Tuesday, 25 October 2011

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.”


Psycho Milt said...

Seems to me your beef with Doogue is that she acts as a judge rather than as a partisan for her sex.

For example: the MENZ item you quote also mentions that Doogue's decision was backed by the Court of Appeal, ie it was correct in law. Whether you personally think the custodial parent has the right to create barriers to access for the other parent doesn't really come into it.

Further example: Doogue's 2004 speech. She's right - the fact that a parent was violent at some point shouldn't in and of itself rule them out of having access to their children. She'd be unfit to judge parental access cases if she thought otherwise.

Further example: Doogue fails to even acknowledge the other accusations of violence against Veitch when sentencing him. Well, she's a judge - things someone accused him of that haven't been tested in court simply didn't happen. It's called the presumption of innocence and we're all entitled to it, even a disgusting little weasel like Veitch. Taking those accusations into account would have been an invitation to appeal the sentence.

LudditeJourno said...

Hi Psycho Milt - no, my beef with Judge Doogue is she brings an ideological bias to the things she questions which are inconsistent with the facts. "Correct in law" when it comes to violence against women is contextual (I don't know very much about other kinds of law, so I'll stick to what I do know) because as our societies know more about intimate violence, the law changes. Eg - we know now that sex within marriage is not a right, so the law changed and men can now be prosecuted for rape within marriage.
I don't "personally think the custodial parent has the right to create barriers to access for the other parent" - that is a horrible misreading of my belief that custodial parents, particularly when they are parenting alone, need networks of support around them to parent well.
Your reading of Judge Doogue's 2004 speech is incredibly kind, and shows little awareness of the ongoing abuse which is typical of parents who have used domestic violence. One of the issues here is how violence is minimised - we know the impacts this has on children, we know they know more than adults hope they know, we know that abuse of children often sits alongside abuse of mums. We know that boys and girls exposed to domestic violence have increased likelihood of a range of negative outcomes. All of these things need to be part of the access decision-making - it is part of accessing risk of harm. Blithely saying, as you appear to be, that there is an easy distinction to make here around parenting, is dangerous.
Final example, yep, you have a point here which I acknowledge. I certainly accept that Judge Doogue could only rule on what was in front of her. BUT she did not need to say that part of her sentencing decision was that this was a one off. She could have said "I believe Mr Veitch understands the mistake he made that night and has taken steps to ensure he approaches future disagreements in intimate relationships with respect and negotiation, rather than violence." If she believed that, of course.

Isabella said...

Do we know that the custodial parent in question was moving in order to better access support networks? Or is that an assumption? Nothing you've linked to shows that...

Psycho Milt said...

That's the thing - a judge's job is to make a decision based on the individual case in front of her, not on an abstract concept of what's generally the best thing to do. Without knowing the details of the case, there's no basis for assuming a poor decision.

Same with her 2004 speech - the fact that ongoing abuse is typical for parents who've engaged in domestic violence doesn't mean a judge can't ever sit and hear individual cases in which depriving children of contact with that parent would be a bad thing. "Statistically very likely to" is a good guide when dealing with large numbers of people, but it's a crap thing to base decisions on when dealing with a single individual.

"Correct in law" when it comes to violence against women is contextual...

Not to a judge it isn't, or at least it shouldn't be. Changing the law is for activists and politicians, and our judges should be neither of those things.

LudditeJourno said...

Psycho Milt, I think you and I are both assuming we have a more objective position here. I accept judges must judge individual cases - but they should do so from informed positions, which, when it comes to domestic violence, on evidence, is not what the published speeches - and responses to them - I've linked to here demonstrate. I think "activist" (in the perjorative way you are using it) is a good description of a Judge who repeatedly gives speeches which run counter to evidence, but are applauded by one small sector of the community. I'm done with this debate with you for now. Much as I hope, actually, that my fears about Judge Doogues "activism" are misplaced.

LudditeJourno said...

Isabella - it's based on the statement quoted at Menz about the move catering to the mother's psychological needs.