Ex-Family Court judge: ‘The law is always evolving’

Rosemary Riddell talks a “baptism of fire” early in her judgeship and out-of-date legislation

Ex-Family Court judge: ‘The law is always evolving’
Rosemary Riddell

Rosemary Riddell is a jack of many trades, with radio, acting and film direction on her resume. She pursued law late in her life with encouragement from her husband, and after being admitted to practice at 40, she went on to be appointed a judge of the Family Court – a position she held for 12 years.

After stepping down as a full-time judge, Riddell continued to operate part time under an acting warrant before deciding to surrender the warrant in order to write and publish a book on her experiences in the judiciary. Her book To Be Fair: Confessions of a District Court Judge came out just last month, and is filled with stories that she says had been “quietly percolating away” over the years.

In this interview, Riddell talks the challenge of delivering oral decisions to the media, what she loves about being a judge, the importance of being immersed in the law and finally being able to call herself a writer.

What made you choose a career in law, and what's your favourite part of the job?

I came to law later in life through a sort of serendipity. At the time, we had just returned from three years in Switzerland with our three children. I was at a bit of a loose end, so I enrolled to do three papers at Auckland University. When I passed those, my husband said, “why don’t you do a law degree?”  Frankly, it had never occurred to me before, but as he said those words, it all made sense. It was a lightbulb moment.

I did enjoy being a lawyer, but being a judge for 12 years was the favourite part. I loved the intellectual challenge, and I loved being the impartial party while the lawyers slugged it out. The engagement with other judges was also an unexpected delight and their willingness to share their funny moments has found its way into my book.

What is the most memorable case you've taken on/been involved in?

It was my baptism by fire only months after I was appointed a judge. A young boy had been kidnapped by his grandfather and was missing for months. When he was found, there was an urgent hearing to determine his immediate care arrangements. I was deluged with media requests to be present for the hearing and my oral decision was published in full in the following day’s New Zealand Herald. That was pretty daunting. It is one thing to write a decision and to have the time to craft it carefully. But speaking it at the end of the hearing leaves no time for such elegance.

What has been your proudest accomplishment in the last year or so?

Writing a book, definitely. I didn’t know I had it in me, but all the stories were quietly percolating away, and they poured out when I sat down to write.

What should the profession and law firms focus more on?

Doing what they do best and do it well. Law is a demanding career. It can be easy to become cynical and jaded – get out if that’s the case. But if law is your passion, then I think it is incredibly important to have balance in the job. Time out is vital in order to recharge the batteries.

What are the challenges for lawyers going forward?

Like many businesses, the challenge is to do practice law smartly and in a cost-effective way. That doesn’t mean cutting corners, but it is important to keep up with technological advances and online research. The older we get, the more we are tempted to stick to what we know; however, it’s important to stay abreast of technology.

In my book, I talk about laws that I consider should be repealed because they are outdated or unfair – I can say that now that I am no longer a judge! But the law is always evolving. It may sound obvious to say, but it is important to know the law. Read the rules and regulations. Know the statutes. Read cases regularly. The challenge for lawyers is to immerse themselves in the law and know it well, rather than skating across the surface.

What are you looking forward to the most in the coming year?

Well, we have a family trip planned for Rarotonga, which had to be postponed last year. Here’s hoping we will make it in September.

I am also looking forward to our annual writers’ retreat, which we hold in the Ida Valley annually for 25 people, who stay and work on their own projects. This year the focus is the memoir. The interaction with other writers is always special and this year, for the first time, I can join them and say I’m a writer too!

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