of thoughts” from his contemporary standpoint about the mainly criminal justice issues. 

It will doubtless be a fascinating insight not only into the life of a Judge, but also a reflection on what has changed in the last 22 years. One such revelation has been the impact of drugs.

When the Judge started on the bench in 1978, cannabis was just surfacing as “a significant criminogenic factor”; hard drugs didn’t have much impact in the late 70s at all – but now he acknowledges “[Over the last two decades] drugs have burgeoned into a huge problem”. The judge speaks of his experience with the parole board (he has been Panel Convenor of the New Zealand Parole Board since 1992, and will continue to work on the Board post-retirement), saying the country could close four out of five prisons if drugs weren’t a factor. He notes that the prison population has quadrupled in his three and a half decades on the bench, and jokes ruefully that such statistics make him “an abject failure”.

When asked what he is most proud of having achieved, Judge Callander makes an interesting point. “We don’t get feedback – the only feedback we really get is negative, from the media, from appellate courts and the community – so we very rarely get someone patting us on the back saying ‘you did a good job, that inmate has never returned to commit further crimes’.” He says while the positive situations may happen a lot, the judiciary won’t hear about it. 

However, he describes one memorable instance from his time in the Youth Court in Otahuhu. A young woman who had been caught shoplifting appeared before him on a first offence. He spent a bit of time talking to her, asking what she wanted to do with her life.

“I want to be a nurse aid” she said, to which the judge asked why she aspired to make beds and empty bedpans; why didn’t she want to be a nurse? A bit taken aback, upon further probing she replied that she’d left school and didn’t have the education to train as an actual nurse. He encouraged her to go back to school to attain School Certificate, UE, and get her qualifications. 

It wasn’t until about ten years later the Judge was at the District Court in Auckland when he received a visit from a young woman who “wanted a word”. She introduced herself as the same girl from the youth court, and held out her nurse’s medallion and said “I’m a sister at Starship hospital – I wanted to thank you because that wouldn’t have happened without you talking to me and spending time with me that day”. 

This has stuck with the judge: “It’s one instance I’m tickled with”, he says with evident warmth. While conceding they seldom hear such tales, the Judge says you just have to believe that you’re doing something that will be making a difference.

Raised in Palmerston North and presented with a choice between medicine, law and teaching, Judge Callander decided early on to follow law. Having lost his sister in hospital about that time, he realised medicine wasn’t for him so did a BA/LLB at Victoria University before practising law back in his hometown and becoming a partner at Fitzherbert Abraham & Co. 

He often thinks he would have loved to be a teacher or a psychologist, and it is notable that the Judge worked as a solicitor to Palmerston North and Northcote Hospitals, as well as serving on the Board of Governors at Palmerston North Boys High School (his alma mater). “I’ve always been fascinated by people’s behaviour patterns and what makes people tick.” 

But he says law is good for this, too, since you’re dealing with people daily and can bring whatever skills you have to bear on legal issues. Judge Callander was the inaugural President of the Family Court Association at the time of the genesis of the Family Court, having enjoyed working with the precursor to the family court, where he was sometimes tasked with deciding various “Solomon’s choice” cases involving child custody.

“A day doesn’t go by in court where I don’t learn something new about human behaviour” he says, admitting that often it’s not conscious. He ponders that “sometimes you think you’ve got the skills and you really don’t” and says that Parole Board work is interesting and challenging in that respect “because three of us have to decide whether an inmate poses a threat to the community – if we get that wrong, we’re in a sad and difficult situation”. Originally a stipendiary magistrate before being appointed a DCJ in 1981, the Judge was also Chair of Mt Eden Auckland prison board in the mid-80s, in the days when each community had its own prison and prison board which determined parole. 

He continues to serve on the one New Zealand Parole Board we have now, work he enjoys very much. It takes up about eight or nine weeks a year, “with a huge amount of reading – for every day of sitting you spend half a day of reading”. But it’s about people, he explains, there’s no heavy duty law involved, and the Board is very well supported by the prison service and community probation who provide all the useful information. There are ongoing challenges, of course. “You can’t crystal ball gaze – can’t predict what the prisoner will do in 6 months when he’s got into methamphetamine.” 

Judge Callander speaks about his role of “judging people and resolving problems in communities”. His career has involved a lot of jury work, including instructing a jury on how to assess the facts of a given case. (His second book in the pipeline, a guide for witnesses – “Not a heavy duty legal tome, more of an ‘overgrown brochure’” – is aimed at witnesses who are preparing to testify.) 

He points out that cases are determined on the credibility of witnesses. It has concerned him for many years that cases can be lost on that basis, rightly or wrongly – “sadly as the result of a witness not being believed who probably should have been believed”. We chat about cause celebres like the Lindy Chamberlain case where she didn’t “present” well as a witness and was cast as a murderer. It happens in minor cases too, he says, and the jury will decide on that basis.

While his career has been largely in New Zealand, the Judge did spend nine months as the Chief Justice of Western Samoa back in 1984, getting a terrific “work story” that involved dismissing the Prime Minister from office. 

Already a published author, having produced a book of humorous anecdotes called Court in the Act many years ago, with such a varied career, Judge Callander will no doubt be entertaining his friends with dinner party anecdotes for years to come. We wish him all the best.



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