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The longest-serving Chief Magistrate of the NSW Local Court reflects on surfing Wollongong’s waves as a shaggy-haired youth, judicial achievements and disappointments – and hands out a little advice.

Graeme Henson is still learning how to do retirement. Before dialling into Zoom for our late-morning chat, the (newly) former Chief Magistrate of the NSW Local Court was busy reading the latest law reports. “That’s fairly sick, isn’t it,” he laughs. “It just feels like holidays – except I can’t go anywhere.”

With Sydney in lockdown, there’s no chatting over a restaurant table for us. Henson is in the reading room of his Northern Beaches home, looking relaxed in a striped shirt unbuttoned at the collar. We roll back to his life before law. Henson grew up in Corrimal in Wollongong’s north where he often headed down to the beach balancing a surfboard on his head, neck protected from the sun by shoulder-length hair. He doesn’t paddle out on a surfboard anymore but still heads to Manly Beach for a weekly body surf.

“The love affair with the sea never goes away,” he says.

In Henson’s youth, Wollongong was “very much a steelworks and public servant town”.

He spurned the pathway his father and grandfather took working on railways, instead working for the Petty Sessions branch at Wollongong Courthouse (in 1985 the Courts of Petty Sessions were abolished and Local Courts established). He went to Sydney’s Hornsby Court then Cootamundra where he met Pamela, the daughter of a farmer.

“I learned a bit about sheep and cattle, about hay-baling and the like,” Henson recalls. “I learned to ride a horse without falling off. Pam’s a delight and I love her dearly. We’ve been married now for 45 years and I love her more now than I did then.”

Her support was invaluable as Henson rose to become the state’s longest-serving Chief Magistrate, clocking up 15 years in the role. Judges in NSW aren’t obligated to retire until their 72nd birthdays, which for Henson is still a year away, but he felt “it was time”.

Over his long career on the bench hearing countless matters, some crimes have stayed with him.

“You have to develop resilience – not to the point where you become so hardened you lose any sense of compassion,” he says. “You have to develop ways and means of dealing with the constant exposure to some of the more horrendous things that occur in society. Things like child pornography – I cannot understand the evil associated with that. The same with domestic violence – I grew up in an era where I was taught by my father that my role is to protect women and that any man who laid a hand on a woman was a coward. I think that advice in the 1950s is still true today.”

When it comes to advice, Henson has some of his own for lawyers. “Come to court prepared and don’t wing it,” he says. “A half-hearted attempt at representation rarely works. I might speak firmly to lawyers” – he still often talks of work in the present tense – “but I don’t think I’ve ever lost my temper. Oh, actually, only once.”

What prompted that? “I won’t disclose details,” he says, “but I’d been given some advice by a lawyer that turned out not to be true. It impacted significantly on the operations of the court and I was disappointed. I’ve always regretted it. I take great pride in being fairly calm in a courtroom.”

“Governments don’t like funding courts because there are no votes in courthouses. I saw it as my responsibility as leader to ensure [magistrates] had the best environment in which to work.”

There’s advice for his successor, Judge Peter Johnstone, too. “Listen to the magistrates, take care of them and their health and wellbeing, and understand the business of the Local Court,” Henson says. “It’s a court that operates in the here and now. Become an expert in the law that applies in the Local Court because part of leadership is leading by example and if you’re just sitting in the back letting other people do it, you’ll lose the respect of people who preside on those benches. It’s a difficult role being Chief Magistrate because you’re in charge of 141 people. It’s like herding cats.”

Career highlights include seeing the proportion of women magistrates rise to 49.6 percent, helping develop the Magistrates Early Referral Into Treatment (MERIT) rehabilitation program as well as Circle Sentencing, which builds bridges between the Aboriginal community and legal system. He fought for more resourcing and prioritised magistrates’ mental health.

“The workload of the courts increased exponentially over the past six, seven years … but the resources didn’t match so magistrates get exhausted,” he says. “Governments don’t like funding courts because there are no votes in courthouses. I saw it as my responsibility as leader to ensure they had the best environment in which to work.”

Henson was appointed a District Court judge in 2010 – a dual commission that added “Judge” to his name – but he’s disappointed magistrates aren’t yet called judges. “I suspect it’s inevitable but unfortunately the inevitable can take some time,” he says. “It’s a title that’s well and truly overdue. It creates an illusion of elitism among some who practise the law that somehow magistrates are inferior beings. That isn’t the case. We deal with million-dollar frauds, ongoing drug supplies, sexual assaults, instances of great violence … if judging is what magistrates do every day of their working life, then why not say so? Call them judges instead of living in the past.”

Henson sat in the District Court from time to time but never aspired to higher court benches.

“I was always focused on the Local Court – to me, that’s where real life happened. It’s not a minor jurisdiction.”

For now, he’s planning on improving his golf game and catching up on books. He’s a sucker for crime fiction (favourite authors include Michael Connelly, Donna Leon, Georges Simenon and Ian Rankin) and history (military history for the “complexities of decision-making and logistics”, political histories, and re-examinations of Australia’s Indigenous and colonial past). He’s also learning to sleep in.

“For 15 years, I’ve been getting out of bed between 5am and 5.30am, and driving to work,” he says. “I hate Sydney traffic so that’s part of the reason.”

Now, he hopes to spend more time with daughters Virginia and Jessica, and granddaughters Milly and Tilly. Lockdown and distance separated the family but he’s looking forward to “becoming a family again in a real sense rather than a remote sense”.