Chief Justice Dame Helen Winkelmann may have only been in the top legal role for over three years, but her impact has been pronounced in areas ranging from access to justice issues to digitisation programmes.
Negotiating the Covid pandemic has been a major challenge, which has been compounded – or exacerbated – by the increase in the Ministry of Justice\’s digitisation programme.
The move towards remote court hearings for civil cases, digital court filings and other moves will radically alter the way court proceedings are dealt with.
Covid provided the court system\’s \’booster\’ towards digital transformation, but also major challenges that the Chief Justice navigated with a trademark firm but steady hand and thoughtful approach.
The Court system\’s antiquated IT system would have crumbled just two or three years ago if it was needed to deal with electronic payments and digital filing, but that has been put in place and the remote hearings, notwithstanding the lack of interaction that may create, is a move that continues to gain momentum.
The major digital transformation programme (Te Au Reka) is being undertaken by the Ministry of Justice, driven in large part by Dame Helen Winkelmann.
The digital strategy for the courts is designed to build upon the lessons learned from the pandemic, lead by Justice David Goddard (left) and to also investigate ways in which justice can better serve those whose needs are not adequately met.
Consultations were undertaken by Justice Goddard with the draft document open for consultation up until the end of September 2030.
Her steely ability to communicate effectively has been grounded in her intelligence and experience. She worked as an insolvency lawyer with Nicholson Gribben (now DLAPiper, where her husband Martin Wiseman (right) was managing partner for over a decade) and was the firm\’s first female partner in New Zealand, as well as the youngest.
She picked up prizes like the Auckland District Law Society Centenary Prize for best undergraduate degree (1985) and was later after her career trajectory continued its rise she was a joint winner the Australasian Institute of Judicial Administration Award for Excellence for her work helping to administer cases arising from the Canterbury earthquakes (2013).
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‘Blowing Up’ Law Schools
The Chief Justice has also placed diversity within the profession and the judiciary at the centre of her thinking regarding the future of the judiciary and the law.
Only one in 100 entrants to the main universities in New Zealand come from homes that might be called \’deprived\’. Sixty per cent of those students studying law, medicine and engineering over the five years until 2019 came from wealthy homes, six per cent from poor homes.
It is these statistics that worry Dame Helen Winkelmann and have seen her both speak out in favour of great accessibility to both universities and justice, but actually work towards implementing those changes.
Her thoughts on the matter reflect her own diversity, being of Croatian descent and in a working class background from Blockhouse Bay she did not come from a position of privilege.
She outlined her thoughts on diversity issues in no uncertain terms in an address in 2021 to the Auckland District Law Society.
“The figures that are coming out are shocking in terms of the prospects of someone from a low-decile school making their way through law and into the profession,” she said.
“There are structural things that could be done. Because we start measuring children in our universities and law school from the moment that they enter university, they’re given no chance to adjust to learning, to equalise.
“I also have a question about whether the focus of some of the teaching is right – whether there isn’t more need for practical engagement because lawyers really are caregivers. We may not think of ourselves as that, but we surely are caregivers, especially those in the criminal jurisdiction and family jurisdiction [dealing with] people with shredded, broken lives and we need to understand the impact and the engagement of the services we provide on their lives.
“So yes, I’d blow the law schools up and redesign.”
Judicial Diversity Too
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Her thoughts on judicial diversity are similarly profound and she has overseen the appointment to the Court of lawyers like Justice Joe Williams (pictured, above), who was appointed to the High Court in 2008 and to the Supreme Court in 2019.
In her address to the annual Dame Silvia Cartwright Address in Auckland in 2019 she said judicial legitimacy rests upon public confidence that judges, and the judiciary as a whole, are independent, impartial, skilled, and representative of the community in the work they do.
“If a judge is seen to be lacking in one or other of those criteria, the public will lose confidence in that judge,” she said.
At that time 35 per cent of the country\’s almost 240 judges were women.
“If our law schools are overwhelmingly made up of those from the most affluent schools, then so too will the profession be, and it is the profession from which judges are appointed. This may seem long-term thinking, but long-term thinking is needed,” she said in her Ethel Benjamin address.
Diversity Is More Than Skin-Deep
But it is more than just ethnicity that she regards as important in the diversity of the profession and the judiciary, but also the sort of lawyers who makeup the profession – and the bench.
She is also keen to have lawyers on the bench who have wider experience than just working in corporate law and who can bring judgment to bear on a confronting range of legal issues.
The role of tikanga Maori is on some levels a more vexed issue, as the courts in recent years have increasingly embraced the concept, the latest iteration being the Peter Ellis case, which saw the Court proactively introduce the tikanga argument to Counsel.
She regards knowledge of tikanga Māori as part of the \”values of the common law\” to be weighed by judges, which was highlighted in the recent Ellis judgment.
She believes that understanding tikanga concepts and for the Law Society, law schools, professional bodies and others to ensure there is adequate education about these customary principles.
The High Court decision applying the law under the Marine and Coastal Area Act, the Whakatōhea case, provided what some saw as a blueprint for the involvement of tikanga Maori and New Zealand law.
Politically, however, it is another question. The tikanga Māori acceptance by the courts has seen a new, constitutionally important issue that buys into the hot potato co-governance issue.
Dame Helen Winkelmann does not shy away from hot potatoes.