Guest blogger New Yorker Michael Perlin shares his observations of specialist courts in New Zealand and we see some of the features of these courts that can inform our practice in mainstream court setttings…

I leave Auckland, New Zealand, having spent an extraordinary two weeks here.  I did some wonderful nature sightseeing (lists of the species of endemic and endangered birds that I saw are available to anyone interested), saw many of my best friends in the world, lectured to Professor Warren Brookbanks’ criminal law course on insanity defense myths, presented a seminar on the need for a Disability Rights Tribunal in Asia and the Pacific (along with my good friend Yoshi Ikehara) at a Human Rights Commission seminar, and spent two days – and was one of the keynoters (along with David Wexler and others) — at one of the very best conferences I have ever attended in my career: the Aotearoa Conference on TJ, at the University of Auckland, co-chaired by Warren and Katey Thom (and it was magnificent).

But I am doing this blog post to share my experiences in three days of court observations: of the youth court, the homelessness court, and the drug court, that I attended over an 8 day period.

Simply put, I have never, in such a short period of time, had the honor to observe such examples of therapeutic jurisprudence in action.  In my entire career as a lawyer – spanning over 40 years, practicing in NJ and NY – I have only seen a handful of judges that ran their courtroom with the level of dignity that I observed and that showed the defendants and all others who came before them the level of respect that I saw here.

The judges – Judge Hemi Taumaunu in the youth court (held at the marae, a Māori meeting house), Judge Tony Fitzgerald in the homelessness (“new beginnings”) court, and Judge Fitzgerald and Judge Lisa Tremewan in the drug court – were, there is no other word for it, spectacular.

They knew every aspect of each case. They consulted with the court coordinating teams, defendants’ lawyers, police prosecutors, family members, advocates and others in thoughtful, integrative ways that left me agape.

Māori practices were integrated seamlessly into each of the court sessions (including the performance of the traditional haka dance, to help celebrate the drug court graduation of one of the persons before Judges Fitzgerald and Tremewan, something I will never forget). I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in the pōwhiri ceremony, both at the beginning of youth court and later, at the beginning of the TJ conference, sang along with the waita that opened the court proceedings, and joined in the karakia, the closing prayers. It is a memory that will be etched in my mind forever.

And yes, I did shed tears in the courtrooms, when I saw the “before and after” pictures of some of the drug court defendants, when Judge Fitzgerald was kind enough to ask me to participate in a ceremony in which several of the defendants before him were given certificates of progress (and, as a bonus, vouchers which allowed them to make purchases at the local mall!), and when I realized that these courts were the fruition of what we in the TJ community have been working towards for 25 years. Although only the homelessness court was actually called a “new beginnings” court (Te Kooti O Timatanga Hou), all of the courts were dedicated to giving those before it –ranging from 14 year olds to persons in their 60s – new beginnings. I was so honored to be a part of it, and am so lucky to have had the opportunity to spend this amazing time in New Zealand.

Kia ora to all.

Michael L. Perlin, Esq. Professor Emeritus of Law. Founding Director, International Mental Disability Law Reform Project. New York Law School

3 thoughts on “Therapeutic jurisprudence in action

  1. Thank you for this blog post. I am writing about TJ in NZ in a book I am writing for Routledge. I am originally from NZ and have a keen interest in their specialist courts. I wanted to attend the TH conference and I haven’t yet had a chance to observe their courts in action. I can only imagine it was a moving experience.


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