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The current President of the Children’s Court of NSW has been tipped to replace Judge Graeme Henson as Chief Magistrate of the NSW Local Court.

NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman today announced Judge Peter Johnstone, who has been President of the Children’s Court of NSW since 2012, will take on the role from Monday 6 September.

“Judge Johnstone will bring a significant breadth of experience to his Honour’s new role. Our state is fortunate to have the services of judicial talent of his Honour’s calibre to lead the Local Court,” Speakman said.

Johnstone takes the reins from NSW’s longest-serving Chief Magistrate of the Local Court, Judge Henson, who retired in August after 15 years as head of the jurisdiction, and after an impressive 33 years on the bench.

The new Chief Magistrate has worked in the legal profession for nearly 40 years, beginning his articles in 1971 and earning his admission to practice as a solicitor in 1973. He sat on NSW court benches for 24 of those years – as a District Court Judge and Acting District Court Judge, before becoming President of the Children’s Court in 2012.

As a solicitor, prior to becoming a judge, Judge Johnstone held several senior positions as top-tier firm Blake Dawson Waldron (now Ashurst), including as national chief operating partner and managing partner of the firm’s Sydney and Melbourne offices. He has also served as deputy Chair of the Medical Tribunal and as a part-time commissioner of the NSW Law Reform Commission.

“This wealth of leadership experience, including as head of a jurisdiction crucial to steering young people away from a life of crime, will be invaluable as Judge Johnstone becomes responsible for the busiest jurisdiction in Australia,” Speakman said.

Judge Johnstone helped to establish the Youth Koori Court during his presidency, an innovative sentencing court operating out of the Children’s Court, which helps to set up intervention and diversionary strategies to keep young Indigenous offenders out of prison by addressing key issues like drugs, alcohol, mental health, housing, and education. He also advocated for the establishment of the $39 million Children’s Court complex in Surry Hills.

President of the Law Society of NSW, Juliana Warner, highlighted the respect Judge Johnstone held in legal circles for his work in developing diversionary strategies keeping children out of juvenile detention.

“As President of the Children’s Court, one of the oldest courts in the land, Judge Johnstone has championed the appointment of specialist magistrates, advocated for prevention, early intervention, diversion and rehabilitation measures that keep children out of juvenile detention and helped strengthen cultural connections for vulnerable young Indigenous children placed in out-of-home care,” President Warner said.

“Like the Law Society, Judge Johnstone has expressed concerns about the over-representation of Indigenous people in our state’s criminal justice system, especially Indigenous youth.”

President Warner welcomed the appointment amid what she said was a “crucial time for the Local Court, as it works to overcome significant delays and backlogs generated by the COVID-19 restrictions”.

“In presiding over the state’s busiest jurisdiction, Judge Johnstone will be able to draw on his considerable judicial experience and his extensive legal career, including three decades as a solicitor,” she said.

“The legal profession welcomes this appointment and we look forward to continuing the long and productive relationship we’ve enjoyed with the Office of the Chief Magistrate.”