Judge Andrew Becroft has been New Zealand’s Principal Youth Court Judge since 2001. He had already established an enviable reputation as a lawyer and then, in Whanganui, as a district court judge, before taking on this role. But his work over the last 15 years has added significantly to his mana. And, because of his special interest in youth justice, it has been no surprise that he’s about to become the Children’s Commissioner. His focus, though, in this discussion with Dale, isn’t about his new job. They’re mainly talking about the difficulties and successes, as the justice system keeps trying to give New Zealanders a fair go.
Kia ora, Andrew. You’re just about to step across from your role as Principal Youth Court Judge to become the Children’s Commissioner on July 1. But I wonder if you might reflect for a few moments on the state of our New Zealand youth.
Internationally, in terms of sporting, academic and cultural achievement, New Zealand boxes above its weight. It’s a land of contrasts and extremes, though, because we also have a long tail of under-achievement and disadvantage and marginalisation. But there’s only a small group who offend seriously enough to come before the court. That’s about 1800 young people a year.
It’d be easy sitting on the bench and looking through the lens of a Youth Court judge to become a bit jaundiced about the state of the young in New Zealand. And make no mistake, there are some very troubled and challenging young offenders in New Zealand. But, relatively, they’re a very, very small group. And that’s a cause for cautious optimism.
Most young people have loving, stable families, they’re well-involved in their school, they have a good group of friends and they’re well-involved in the community. These are the four legs of a young person’s life — family, school, friends and community. That’s what provides stability. When functioning well, they set a young person up for positive life outcomes.
I’m betting that was the case for you. I suspect that your whānau gave you a good deal of support. Could you tell us a bit about them?
Our New Zealand connection came about in 1861 when John Becroft (a widower) and six sons set sail from Britain on the Matilda Wattenbach. They settled on the Kaipara Harbour in Port Albert, that was touted as the second Auckland — and as the land of milk and honey.
John Becroft married a woman he met on the trip, and they all got to Port Albert, only to find it was un-farmable mangrove swamp and very tough land. Most of the Becrofts moved on to orchard work nearby in Te Hana. There were Becroft orchards around Te Hana and Wellsford for decades. But Dad trained as an engineer, worked on the hydro dams in the South Island, married Mum while he was a civil engineer. Then, after some time in Malaya, where I was born, he elected to go into full-time work with a Christian charity known as the Scripture Union, where he worked for about 25 years. That organisation was known for pioneering outdoor adventure camps.
Mum and Dad (Shirley and Lawrie) had a huge influence on me with their ethic of service and community involvement. I’m the eldest of four children and we had a fantastic home life where we wanted for nothing in terms of love, stability, security, encouragement, opportunity. And it’s exactly the sort of home life I had that the young people I see in court don’t have. So it makes you pretty grateful, Dale.
I recall a lot of the pioneers heading to Port Albert in the 1860s had a strong Christian faith.
Yes. They were a non-conformist group who didn’t want to toe the strict Anglican party line and were strong on one’s own personal faith and relationship with God. So they were a pretty independent people. Free-thinkers in the best sense. They wanted to make a real difference and establish a community in Port Albert that would be built on Christian principles of love, tolerance, service and hard work.
But, boy, it was pretty impenetrable bush and scrub land in those days. It was hard work to make a living there. And, for most of the settlers, it was just too much. The great majority retreated back into the joys and delights of Auckland. And those who stayed tended to move more towards Te Hana.
And your Mum’s people?
They were what were called ten-pound Poms. They came in 1953 from London where my grandfather was a keen Chelsea supporter. He was a Millers’ menswear man, and then became a Baptist minister in his late 40s or early 50s. That was in various parts of the South Island. So on both sides of the family there was a strong Christian ethic and a strong element of service. And, when I became a lawyer, the element of serving the community was strong in me.
How did you come to be born in Malaya?
Dad worked in Malaya as an engineer for three years — and also for the Scripture Union. They left when there was the insurgence and independence movement and came to Wellington. So I grew up entirely in Wellington. I was a product of Kilbirne Primary, Evans Bay Intermediate, and I’m a proud son of Rongotai College. In those days, it was a very strong, active, all-boys school in the eastern suburbs of Wellington.
I was mad keen on cricket and batted No 10 in the 1st XI. I was an aspiring leg spinner in a team that included Bruce Edgar, Ian Smith, Clive Currie and the Cedarwall brothers. With that sort of batting line up, I wasn’t called too often. In fact, there was one year when I didn’t get a bat all season. They were an extraordinarily motivated group of boys with strong parental support. And it has carried on through with the Savea brothers and the great Ma’a Nonu.
I’ve read that you had a speech impediment as a young guy and I wonder how that might have shaped your personality.
I was a pretty anxious third former when I arrived at Rongotai College. And I wasn’t keen to speak in public. I think I was the only prefect in the seventh form not to read the notices for fear of the chaos that might break out in the assembly hall. Speech therapy was only in its infancy then. I’ve had a huge amount of help since then and learned a lot of control techniques. But it still springs up on me — and I guess it shaped my life enormously. What it did do was make me be as well-prepared as I can be, if I am going to speak. Through the years, I watched and listened to a lot of public speaking, but did very little myself.
I had a bad stutter that would block on the hard consonants. The letter “B” made my Becroft surname a hard word to say. And the “sk” sound in a word like “skinny” was difficult. But, if I do the breathing properly, it’s much easier.
One of your brothers played New Zealand volleyball with Gilbert Enoka, a recent guest on e-tangata. Did you get to any dizzy sporting heights yourself, Andrew?
Only in my own mind, Dale. I think I played for the Wellington Secondary Schools’ cricket team. In fact, I made the Rongotai College 1st XI in the fourth form. But I grew about a foot in the fifth form, and the ability to bowl flighted, dropping leg spinners into the Wellington northerly at Kilbirnie Park, disappeared almost within a season. And by Year 13, I was dropped. So my heights, minimal as they were, landed with a big thud at Year 13.
Were there many Māori kids at Rongotai College when you were there? Did you have many Māori mates growing up?
Rongotai had a strong Pasifika community. It was a strong Pacific Island rather than Māori college; 1200 boys, pretty close to the airport. You could almost kick a rugby ball to hit one of the Bristol freighter planes as they took off.
From school, your next step was Auckland University and a BA/LLB. But, if we’re looking back the best part of 40 years, we’re into the days of a bit of protest action. Were you caught up in that as a young fulla?
Well, 1981, when the Springboks were here, was my first year — in a pro-tour Queen Street law firm. And I was part of the protest movement. I remember sitting down on the Symonds St on-ramp to the motorway. We were all warned three times to leave, otherwise we’d be arrested. And we all sort of melted away after that. I remember being very involved on the day of the Eden Park test. I was part of a group committed to peaceful protest — and we didn’t get involved in the confrontations at the end of that game. In fact, we were on the other side of Eden Park.
Did you fall out with some of your friends and family over that issue?
Absolutely. They were tough days. My brother, who was on his way to becoming captain of the New Zealand volleyball team, thought sport was a bridge to understand each other and bring about change. So he was adamantly opposed to any form of protest. For me, it was the most effective and legitimate way of bringing home to South Africa how strongly New Zealanders were opposed to apartheid. It split families and friendships for a while. There weren’t many of us in the protest movement who were rugby followers. They were tense and tough times.
Then, I understand, you were off overseas to look at community law centres.
I was working in a Queen Street law firm and they encouraged me to go on a Rotary scholarship to Oregon in the States to look at how community and neighbourhood law centres operated. I had written my Honours thesis on that movement, and had worked at the Grey Lynn community law centre while I was a law student. Given my background and my Christian faith, I was keen to make that a reality in New Zealand by providing legal services to an area in the most need. Often, where lawyers were most required, they were least present.
Mangere, with about 45,000 people, was an area of unmet legal need. And, when I came back from seeing what they were doing in Oregon, I was convinced that we could do that sort of thing here. So, a few years later, with the support of the law firm, five or six of us set up a Community Law Centre, operated by a trust in the Mangere town centre.
I’m pleased to report it is still going strong, representing people in need at difficult times.
I guess it’s wrong to assume that all lawyers want Wednesdays off so they can play golf and Fridays off so they can go yachting. Obviously, there are many with a more principled approach to life than those who go down that track.
There’s a strong pro bono ethic within the legal community. Much more than people would realise. Think of all the community trusts and groups that lawyers support. I think lawyers get a bad rap. It’s often not understood how much they do help in so many ways.
Those community centre days were hugely exciting and rewarding. We were involved not only with individual cases but with community education and what we grandiosely called structural change. I remember we’d see mortgagee sale notices in the Herald on Saturday, so we’d visit those homes and see if we could help. It turned my understanding of New Zealand upside down and was a very formative period of my life.
Tell us about the good and bad of that period.
I came face to face with relative poverty that I’d never seen before. I remember working with Koru School in Mangere, just down the road from where you are now at Radio Waatea — and 61 percent of the families had nobody in full-time employment. The trickledown economics of the day hadn’t trickled down to the families at that school.
They were tough times. But they were also communities of huge spirit, generosity and enthusiasm. I learned a lot from some of the Māori elders there. People like Julie Wade, Mahia Wilson and Nganeko Minhinnick of the Huakina Trust. I learned a lot about the injustices of the past, the way local people had suffered, their quiet determination and belief that the Crown would, one day, redress the wrong. That was an unwavering belief that they had. We were just young lawyers, but they trusted us. And that was humbling.
Then you moved on to Whanganui — as a judge.
I was appointed in 1996 to Whanganui and learned pretty quickly that “h” was important. Tariana Turia, a community worker then, and others made it clear that the “wh” is produced like the “wh” in when. The motto of Whanganui was: “Without God, nothing.” And some of the kaumātua told me very early on that: “Without the ‘h’, Whanganui nothing”. The “h”, or not, became the touchstone for so many other debates that were going on.
I came just after the Moutoa Gardens protest and occupation was concluded. So it was a pretty volatile and challenging time to arrive in Whanganui and be a judge. But it was a great place to learn to be a judge. You did all the work there. There were two of us — one family court judge and one jury trial judge. I’d be the person they first appeared before if they offended. I’d decide if they got bail, if they were guilty after a trial, or I would preside over a jury trial. I’d impose a sentence. I was the prison visiting justice for prison discipline problems and also the head of the Parole Board for the Whanganui prison. So you got to know some families pretty well.
Did you ever feel uncomfortable or threatened? Or feel that people would administer retribution for the decisions you made on the bench?
I never had any instance of being concerned or threatened. I remember, just a few months after we arrived, my wife, who was pregnant, and I went to the local beach, near Castlecliff. A pickup truck parked right next to us, full of guys who’d just been released from prison. Their sentence had been imposed by yours truly. I said to my wife: “This could be difficult.”
But they came over and it was simply: “Gidday Judge. How’re you going? No hard feelings. You told us what the consequences would be, if we offended again. You gave us a warning. Oh, and this must be your missus. She looks like she’s ready to drop.”
We had a good talk. It made me realise then that, if you’re straight with people, if you try to be fair, if you try to be absolutely transparent, almost invariably they will understand. And they know what’s coming. That was a valuable lesson — to treat people as you would like to be treated yourself, because you’ll almost certainly bump into them again.
But the disproportionality of Māori before the courts was profoundly concerning and continues today. The Youth Court numbers overall have dropped but, for Māori proportionately, they have gone from 42 to 63 percent nationally. And the proportion is far higher for the upper half of the North Island. That was an enduring issue that first confronted me in Whanganui. And it’s become more concerning since.
Hear courteously. Answer wisely. Consider soberly. And decide impartially. That’s a famous quote which, so I’m told, you have on your desk. From Socrates, the Greek philosopher.
I’m looking at it right now. That fourfold challenge rings down through the centuries. Hasn’t changed. I think that’s the basis of being a judge.
You’re a popular judge — and you’re seen as a fair judge too. But what else is important in the make-up of a good judge?
You’re dead meat if you court popularity. You’re dead meat if you try to be someone that you’re not. I think we’re really fortunate to have judges who work hard to be fair, impartial judges and who are involved in their local community. There are many judges like that. But I guess what underpins it all is this awareness: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” We’re all fallible, frail human beings who can do some very dumb, irresponsible and stupid things.
There have been changes to our youth justice system. But what has most satisfied you?
It was a pretty trailblazing system that began in New Zealand in 1989. Two fundamentals have endured right through. One is that we only charge those who really, really need to be charged. Most are dealt with in the community by very good police youth aid constables. They never come to court. Most of them don’t get charged. And most never re-offend. They’re teenagers who make silly, ill-judged decisions. With good help, they grow out of those decisions and leave offending behind. That’s the first thing that’s stayed the same. Our non-charge rates lead the world.
Secondly, those that do come to court, as long as they don’t deny the charge, have to go through a family group conference. I think that process, when done well and when properly organised, has in it the seeds of genius.
Those two things have characterised the system since 1989. What gives me most satisfaction is that we’ve worked really hard to build a collaborative system. We’ve got (the Ministries of) Health and Education involved and, for Māori young offenders, we’re pioneering what we call the Rangatahi Court. We take Māori offenders who’ve been through a family group conference, and have their case heard on the marae where kaumātua and kuia participate and where tikanga is observed. Initial results are very positive, Dale. I’m hugely encouraged by that.
That’s the feedback we’re getting, too, in the media. It seems to be hugely successful. Why is that?
Well, if the rule of law is going to mean anything for Māori, it’s when they hear the law explained in their own tongue — and when they’re encouraged to develop ties with their own cultural identity. And it’s when Māori elders are involved. And it’s done in a culturally appropriate way. That, I think, is a recipe not only for respect for the law but also an encouragement to engage with it — and to make changes.
It’s not going to be a magic bullet, but I think for too long the monocultural approach of the law in the New Zealand justice system has prevented genuine involvement from the Māori community. In fact hapū-iwi involvement is what the law demands. It’s what the legislation specifies for youth justice. We’ve been very slow to develop it. But, now that we’ve got very strong Māori judges, things are changing. And changing fast.
There’s been pressure put on the police to change the rates of incarceration, the rates of arrest. We’ve still got a too strong Māori prison roster. How is “The turning of the tide” police initiative working?
I think the police are working harder to partner with hapū and iwi and to allow them to assist with young offenders. Tūhoe, for instance, are a great example. Young Māori offenders who the police decide not to charge, but who they need to intervene with, are handed over to the Tūhoe Social Services Trust to provide that intervention.
Child, Youth and Family are letting family group conferences be run by iwi in Tūhoe. So what’s happening in Tūhoe is a superb example of what was envisaged at least 25 years ago for youth justice. That is, involving hapū and iwi and helping them to develop their own responses to offending by Māori young people.
That’s our youth justice tracking in a positive way. But sometimes I think that the voice for penal reform is not as loud as it could be. And we have a reputation for being one of the most punitive societies in the world. Not something we can be proud of. Who stands out for you as agents for change in this sector?
I know that within the youth justice sector there is a strong collaborative movement. And I think that, in the end, the power of the community and the flax-root responses, will be stronger than any individual. And, when you have local communities standing with police, with Child Youth and Family, and with judges, and saying: “We will work together and own this issue ourselves.” Well, that transcends any one individual.
Inevitably, I suppose, we’re left with a mixture of pride and concern. Is that how you feel?
Well, Dale, I am a proud New Zealander. I love this country. I’m proud to be a man from Aotearoa New Zealand. And I think we have a huge amount to offer. Having said that, I am concerned at the growing inequality in New Zealand. The 1960s and 70s in the New Zealand that I grew up in, had an enormous middle class, and we weren’t too conscious of extremes of wealth. It’s a different New Zealand now. We know that inequality is growing. And I think that’s an issue that we must face as a country. I’m not saying that all those who are poor offend. But it is a high risk factor. And the relative poverty in New Zealand is pretty profound. We have pockets of a third generation permanent underclass in New Zealand that I see through the lens of the Youth Court. That’s the sobering and cautionary note that we have to face as a country. And we can’t hide it. I think New Zealanders are now up for addressing that. It’s important that we do.
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