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New Kidd on the block

Cover Story

Cite as: December 2015 89 (12) LIJ, p.19

The new County Court Chief Judge Peter Kidd wants judges to be better understood by the public. 

By Carolyn Ford

The Silk Miller and Bega schoolgirl murders. International war crimes. Tony Mokbel. These are among the high profile criminal trials new County Court Chief Judge Peter Kidd acted in during his career as a prosecutor.

They attracted intense public interest and it is this public aspect of his earlier work which is helping forge his overall strategy for the Court he now presides over.

Chief Judge Kidd’s strategy for the County Court is to achieve greater public understanding about what the court does and why. In particular, he wants clarity around sentencing.

This is for reasons of deterrence and so people appreciate the consequences of criminal conduct, he said, but also to establish understanding of judicial sentencing decisions and reinforce respect for the judiciary. In recent years, there has been public outcry over some sentencing decisions, leading to a perception that judges are out of touch with community expectations.

“Overall my approach to the new role in this 21st century is to try to effectively communicate our work to the public,” Chief Judge Kidd said.

“We need to ensure that the sentencing process is communicated to the public so it is not opaque. We need to remove that opaqueness so the public understands why judges sentence the way they do.”

It needed to be explained, for example, why a young person, capable of rehabilitation and becoming a productive member of society, might get a lesser sentence than a mature offender.

“I believe that the community can understand readily why a judge would do that but it needs to be explained to them.”

Chief Judge Kidd, who sees himself as a “fierce advocate” for the Court’s judges, said the more people understood judicial decision-making, the greater the respect for the process. And the less likely the perception that some judges are out of touch.

“It’s a perception that exists in some sections. I disagree with it, I don’t think judges are out of touch. On a daily basis they are dealing with people from all walks of life – witnesses, accused, victims – often in the most horrific circumstances which involve violence and broken lives.

“That’s what they do five days a week when they come to work day in day out and often on weekends when they are writing judgments or sentences and they do that year in year out. Those judges are not out of touch. They are acutely in touch with what’s happening in the community.

“But in seeking to grapple with that perception I’m not looking for a combative or adversarial approach here. What I want to do is remove that perception and the best way to do that is to be an open and accountable institution better connected with the community. That can only help with the community’s perception of the work we do and of the judges.”

How to communicate effectively is, Chief Judge Kidd said, a challenge in an age when many young people don’t read a daily newspaper and won’t in their lifetime.

“We need to look at other better ways of communicating with the public. That is something I am exploring now.

“Technology will play a significant role. I have to learn a lot more about communications and technology. I don’t know a lot about tweets and Facebook, this is what I need to take advice on, how we use this technology to communicate with young people. Everything is on the table.

“It is very early days. I am here for the long term. My appointment is until I am 70 and you have reminded me I have just turned 50. It’s more than a short window [of opportunity], it’s a very wide door and I intend to use that.”

Chief Judge Kidd has already contributed significantly to professional and public understanding of sentencing – presenting at the LIV on 2014 sentencing reforms [baseline, suspended sentences and community corrections orders] for the former, performing as prosecutor in a mock trial during Law Week this year for the latter. He was also a director of the Sentencing Advisory Council from 2013 until his judicial appointment.

The LIJ interview, his first as Chief Judge, is given just days into the job. To the extent they will be filled in this paperless age, the bookshelves in his windowed office suite are bare and the whiteboard on which he famously unpacks legal conundrums at lightning speed, is still wrapped in plastic.

“The first stage of the process is really for me to listen and learn.

“I want to have a deep and constructive conversation with the many experienced judges here to identify ideas and what can be done to better connect to the community.

“Once that conversation is well underway I want to capture those views and develop the ideas in practical terms.”

Adelaide-born, Chief Judge Kidd is the fourth chief judge of the County Court of Victoria, the biggest trial court in the state. He is also the youngest – appointed as he was at the age of 49, although turned 50 one day before his welcome on 5 October.

As was acknowledged on that occasion, his rise has been meteoric – all the more extraordinary given a slow start. “It took a long time for me to like the law. I was even contemplating perhaps looking outside of the law,” he said. Criminal law – “one of the great loves of my life” – changed all that. “I never looked back.”

Chief Judge Kidd said his appointment has been massively exciting. “It’s been one of the most exciting times of my life, my wife and children’s lives and my wider family. I’m just grateful I’ve still got both my parents who can enjoy this moment.”

Chief Judge Kidd said he had a lot to learn but relished the challenge.

“It will be a steep learning curve. I’m excited by it. It’s a new opportunity and in some ways a new career . . . I’m incredibly grateful for it. I am effectively going back to university for a period, like all new judges.

“I intend to conduct trials. There is the full gamut of work to do here. I intend to get involved in it all. I think that’s important. I am not just here as a manager or administrator.”

Conducting trials will enable Chief Judge Kidd to keep a firm hand in the law he loves.

“I do love the criminal law. Whatever role you are playing in the criminal law, the end game is the public interest. That brought with it stress, pressure, but also excitement.”

Chief Judge Kidd’s own proximity to the vilest crimes during his career and no de-briefing opportunity has made him keen to continue the Court’s Judicial Resilience Program.

“I’ve been affected deeply by the work I have done. You can’t not be vicariously traumatised in some way. I don’t want to overstate it but you are affected. You think about it outside work. You feel it. Of course you move on but you can’t be involved in something like the Bega murders without thinking about it ever again.

“And the prosecution work I did in Sarajevo impacted on me deeply. I feel it today and I will feel it in 20 years’ time. It’s just part of being human. I deal with it. I never had it [de-briefing opportunity] available to me in my career here or in Bosnia and it would have been a good thing.

“Judges are human – as much as anybody else. They have children, brothers, parents. What they see in the course of their work at times is really disturbing and it can accumulate over time.

“If judges have an opportunity to talk about these things, it helps. It’s better than finding one day they are no longer coping which can manifest itself in embarrassing ways. No one wants to not be in control. People would prefer not to cry in court or with colleagues. It’s better to debrief and talk about it in a calm way.”

Other priorities include improving times to trial, managing more self-represented litigants and incorporating technology into the courts – tablets for juries, for example.

Baseline sentencing and the gender and ethnic makeup of the bench are matters for government, he said, although he welcomed consultation. He was pleased to note an increase in women judges from 30 to 38 per cent this year.

While much work will be done, Chief Judge Kidd said the criminal justice system would never be perfect.

“The criminal justice system is a deeply human system, it just cannot be perfect.

“The community needs to know we are an advanced legal culture, that we are always striving for improvement. If ever there was a work in progress, it’s the justice system.

“My experience in Sarajevo made me conscious of that for the first time. I realised how good our system is and how privileged and lucky we are. I’m talking about discipline, rigour, consistency. Our system is unsurpassed. That’s not to say we sit back on our laurels and there isn’t room for improvement – there is.

“What I do know is that we must be forever conscious that we are here for the community, that we need to keep in touch with it, and use whatever developments confront us in a positive way to increase that connection. That’s what I would like to see.”

Rozenes legacy

Of course there was a football anecdote in Chief Judge Peter Kidd’s address on 5 October.

A judge of the County Court had written the new head of Victoria’s largest trial court a note. In it, the judge remarked that following in the footsteps of the Hon Michael Rozenes QC was like following Kevin Sheedy at Essendon Football Club.

The new Chief Judge said his confidence was “shaken to the core” by the note and hoped the County Court would fare better under him than EFC post “Sheeds”.

There is a reservoir of affection and respect for Mr Rozenes who resigned in June this year after 12 years in the job, following a sudden serious illness in April. He was to step down next year at the retirement age of 70. The Koori County Court, the Sexual Offences List and the first program helping judges cope with vicarious trauma were all introduced under his management.

Court 3 was momentarily silenced when Mr Rozenes and his wife Barbara unexpectedly entered and joined the legal fraternity which had gathered to welcome Chief Judge Kidd and witness the start of a new era for the Court.

Judge Michael McInerney, who stood in for Mr Rozenes when he fell ill, said it gave him the “greatest joy” to welcome him to the event.

“Michael, being stricken, and his subsequent recovery process, created a very difficult time for this Court over the last six months. During that time, there were some very dark and emotional moments for the judges of the Court and the Court staff,” Judge McInerney said.

Chief Judge Kidd paid homage to his predecessor and spoke of continuing his work.

“I step into an efficient, progressive and modern court, imbued with your innovative spirit and values,” Chief Judge Kidd said, adding Mr Rozenes’ continual improvement of the quality of justice dispensed by the County Court must continue.

“I see my role as an exciting opportunity to build on Michael’s legacy.”

Chief Judge Kidd said he and other judges were delighted Mr Rozenes attended.

Mr Rozenes’ farewell from the County Court is planned for 2016.

Career at a glance
  • Appointed Chief Judge County Court on 28 September 2015
  • Appointed Senior Counsel (SC) in November 2011
  • Crown Prosecutor and Senior Crown Prosecutor, 2009–2015
  • International Prosecutor (2005–2008), War Crimes Chamber of the State Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo
  • Victorian Bar, 1995–2015
  • Signed Victorian Bar Roll, 1995
  • Solicitor, Director of Public Prosecutions (Commonwealth), 1991–1995
  • Solicitor (and articles) Mallesons Stephen Jaques, 1989–1991
  • Admitted 1990
  • Education
  • Master of Laws, University of Geneva (2004–2006)
  • Law degree, University of Adelaide (1984–1988)
  • Teaching and law reform

  • Director of Sentencing Advisory Council 2013–2015
  • Participant in Simplification of Jury Directions Project
  • Presented papers to conferences conducted by the LIV, the Criminal Bar Association, and DPP conferences for external counsel
  • Awarded Victorian Chief Commissioner of Police commendation for work in the Silk Miller prosecution.
  • Personal
  • Born 4 October 1965
  • Married with two children.
  • Speeches given at Chief Judge Kidd’s welcome are online at www.liv.asn.au/Practice-Resources/News-Centre/Speeches/Welcome-to-his-Honour-Chief-Judge-Peter-Kidd.

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